Google today invites its users to explore The Girl with the Pearl Earring and other works by the Dutch Seventeenth Century painter Johannes Vermeer. The artist who once had to give the local baker a painting in order to settle an unpaid bill for bread would be bemused at his works now selling for tens of millions
The work of Vermeer seems to usher in the modern world. Lives of comfort have become possible for people other than the aristocracy and the hierarchy of the church. Books and literacy allowed the development of individual conscience and opinion. Merchant wealth allowed the first shoots of a democratic society. Maybe the life of the ordinary person was not much different in sternly Protestant Holland from what it was for the common folk of Catholic countries, but there was the possibility of thinking for oneself. The invention of the telescope by Dutch merchants was a boon to commodity traders wishing to know what ships were to arrive in port; the development of the telescope by Galileo caused his prosecution by the Roman hierarchy who could not contemplate a vision of the universe at variance with their own.
Perhaps the difference in the paintings owes more to the patron than the painter. The art favoured by the church has a strong subliminal message. Religious art mostly presents a passive, suffering Christ. The Christ presented on the canvases is one who uncomplainingly bears his lot. He is a model for the sort of society desired by the bishops and the aristocrats, he is a model who suggests that the divine wish is that people remain cowed and obedient. His mother Mary is presented as passive or as mourning mother in depiction after depiction. There seem not many studies of the cleansing of the Temple or the Sermon on the Mount; nor of the society envisaged by Mary in the words of the Magnificat. In contrast with the religious works, the Seventeenth Century Dutch painters reflect the prosperity and social standing of the individuals who were paying for the work. Street scenes are idealised and interiors are perfect; the subtle message is that sharing these values allows one to aspire to a similar lifestyle.
The society from which Vermeer emerged is one that is a foreshadowing of the world of Google. It is a society where free market capitalism has roots, a society in which bourgeois lifestyle begins to develop, a society where an ostentatious can be depicted, a society in which individual conscience and choice become pre-eminent. It is a society that becomes altogether different from that of earlier times. The painter who gave us insights into such a society would probably enjoy the world in which Google exists.