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Vermeer’s Mystery Theater

Johannes Vermeer 12, 1995-February 11, 1996

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, November

Johannes Vermeer Hague/ Yale University Press

catalog of the exhibition edited by Arthur K. Jr. Wheelock
National Gallery of Art/ Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The, 229 pp., $45.00

Vermeer both enchants and provokes. His art, as the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga wrote long ago, “transcends all technical categories” and “humbles all the precepts of aesthetics.” On first encounter he looks like a painter of everyday life, one who recorded in detail of almost hallucinatory precision the homely life of prosperous, scrubbed Dutch families in the seventeenth-century heyday of their Republic. His subjects also seem everyday, exemplary only in their ordinariness: “He will show you a man,” Huizinga wrote, “or preferably a woman, doing the simplest task, in simple surroundings, with loving care, reading a letter, pouring milk from a jug or waiting for a boat to arrive.”1

Vermeer reproduces, with dazzling facility, the bright light that pours through crystal-clean windows into shapely rooms, light that picks out the hard surfaces and elegant shapes of gleaming pewter and china vessels; the wrinkled, curling, richly detailed maps that turn white plaster into studies in design and texture; the thick-napped, precisely knotted rugs that transform ordinary tables into a feast of elegant forms and rich colors.2 One feels tempted to think that the lapidary statement of a seventeenth-century Dutch theorist of painting, Philips Angel, sums up Vermeer’s ambitions and his achievement: “Life can be imitated so closely that it approaches reality, without one ever being aware of the methods the Master used to create it.”3

Yet no one can spend time in Vermeer’s company without seeing that such formulations do violence to his art. The scenes he staged and reproduced with such intensity and panache only seem like slices of everyday life. The actual rooms of Vermeer’s own house burst with possessions of the most varied shapes and qualities. The post-mortem inventory of the movable goods in his estate shows that one small room on the ground floor contained the entire sprawl of things, new and old, shiny and dilapidated, that are reproduced in thousands of Dutch prints and paintings: “a great wooden painted coffer with iron fittings, a bad bed with a green cover on it, a round table tray, a fire screen, a little rack, a great high tole jar, a tole bedpan, two copper snuffers, an iron candleholder, seven glass flasks” and much, much more.4 Vermeer’s paintings do not entertain or distract the viewer with many props of this kind, any more than they feed the eye with the heaps of fragrant fish and bowls of gleaming fruit that so many of his contemporaries liked to depict.

Vermeer and his wife had eleven of the children who, foreign travelers regularly complained, ran wild through the Dutch streets, enjoying a strange impunity as they pelted strangers with stones. Tightly swaddled infants, older children at prayers and lessons, children’s hobbies, toys, and games fascinated many painters of the Dutch domestic scene. But they too make few appearances on Vermeer’s domestic stage.

All the figures”—so Huizinga pointed out with characteristic precision and insight—“seem to have been transplanted from ordinary existence into a clear and harmonious setting where words have no sound and thoughts no form. Their actions are steeped in mystery, as those of figures we see in a dream. The word ‘realism’ seems completely out of place here.”5 Vermeer’s characters play parts in mysterious dramas, austere scripts staged in enclosed spaces, whose nature the viewer can only guess at. His ability to suffuse everyday scenes and actions with an elegiac, classical dignity and stillness, the extraordinary variety of his methods and the extraordinary economy of his subjects and interests—these qualities, rather than a preternatural gift for treating illusion through draughtmanship and painting, make his paintings leap off the wall into the eyes and memories of museum visitors. At his most radical—as in the View of Delft and Girl with a Pearl Earring, the most famous paintings in the Mauritshuis, The Hague—Vermeer seems less to record his own time than to predict the art of centuries to come.

1.

Deep inside the neoclassic grandeur of the National Gallery of Art, a suite of rooms, modest in size and dimly lighted, like so many jewel caskets, is housing until the middle of February twenty-one works by or associated with Vermeer. No one has had the opportunity to see so many of Vermeer’s works at once since they were dispersed in auction sales late in the seventeenth century. Two thirds of his surviving paintings appear: this meticulous painter may not have executed a great many more, since he evidently worked at his own, painstaking pace and dealt in others’ pictures to support his large family. Moving slowly, paying attention to detail and retracing one’s steps whenever it seems helpful, the visitor can follow the arc of an artistic career in a day’s visit.

Vermeer began as a painter of large pictures of biblical, classical, and early Christian scenes. The first ones that confront the visitor to the National Gallery, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Diana and Her Companions, and Saint Praxedis, are larger and more heavily populated than Vermeer’s more famous images: the last of these early paintings, a strikingly strange figure adapted from an Italian original, kneels in a bold red dress, squeezing the blood of martyrs from her sponge. The painting expresses the sometimes lurid piety of Baroque Catholicism, to which Vermeer probably converted in the early 1650s. Its classical setting is as generic as a stage design of the period. This painting and its companions, in their size, drama, and complexity, suggest a young artist fascinated by the example of others: particularly, perhaps, the Utrecht artists who had brought Caravaggio’s intensely dramatic techniques of narrative and chiaroscuro north.

By the mid-1650s, however, Vermeer evidently turned his attention from the melodramatic to the mundane, the general to the specific, and the imagined past to the known present. Two paintings of cityscapes—The Little Street and the View of Delft—would be enough to establish him as a master of European art. With great delicacy and deftness, Vermeer employed a wide range of techniques: thick, almost impasto surfaces, sharply contrasting with one another, conveyed the worn brick, smooth wood shutters, tough ivy, and rough cobbles of the Dutch street. For the vividly dramatic actions of his first, larger-than-life characters, he substituted the humdrum everyday. The women in The Little Street scrub and sew; those in the View of Delft simply stand together and talk. Infrared reflectography shows that Vermeer—characteristically—simplified both paintings as he worked, eliminating entire figures that he had not only planned but painted. Yet these paintings are anything but simple. The Little Street conveys, with a depth of attention that seems almost religious, the whole history of the buildings it depicts. Every crack filled with mortar, every metal brace is picked out by Vermeer’s meticulously evoked flat Dutch light. Vermeer’s buildings exist in time as well as space: they emerge, with thrilling clarity, as the products of a long history.

In the View of Delft Vermeer deployed dramatically somber clouds, the darkest ones unexpectedly placed at the top of the picture, and he greatly extended the dramatic reflections in the water before the city, in order to frame the varied surfaces of Delft’s brick and stone buildings. Vermeer dramatized some urban symbols: the brilliant clouds and sky and thick, lumpy yellow paint pull the viewer’s eye to the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, which stands in the city’s great marketplace and contains the tomb of Holland’s hero, William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Here, too, however, he hardly emphasized the shiny newness that one might expect in a visual celebration of the Republic, that association of herring fishers and cloth workers recently risen to prosperity. Instead, he concentrates on the momentary: gestures, glances, gleams of light. The city’s orange tile and blue slate roofs sparkle with the water left by a recent rain. Distant facades glow in the sunlight that penetrates the parting clouds. Still figures on the bright canal shore in the foreground quietly converse. Vermeer has found a way to represent, through stillness, time in all its various senses; the city’s history and this passing moment are fused and held motionless.6

For all the splendor of these two visions of facades, Vermeer, we suspect, loved most to strip exterior brick and tile away so that he could peer into the domestic world they hid. In his interiors a few men and many women stand and sit, read and work, talk or sleep. Seen together, the pictures reveal a painter passionately, even obsessively interested in examining a small number of objects and effects over and over again. The same chair, with and without lion finials, the same map, the same window and furniture, the same jacket with its fine fur color recur again and again, patterns or colors slightly varied as the artist liked. So, more importantly, does Vermeer’s favorite central character: a woman, alone or with one companion, sometimes entirely self-absorbed and intent on carrying out a task, sometimes looking at and responding to a viewer, evidently male. Picasso’s classic woman, she of the Greek profile and heavy, symmetrical limbs, comes to mind—but only briefly. For if Picasso returned, over and over, to the same themes and symbols, he did so with all his force and spontaneity, producing sketches with inexhaustible fertility. Vermeer, by contrast, did not sketch but painted.

His obsession vented itself in a small number of exquisite, minutely detailed works rather than in a vast number of experiments. To these painted rooms belong the most accessible—and widely known—of Vermeer’s women and their occasional male companions. The lace-maker from the Louvre, her elegant hair flying, shows Vermeer’s own capacity for concentration as her small strong hands make beauty from the colored yarns that spill on to her table. A girl in a magnificent flat red hat stares outward, lips parted, before a roughly indicated tapestry. A number of ladies sit or stand at the keyboards of elegant virginals, filling the neatly tiled, receding spaces they inhabit with music. A milkmaid, dressed in bright yellow, pours milk from a jug into a bowl. The rough loaf in a wicker container and the pieces of heavy bread on the table by which she works, the complicated market basket and plain bright pail hanging on the wall behind her, the thick cloth of her dress and apron and the thinner, oncestarched linen of her headdress make a symphony of textures; while she herself has the monumental solidity of a classic statue, her contours are made to stand out by Vermeer’s carefully adjusted play of shadow and highlights.

Barest of accoutrements and most unforgettable of all is the Girl with a Pearl Earring, from the Mauritshuis. Dressed in a vaguely Oriental costume, standing before a dark, indeterminate background, itself of great richness and beauty, she looks out at the viewer, open mouth and liquid eyes emphasized by tiny, bold highlights. Vermeer has sculpted her face entirely of light and shadow, using no hard outlines, to create the illusion of a living, three-dimensional woman, who seems ready to speak, but whose message remains as fascinatingly indecipherable as those of the other characters in the artist’s human comedy.

  1. 1

    J.H. Huizinga, Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays, selected by P. Geyl and F.W.N. Hugenholtz, translated by A.J. Pomerans (Harper, 1968), p. 84.

  2. 2

    For general treatments of Vermeer see the classic work of Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (London: Faber and Faber, 1952; second edition, 1970), and two standard works by the chief curator of the Washington exhibit: A.K. Wheelock, Jr., Jan Vermeer (Abrams, 1988) and Vermeer and the Art of Painting (Yale University Press, 1995).

  3. 3

    P. Angel, Lof der Schilder-Konst (Leiden, 1642), p. 53, as quoted in translation in J rgen Wadum et al., Vermeer Illuminated: A Report on the Restoration of the “View of Delft” and “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer (Mauritshuis, 1994), p. 15, where it is rightly pointed out that Angel’s words do not fit Vermeer.

  4. 4

    John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 340.

  5. 5

    Huizinga, Dutch Civilisation, pp. 84-85.

  6. 6

    For a suggestive recent effort to identify distinctive local elements in Delft art and to connect them with the city’s institutions and traditions, see Elisabeth de Bièvre, “The Urban Subconscious: The Art of Delft and Leiden,” Art History 18 (1995), pp. 222-252.

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