Vermeer and the Delft School
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 626 pp., $75.00
Vermeer: A View of Delft
Serene and unnerving, sensuous and disembodied, Vermeer’s paintings continue to confound us. As much as any contemporary figure, this Dutch seventeenth-century artist, who is traditionally called a “genre” painter, though this is a wildly inadequate term for him, remains a subject of debate and uncertainty. It’s a situation that three substantial new approaches to the artist—Philip Steadman’s study of Vermeer and optical devices; Walter Liedtke’s exhibition and catalog devoted to the painter’s ties to his hometown; and Anthony Bailey’s biography—fail to change. What Vermeer’s actual subject was, how he achieved his results, even whether he should or shouldn’t be considered “elusive”—on these and seemingly all other issues there is surprisingly little general agreement.
To read about Johannes Vermeer and to look at his pictures is sometimes to think you have entered a fairy-tale domain. There’s an Arabian Nights flavor about a painter who leaves so few traces of himself (we have no knowledge of his working methods, or who if anyone he studied with, or if he had any pupils); dies fairly young (at forty-three, in 1675); and is represented by a remarkably small body of pictures, each of which is somehow a precious link in the story. Some three dozen paintings (but not a single drawing) are now attributed to Vermeer. He is thought to have made about two pictures a year, with the pictures we know representing three quarters of what would have been his total output. You hold his whole career in your head. And this, along with the few, tantalizing facts that we have about his home life and professional associations, ironically makes him an artist who, I think, we wind up half-believing we know as well as we know ourselves.
Described objectively, Vermeer’s world is unusually circumscribed. The vast majority of his pictures are of young women seen in a corner of a delicately lit room. Some, with suspiciously protuberant bellies, are thought to be pregnant. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a gentleman or two, sometimes by a maid. They pour milk, read or write letters, or perhaps drink some wine or stand with a necklace or weighing scales before a table, while in a few later pictures they play musical instruments. There are only two pictures by Vermeer of men alone, and both—The Geographer and The Astronomer—appear to show the same model in roughly the same outfit in the same room.
The few known facts about Vermeer certainly indicate that he operated in a sea of women. The painter’s father died when Johannes was twenty, and for much of his life he lived close to his mother and sister, his only sibling. His wife, Catharina, came with a mother, a woman who records indicate was a powerful personality. Maria Thins gave Vermeer and his wife their house rent-free (and her son-in-law the freedom to create on his own timetable), and Maria lived with them. And of the hefty number of children Johannes and Catharina had—eleven of fifteen survived—the majority were girls. The first five who survived were girls. What with a servant girl on board for good measure, Vermeer was clearly “enveloped,” as Anthony Bailey puts it, by “the feminine,” and his pictures, to some degree, imply that, as Bailey also says, “he was a willing and happy victim.”
Yet “the feminine” hardly suffices as a label for Vermeer’s concerns. Besides the two pictures of men of learning, only two of his surviving pictures don’t feature women in some way: The Little Street, a view of an everyday site in Delft (which is in the Met’s show), and A View of Delft, a startlingly large overview of the small city from its outskirts. And Vermeer probably would have the same hold on our imagination if he had made only these pictures. Nothing much is happening in either of these cool, gray, overcast scenes, but few other paintings of places, of any era, are as mesmerizing. With their immovably solid designs and unimaginably precise feel for weather, light, and the surfaces of things—brick, mortar, whitewash on a wall, wood shutters, distant wood ships, water, sunlight on faraway spires—they make seemingly all other views of this or that part of a town feel fussy, historical. As with so much of Vermeer’s work, the textures of whatever we see in these pictures are perfectly true to what we know to be the actual textures of those things—and, at the same time, we’re made to feel we’re looking at nothing other than wonderfully malleable oil paint. We pull ourselves away from a Vermeer reluctantly, sensing that our own world is flimsier and less sensuous.
Even if the townscapes didn’t exist, though, Vermeer’s deepest subject would seem to be art itself, how an image is constructed. To an unusual degree, Vermeer makes the viewer of his individual painting relive the making of that painting. Ultimate mystery man of art as he is, Vermeer on some level has no secrets at all. Yes, some see his pictures as complex allegories, with the paintings or maps on the wall behind his figures there to make a symbolic connection with those figures. Yet the tenor of Vermeer’s art is strikingly secular and unsymbolic. We rarely believe that there is a story to be deciphered. He presents a clear, seemingly measurable sense of how near or far he is from the table, chair, or carpet that is closest to us in the scene. All he’s doing is what we and the people in his pictures (for the most part) are doing: looking.
Vermeer actually seems to take sheer, unstoried looking to a point beyond which few if any artists have gone. Painters had been more sheerly “realistic” in their methods long before him. Jan van Eyck is only the most obvious example of an artist who, two centuries before the Delft painter, renders what he sees more sharply. But surely no artist before Vermeer made a representation that has soft tones and clear shapes so balanced that you feel, looking at a picture of his, that you are seeing atmosphere itself defining the object of your sight. Though probably unresolvable, Vermeer’s relationship with optical devices remains a lively issue in the writing about him. Disagreeing over it, Philip Steadman and Walter Liedtke might be describing two different artists. Yet no matter what your awareness of the debate over optical devices, it’s hard not to sense that this artist has an uncanny relationship with photography—even that he, in a quest to nail down exactly the way light is part of how we see, somehow “invented” photography.
It’s the lens-like quality of Ver-meer’s art that gives it its otherworldly quality and also its creepiness, its property of being a step away from a photographically derived modern illustration. One of his disturbing pictures is The Procuress, an early work—it is in the Met’s show—that includes a whore, her customer, a giggly character who looks out at us (and has been taken for the artist), and the procuress herself, who casts a lascivious glance. Part of what’s disconcerting about this large painting is that in its particular combination of an overall fuzzy glow and an underlying razor-sharpness, and in the queer obviousness of the features of the crone especially, it can recall Maxfield Parrish, whose pictures were often derived from his own photographs. Parrish was a first-rate talent; I don’t mean to say that his very name connotes degradation in representational art. But The Procuress makes you glad that Vermeer quickly gave up making drama-like pictures where people play roles.
As it is, the people in his characteristic “mature” pictures don’t resemble any other seventeenth-century painter’s idea of what people look like. The faces we encounter in pictures by Vermeer’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries, whether Hals or Rembrandt, Velázquez or Poussin, may have greater force or psychological awareness than his. But the people in their pictures in one way or another have the look of their time about them, whereas many of Vermeer’s people feel like us. They haven’t been seen through the style of a particular period. You sense that they will always seem contemporary to the era that’s looking at them, the way Vermeer’s two Delft scenes mysteriously take place in a perennial now.
And yet, creator of a kind of ground zero in representational art in some of his best-known pictures, Vermeer proceeded, in a career that was as full of zigzags as that of any artist whom we know through a conventionally large number of works, to make paintings of people that feel like the very opposite of unstylized looking. The artist who painted, in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, or Woman with a Balance, or Girl with a Pearl Earring, some of the most serenely beautiful faces in art gave us in, say, The Love Letter (which isn’t in the New York show) a truly homely protagonist, and in Young Woman at a Virginal (one of the strongest paintings at the Met) a woman whose looks are so queerly her own she’s virtually a fantasy creation.
Of the three new approaches to the painter, Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera is the most vivid and impressive. It doesn’t answer every question about Vermeer; it’s not nearly as comprehensive as Liedtke’s art-historical survey or Bailey’s biography. In its chief thesis, that Vermeer used an optical device, a camera obscura, to make his paintings, it may even be dead wrong. Yet reading about how Vermeer might have used such an aid presents, at least in Steadman’s telling, an experience that is closer to how we absorb the painter’s intense, spooky, and perfectionistic work than Liedtke’s or Bailey’s accounts. It’s only in Steadman’s presentation that I felt I came close to Vermeer himself.
Steadman, who teaches at University College London and trained as an architect, has been involved with Vermeer for two decades. Initially, he was concerned with the various rooms seen in the painter’s work. He wanted to determine if they were one and the same, and his answer came through studying the perspective geometry, which was readable in those paintings—such as The Glass of Wine, which is in the current show—that included floor tiles. Taking measurements of the furniture of the time and factoring in the way rooms of the period were typically designed and what’s known of the possible houses Vermeer lived in, Steadman convincingly and not surprisingly deduced that, in the nearly dozen paintings with the telltale floor tiles, the painter was working in the same space. It was, in all likelihood, his studio, and the generally even light that usually enters through a window or two on the left was north light. Along the way, Steadman’s concerns shifted to the camera obscura, and his chief effort became a desire to see if Vermeer used one in this room.
For those of us who have never warmed to the issue of how an artist creates, in a given picture, a spatially coherent inner world, one where every figure and everything we see are aligned—where an invisible inner grid allows us to find out where the artist was as he looked into his measured space—Vermeer’s Camera may be slow going at times. Yet Steadman works hard to reach a general audience, and even the most geometry-challenged reader, I think, will be able to get the gist of these arguments if only because we can easily visualize Vermeer himself moving about in this studio. Even those who have rejected the idea that the painter worked with a camera obscura, or any other optical device—some have believed that he got his light-filled, seemingly breathed-on images by tracing what he saw off mirrors—have found themselves thinking of the paintings as stage sets, with Vermeer directing his sitters, shifting his props, playing with the windows, and fussing with the maps and pictures on the wall until he was satisfied with how the light fell on everything.