There are, of course, inviting pieces along the way. Leonaert Bramer, one of the few artists who records show knew Vermeer, was the maker of dark, lustrous pictures, often animated by tiny sources of light that are reflected here and there in the surrounding murk. Often based on biblical themes, his images, though crowded with strangely haggard and ill-proportioned figures, have a restless, squiggly, vaporous life, somewhat akin to Pascin (and diametrically unlike the vaunted naturalism of the Delft School). Bramer’s drawings are predictably lively; and, perhaps bearing out Liedtke’s conception of Delft as the home of patrician, connoisseurish values, drawings hold us as easily as most paintings in the show. Paulus Potter’s soft chalk drawing Deer in the Wood, an image composed of innumerable separate dash and curl marks, showing two mighty bucks locking horns and, to the side, two copulating deer, is as ethereal as it is down to earth.
Jan de Bisschop, represented by four small drawings of sites in Delft, is another find. His images are adroit amalgamations of bright light and deep shadows, of dark, rough brushmarks and pale, flat shapes. He makes it seem as if Vermeer’s formalist mastery of daylight and flat design truly was in the air in Delft. Yet not many sparks emanate from the better-known artists whom the exhibition is chiefly about. This may happen because, by the time we get to them, we’re oversaturated with mildly invigorating Dutch pictures, or perhaps the reason is that they’re hanging alongside Vermeer, who overwhelms them. If the painters of the interiors of Delft’s churches are given a little time, it can be seen that they show genuinely complicated spaces, with different perspectives plunging off in different directions simultaneously. Yet these pictures are monotonously similar, almost product-like, in appearance.
Carel Fabritius is a little dim, too, though he was clearly another order of artist than the church painters. Considered the most talented of Rembrandt’s pupils, he got himself to Delft at that key moment in the early 1650s and proceeded to shed the soupily dark backgrounds of his early work for pictures set in daylight. His lovely, blond-toned The Goldfinch shows a budding interest in trompe l’oeil. His little, panorama-like A View in Delft, which may have been intended for a peep-show box, is a foray into how the distant and the near are seen at the same time. An early self-portrait is one of the more romantically seductive in Dutch painting. Common to these very different pictures is a subtle theme: a feeling for old weathered walls. The artist’s accidental death, in 1654, in the Delft munitions explosion, was a loss in many ways.
Except for The Goldfinch, though, none of Fabritius’s pictures have much of the presence of a Vermeer—which is the case, too, with Pieter de Hooch, another artist who for some unknown reason moved to Delft in the 1650s (and moved out, as did so many, a few years later). De Hooch is certainly lovable. His pictures of mothers and children in beautifully lit living rooms and of grown-ups trading stories around a beer in Delft’s brick-walled gardens are works that, conveying an unusually high degree of coziness and full of deliciously rendered domestic details, can catch your eye when you’re young and stay with you all your life. Clearly, de Hooch was a, if not the, catalyst for the slightly younger Vermeer, who took off from de Hooch’s images of a few people conversing in a room lit by suffused daylight coming in from a window on the left.
De Hooch was especially good with the color red; his reds still smolder. He’s probably at his best when it comes to light reflected on various woods and tiles, metal handles and wall hangings. Liedtke rightly says that when de Hooch paints this or that texture the “passages invite the viewer to explore the house with fingertips.” But there’s a fatal homeliness at the heart of this master. His figures are conceived as such woebegone plodders, and they’re painted, as Anthony Bailey notes, so “penuriously”—they can look like ghosts of people—as to take the substantiality out of what de Hooch does well. His pictures, meant for close-up savoring, seem bland when, at the Met, they’re hung alongside Vermeers.
If Liedtke’s desire to show Vermeer as the natural product of decades of well-behaved Delft art falls a little flat in an exhibition space, his por-trait of the painter, built up from different passages scattered through the catalog, can’t be pushed aside. There’s a pleasing art-worldishness about Liedtke’s Vermeer. He’s not the empyrean figure whose every picture has a “moral” value, as some have seen him, and Liedtke’s way of presenting great, innovative art as the product of a slow process of absorbing countless precedents, and of being crucially dependent on a community of like-minded connoisseurs and patrons, injects a needed realism into the sometimes nearly hagiographic writing about Vermeer. Given that he sees Vermeer as equally a sophisticate and a homebody, Liedtke’s own writing, when he doesn’t flood his pages with arcana about this or that modestly endowed Dutch artist, has a slyer, more amused and colloquial color than is generally encountered in scholarly art history. His dry jokes—as when he points to a particularly inept de Hooch shadow on a floor as having been “laid down like a rug”—appear periodically and make us see more keenly.
In principle, Liedtke’s Vermeer, who is unusually perceptive about all Dutch art, and Steadman’s Vermeer, who has an unusual command of perspective geometry, aren’t mutually exclusive. Steadman says plainly that he doesn’t mean to explain all of Vermeer. Surely Steadman would see that the Vermeer of Liedtke’s pages, who has an encyclopedic awareness of themes and motifs in Dutch painting, was part of the total man. Yet Liedtke’s portrait, taken on its own, lacks the strangeness and fanaticism that are part of our experience of the work. Liedtke’s calling the sheerly optical concerns of Vermeer’s pictures “enthusiasms,” and his writing that they “were intended mainly as virtuoso displays of artifice, a way of amusing the mind while deceiving the eye,” is somehow insufficient. The iron in the painter, the quality that makes his pictures, on a gallery wall, obliterate whatever is nearby, isn’t there in Liedtke’s conception.
Liedtke’s Vermeer, though, is more tangible than the man we encounter in Anthony Bailey’s pages. In many ways, it should be said, Bailey’s is a model biography. Taken merely as a sifting of all the documents that have come to light on the painter, plus the many hypotheses that relate to him, Bailey’s study is unbeatable. It’s a pleasure to read. Nothing is overstated. Passages that freshly describe Vermeer’s work, as when Bailey writes about the painter’s light, that it “never hardens but slowly moves, shadows moving with it, and indicates both time passing and warmth of life,” are merely part of the shapely flow of information. The analysis here of The Little Street, which reveals that we aren’t looking at an actual setting but a kind of fantasy, permanently alters our sense of the picture.
Bailey concisely and helpfully brings the story right to the present, touching on the painter’s growing fame outside Holland in the nineteenth century and on the ensuing battles over forgeries. We read about the role the painter played in Proust’s life and in his novel, even how Vermeer has figured in a large number of other novels—and in two operas—in the past few years. The only thing that’s missing is a specifically Baileyesque conception of Vermeer. Bailey is too honest. He speculates a little, but essentially he won’t venture beyond the facts. You put the book down believing that everything you need to know about the painter is here except that Vermeer himself has slipped out.
Where Bailey raises his voice, as it were, is in describing Vermeer’s late pictures, which he dislikes thoroughly. In Bailey’s discussion of works such as the two paintings from London’s National Gallery, Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, along with the Met’s own Allegory of the Faith, plus another London picture, from Kenwood House, The Guitar Player (which isn’t in the show), he unexpectedly sounds a basically literary, even moralistic, note. Bailey doesn’t care for these pictures because the settings are “posh.” The women are “bloodless” in comparison with the artist’s earlier figures. These late female creatures regard us “coolly, without personal involvement.” The woman who clutches her breast in Allegory of the Faith is a “diva.” The pictures are about “ennui,” even.
Bailey’s harsh take on these works brings up a welcome opinionatedness in him, and his presentation of the painter’s supposedly superficial late pictures of upmarket types is so well placed in a historical and biographical setting that we can think Bailey must be right. He says that the paintings mirror the sudden decline of the Dutch Republic in the early 1670s, when the French began attempting a takeover. The Republic kept its independence, but in a short time its maritime and commercial power, along with its thriving art market, evaporated; and the Dutch began a very long phase of absorbing French manners and attitudes. Bailey presents Vermeer’s late pictures as attempts to connect with a newly effete taste, while at the same time we watch the painter go into a tailspin of his own. Vermeer, whose income was never robust and who supported himself, as did other Dutch painters, with art dealing, was at a loss with the collapse of the market. His worries, what with ten of his eleven children minors at the time, drove him to “decay and decadence”—his wife’s rare recorded words are the source of information—and his death was a matter of a sudden collapse taking place in less than two days. He was flat broke at the end.
Still, Bailey’s curt washing of his hands of Vermeer’s late pictures, as if Bailey were writing about someone he had no feeling for, reinforces a reader’s sense that the real theme of this volume all along is less Vermeer the artist than the Dutch world he was a part of. As it happens, Bailey is hardly in a minority in his view of late Vermeer. Few commentators like these paintings; Gowing called them “polished addenda” to the earlier pictures. The consensus is that Vermeer was at his height in his more naturalistic works, pictures such as The Milkmaid (which will become part of Liedtke’s show when it moves to London), Woman with a Balance, and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. But from another point of view, Vermeer was developing his art right to the end. The women in the later pictures, it’s true, tend to a kind of bonelessness. Given their fair complexions, their eyes bulge. Like the women of Elie Nadelman’s sculpture, they’re pneumatic. Yet the faces of Vermeer’s women were becoming balloon-like with light, and increasingly unnaturalistic, all along. Comeliness was becoming iffy even in pictures that art historians have no reservations about, such as the Louvre’s well-known Lacemaker or Girl with a Red Hat. That young woman hovers between being ravishing and a blimp.
Vermeer certainly is on thin ice with the late Allegory of the Faith. Religion wasn’t his strong suit. Yet the darkish, enamel-like, softly gleaming surface of this picture is more than a nicety. And London’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal is a painting that, though I hadn’t known it is considered a flop, I have always loved. The piercing, sun-on-snow white light that beams forth from it make it possibly Vermeer’s brightest picture, and in the seemingly casual yet inevitable way the woman is boxed in by artworks and straight lines it is one of the most genuinely abstract in spirit of all his works. Most exciting of Vermeer’s late pictures perhaps is The Guitar Player. The darkening blue-gray light that suffuses this image of a young female musician is a wonder. It is no less beautiful than the misty sunniness that envelops the woman with the water pitcher. The sense, furthermore, that we’re catching the picture’s bouncing, sideways-looking heroine at a happy, spontaneous, awkward, even goofy moment—that we’re looking at a seventeenth-century snapshot—makes it one of the painter’s most vital works.
Whether or not Vermeer’s feeling for light, space, and composition came from using a camera obscura, he seems, in his last works, to be following his muse of pure light into new terrain. It’s conceivable that, had he lived and continued working, he would have gone into a realm of the increasingly unrecognizable. Maybe the real mystery now is less who Vermeer was or how he did it than what he would have done next.