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The Mysterious Women of Vermeer

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Gerard ter Borch: Woman Peeling Apples, circa 1661

One way to express the fascination of The Lacemaker might be that it isolates Vermeer’s two opposed truths and pits one against the other within the smallest possible arena. (The picture is only nine inches by eight.) The homeworker with the lacemaking bobbins could stand for all the women on these walls: she is a quintessence of intentness. In common with most of them, she does not present any specifically erotic appeal, and yet she is the Other, the great fact that the male painter needs to evoke. But all he can ascertain is visual sensations. Vermeer has a mind-boggling technique for transferring these from eye to canvas as if without the hand’s intervention. Color has somehow wafted down, as leaves might on water, and cohered automatically into threads and ringlets and cushions. Or more exactly, into the sight of those objects, set in quotes.

The curators assign the same date—circa 1670—to The Lacemaker as to the Virginal painting from London. But there Vermeer’s balancing act, setting vision and its objects in a precarious philosophic equipoise, flies to pieces. The player and her instrument dissolve into a slither of slick mechanical marks, and no reality can be imputed to her. What life the painting has is abstract—the randomized dancing of the brush as Vermeer simulates the simulated marble of the virginal case. On the scene’s rear wall you might just recognize a rumbustious brothel scene painted by Dirck van Baburen back in 1622, a souvenir of a louder, cruder era: but it has been deconstructed into an assembly of hollow shapes. The whole thing is uncomfortably like an imitation Gerhard Richter.

Michael Taylor, in his recent book Les Mensonges de Vermeer (The Lies of Vermeer), dates the picture two years later, and suggests that if it feels like “sparkling wine gone flat,”2 that may only be partly the fault of the artist. 1672 put not just Vermeer, but much of Holland, out of business: that was the year the French nearly conquered the country; their armies were only stopped by the breaking of the dykes to flood the farmland. Other sectors of the economy might eventually bounce back, but the art market went into permanent decline. Did Vermeer simply abandon his brushes? He died three years later, heavily in debt, at the age of forty-three.

Taylor—also the author of a notable essay on Rembrandt3—sets the precariousness of the artist’s performance on an expanded historical scale. Many quarters of the city that shines so serenely in Vermeer’s famous View of Delft had been annihilated in an arsenal explosion in 1654; even at Holland’s geopolitical zenith, the threat of English or French attack forever lay at hand; while the artist himself, a weaver’s son attempting upward mobility, was never able to free himself from dependence on his rich mother-in-law. Seen in relation to these vulnerabilities, the art with its suave suspension of time looks like a deliberate slamming of the studio door. (Just as it might have been shut on the painter’s large brood of children.) All this complements what Wayne Franits has to say in the exhibition catalog about the internal evidence of social aspiration in the paintings: how the virginals would have been “prohibitively expensive” luxuries, for instance, way beyond Vermeer’s own means. Both Franits and Marjorie Wieseman emphasize that the rooms he so exquisitely furnishes must be treated as imaginative constructs.

What gives Taylor’s account the edge is his poetic exactitude, as deployed for instance on the couple in The Music Lesson:

There is something literally not quite clear about the way he’s staring at the girl. She plays on, ignoring his lack of clarity, while her gaze in the mirror swivels furtively toward the spot where his right hand rests on the end of the spinet. But that is not the point that holds our gaze: it is only a vague shred of meaning in the far reaches of a space whose limits are the softness of the shadows in the mirror and the brightness of the jug in the foreground.4

It’s a picture, Taylor writes, that seeks after “the illusion…of a universe of objects reflecting one another, just as the mind is self-reflexive in its movements.”5 That takes us further than Franits remarking on a “verisimilitude so convincing that the viewer fails to notice some glaring inconsistencies.” “Verisimilitude” has been a standby of Vermeer commentary ever since the critic Théophile Thoré hauled “the sphinx of Delft” out of obscurity in 1866: the implication always seems to be that his paint surfaces resemble photographs. Whether that can still alert us to their mesmeric and slippery reticence, I doubt.

Whether it makes better sense to call Vermeer a liar is another matter. Taylor turns to Oscar Wilde for his book’s epigraph: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”6 But surely the piquancy of that 1890s provocation has evaporated. It may be possible to describe something—some seductive visual effect, for instance—as an illusion without implying any form of moral judgment. But if you call something a lie, you cannot but invoke moral implications. It’s not clear to me on what level you might begin legitimately to rebuke the creator of The Lacemaker or The Music Lesson. “You can’t shut out history,” Taylor alleges, as if Vermeer were standing with his back to a dyke and beyond the flood waters were rising. Oh, but sometimes, and entirely properly, you must: not all our lives can be spent on that plane; occasionally it is necessary that someone, somewhere, should attend to the nature of attention itself.

Dramatically, no doubt, the point is borne out by the evanescence of Vermeer’s imaginative control and the corresponding rise and fall of his family socially. The grandfather of the most refined and fastidious artist of Holland’s “Golden Age”—in fact, its last major original figure—had been an illiterate tailor; when the grandson of the master of the pearls and virginals (always “Johannes” in his signatures, never plain “Jan”) had to witness a power-of-attorney in 1713, he could only make himself known with an X.

  1. 2

    Un vin pétillant éventé “; see Michael Taylor, Les Mensonges de Vermeer (Paris: Biro, 2010), p. 130. Although the author is American, the book has as yet no edition in English. 

  2. 3

    Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh and Spirit in the Master’s Portraits (Distributed Art Publishers, 2007). 

  3. 4

    La façon dont il dévisage la jeune fille a quelque chose de pas très clair, au sens littéral du mot. Elle continue à jouer, indifférente à ce manque de clarté, tandis que son regard pivote furtivement vers l’endroit où il pose sa main sur le bord de l’épinette. Mais ce n’est pas là ce que retient l’œil: ce n’est qu’un vague lambeau de signification aux confins d’un espace délimité par la douceur des ombres dans le miroir et l’éclat du pichet au premier plan.” See Taylor, Les Mensonges de Vermeer, p. 102. 

  4. 5

    Vermeer cherche ici non pas a créer une animation illusioniste de gestes corporels, de doigts courant sur un clavier, de regards échangés ou évités, mais celle d’un univers composé d’objets se réfléchissant les uns les autres tel l’esprit se réflétant dans ses mouvements. ” See Taylor, Les Mensonges de Vermeer, p. 100. 

  5. 6

    Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” 1891, cited [in French] on p. 5 of Les Mensonges de Vermeer

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