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…

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