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.


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.

Vermeer never entirely abandoned the effort to cast complex ideas in powerful visual forms. In the 1660s he turned one of his favorite domestic scenes into an elaborate vision of the Art of Painting (in Vienna, not exhibited here). Later still, setting out to represent the Christian faith in a visual allegory, the Catholic convert Vermeer portrayed a woman of operatic proportions and attitude, surrounded by props with clear iconographic significance. A serpent crushed and bleeding on the tile floor, for example, embodies the devil, the enemy of mankind, trodden underfoot, while the globe on which the woman’s right foot rests came directly from Cesare Ripa’s standard handbook Iconologia. This stamped her as a personification of Faith as firmly as a ten-gallon hat now reveals a cowboy. Here, in Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith, as in the early paintings of Diana and Mary and Martha, the machinery of script and significance seems to creak a bit. For all the virtuosity of individual parts of the painting—like the huge, much compressed tapestry of men and horses that hangs on the woman’s right, its weight almost tangible—the viewer feels little urge to decipher its details. Vermeer’s greatness works best on the small scale of his most fascinating images.


What should a Vermeer exhibition do? In the first instance, of course, it should display the paintings, as this one magnificently does. Simply obtaining the works shown here must have required triumphs of ingenious negotiation, bravura feats of cultural diplomacy. It seems almost miraculous, for example, that the Mauritshuis has lent works so central to the construction of the Dutch national identity. But the collaborating museums—especially the National Gallery of Art and the Mauritshuis—have done far more than risk transporting their treasures overseas. The Mauritshuis, for example, had the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the View of Delft systematically investigated and restored, on the basis of elaborate research—and in full view of visitors to the galleries in The Hague. These paintings glow, stripped of previous restorations and old varnish, with a freshness that will astonish those already familiar with them even more than those who meet them here for the first time.

A characteristically tiny, bold, white highlight has reappeared near the left corner of the mouth of the Girl with a Pearl Earring: another, which turned out to be a stray flake of paint, has disappeared from her earring, where an earlier restoration had accidentally stuck it to the much darker secondary reflection of her white collar. The last restorer of the View of Delft, J. C. Traas, who worked on the picture in 1956, set out to remove the tinted golden varnish with which earlier restorers had toned down the picture’s brilliance to make it look more like their idea of the work of an old master. He nonetheless proceeded to replace it, in some areas, with a new tinted varnish of his own: the removal of most of this radically alters the appearance of Vermeer’s brilliant ultramarine sky and white clouds. Equally radical is the effect of the restoration of the National Gallery’s Woman Holding a Balance. The discovery that the frame of the painting behind her, long covered with dark overpainting, was originally brightly gilt, transforms the entire composition.

The restoration brought to light fascinating new information about Vermeer’s techniques and how they changed. The exhibit’s captions and catalogs—and the large section of one room devoted to Vermeer’s working methods—enable the visitor to understand how he achieved many of his effects—for example, how he used thin glazes over underpainting to evoke the warmly colored flesh tones and cool blue cloth of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. They also encourage one to follow, year by year, how he changed his approach to problems that confronted him again and again, from rendering receding floor tiles without distortion to suggesting the folds and textures of large areas of cloth. Any illusion that Vermeer saw himself as an illusionist disappears. On the contrary, one sees clearly just how boldly he painted, just how eagerly he called attention to the artificial, humanly created character of his images. Vermeer’s reputation as a master of photographic accuracy makes way for a new one as the embodiment of artistic panache.7


This exhibition—like many other recent ones—raises hopes, and makes claims, that it will do more than present beloved and unfamiliar images for the inspection of a large public. It also advances interpretations of Vermeer’s work and its relation to the Dutch culture that formed it. The curator, Arthur Wheelock, has devoted a lifetime to the study of Vermeer’s work. His doctoral dissertation, still a standard work, reconstructs the lively world of experiments in vision and representation that flourished in seventeenth-century Delft—a city that swarmed not only with the painters in the Guild of St. Luke but also with lens-makers, theorists of perspective, and creators of camerae obscurae, devices for image projection. Much as a contemporary painter lives in a world of holograms, monitors, and computer graphics, Vermeer lived in a world of newly devised gadgets for examining the world and projecting its outlines on walls or canvases.8

The exhibition draws provocative connections between Vermeer’s art and the new science of the seventeenth century—many of whose practitioners saw optics and perspective as central to their work. From Delft, for example, came Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the brilliant, self-taught microscopist whose tiny, uniquely effective lenses brought into focus an unknown world of previously invisible living organisms, as well as other specialists in the science of vision. Wheelock and others have called attention to what they see as a number of related technical expedients in Vermeer’s work: the flickering reflections from the water on the boat in the View of Delft, the strange finials of the chair in The Girl with the Red Hat, and the blurry threads that spill into the foreground of The Lacemaker. These effects, they argue, show that Vermeer used optical devices as well as the naked eye to survey the local world he loved so much: only the use of a camera obscura or some similar device could account for the scattering effects, for example, that the reproduces.

The exhibition, accordingly, contains not only paintings but also a fascinating portable camera obscura as well as a fine drawing by Stefano della Bella of an artist using an optical device. It argues, further, that the tense, active figure Vermeer portrayed as The Geographer, standing, dividers in hand, above an unrolled map, “most probably” represents van Leeuwenhoek himself. In other words, Wheelock and his colleagues strongly suggest that advanced natural science and the visual arts cross-fertilized one another in Vermeer’s work as in his city.

In fact, however, the technical sources of Vermeer’s perspective are a subject of sharp debate among specialists, many of whom have proposed alternate reconstructions of Vermeer’s working methods.9 The corpus of agreed facts does not always support the arguments that the exhibition advances. No document connects the painter’s work directly with van Leeuwenhoek, who served as the trustee of Vermeer’s estate after the painter’s death but did not refer to him in his own extensive written work. And only the eye of love—love for a hypothesis—could see a strong resemblance between the known portraits of van Leeuwenhoek and the Geographer.10

True, van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer both came from families involved in producing fine fabrics, a characteristic Delft craft. Van Leeuwenhoek’s own work with microscopes began with devices used to check the texture and finish of satin, and Vermeer’s work as a painter reveals his passionate interest in fabric textures and colors. The microscopist insisted that beings invisible to the naked eye had identifiable, coherent structures and functions; Vermeer used dots of paint almost invisible to the naked eye to create his illusions of human space and buildings. But these rather fanciful connections do not amount to a strong case for Vermeer’s use of equipment connected to van Leeuwenhoek. And the exhibition’s scale prohibits a full presentation of either the range of optical experimentation that went on in Delft in Vermeer’s time or the full complexity of the historical and technical issues involved in proving that he used any optical device at all.

Some hard issues of interpretation are addressed more summarily. For example, the clear presence of allegories in a few of Vermeer’s paintings, early and late, raises fascinating questions about his masterworks. Did they, too, contain cues to their own interpretation? The curators, like many other scholars, think so. But the information they provide is not always adequate to enable visitors to judge. Consider, for example, The Girl with the Wineglass. This elegant painting from the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig clearly belongs to a category of works which some contemporaries saw as Vermeer’s specialty: representations of jonkertjes, fashionable young people at play.11 A young woman sits on a chair almost parallel to the plane of the picture, wearing a splendid red satin dress. Her left hand lies in her lap, while her right hand, delicately raised, holds a gleaming crystal glass of white wine as if it were a magic flower. An expensively dressed young man in a rich cloak and an elaborate shirt stands behind her, bending deeply forward as if to murmur, “Have some madeira, my dear,” or words to that effect. The young woman, alert and erect, looks away from him toward the onlooker, smiling broadly. In the background another well-dressed young man sits in a stupor, his head on his hand, apparently overcome by the fumes of his own tobacco. A sparely decorated room, with neat tiled floor, one painting, and a stained-glass casement window standing open to admit a moderate amount of light, frames the action.

What does the scene convey? Or rather, what did it convey to Vermeer, his patron or buyers, or other contemporaries? As the curators point out, Pieter de Hooch, Frans van Mieris, and others also portrayed young women drinking or eating with men (van Mieris’s The Oyster Meal, often compared with Vermeer’s painting, shows a woman in a low-cut dress leaning toward a smiling, overweight older man as they share food believed to provoke lust). Such works are normally interpreted as offering a commentary, moralistic and severe, on contemporary mores. Given that Vermeer borrowed the general composition of this painting from de Hooch’s slightly earlier Woman Drinking with Soldiers, can one assume that he also shared de Hooch’s characteristically dry perspective on the scene? (De Hooch placed a painting of Christ and the woman taken in adultery in the room with his intoxicated girl and eager procuress, suggesting that the scene would end badly while at the same time recommending charity in judging its protagonists.)

Openly moralizing images reached the Dutch public, and in large numbers, in a favorite form of publication of the time: the woodcut and engraved emblems which circulated in thousands, as prints and in books. These illustrated guides to biblical and humanist morality conveyed their teachings in a form at once vividly accessible and crisply memorable. On each page an image, accompanied by a caption and often explicated by further comments in verse and in prose, reminded young women of their duty to stay at home and arouse no comment, or young men of theirs to show courage under adversity. Both visually and verbally explicit, the emblem books encoded the stoical tenets of late Renaissance humanism in readable symbols that became widely familiar. Easily memorized and recognized, they were useful in classrooms and became a favorite form of general reading.

Historians—especially, but not only, of Dutch art—have often tried to use these emblems as Rosetta stones which can enable the modern viewer to decipher the seventeenth century’s forgotten visual codes. 12 Sometimes, close visual correspondences suggest that painters drew on particular emblems. In this instance, as Wheelock and his collaborator Ben Broos point out, drawing on the earlier work of Rüdiger Klessmann, the bright design of the stained glass in the open leaded window seems to come directly from an emblem book. The window’s central panels portray an impressive female figure, holding reins. This in turn closely resembles a clearly symbolic figure that appears in a Latin emblem book by the Marburg scholar Gabriel Rollenhagen, which appeared in 1613, adorned with engraved designs by Crispin de Passe.13 The curators interpret Rollenhagen’s emblem as a warning against sensuality.14 They take Vermeer as sharing this sentiment, and his painting, in part, as its material embodiment.

Problems arise at this point. The Latin caption of Rollenhagen’s figure means: “A mind puffed up by favorable events does not know how to follow moderation, and hold the reins of its emotions.”15 The emblem condemns not sensuality but overconfidence—as the legend in the frame around the central figure, “serva modum,” clearly confirms. What does it mean, then, that Vermeer introduced this Stoic warning about the perils of prosperity into a suave scene of seduction? Should the young man beware that his apparent progress masks dangers—of marriage? of suit for breach of promise? of infection? Should the woman beware the apparent ease of her conquest? (Wheelock and Broos insightfully point out that the painting visually presents her, rather than the young man, as controlling the seduction.) Or did Vermeer simply like the figure with reins and reproduce it in the leaded window without meaning to teach any lesson at all? Did emblems offer patrons a stock of formal sentiments that they wished to see illustrated? Or did they offer painters a stock of informal motifs that they could apply to whatever scenes they liked, ready-made and without more than decorative intent, as Victorian builders applied gingerbread, and modern ones insert Palladian windows? Could patrons and viewers identify and interpret them? If so, did they take pleasure in seeing them read in novel rather than obvious ways?

Such problems of interpretation often recur. How much weight can one put, for example, on the subjects of the paintings that appear in the backgrounds of some of Vermeer’s works? Some of these seem clearly to comment on the actions portrayed—as the Last Judgment on the wall offers a higher meaning to the action of the Woman Holding a Balance. But others—like the Roman allegory that hangs above the virginal player and her male companion in The Music Lesson—are only partly visible. How can one know, in the absence of explicit documentary evidence, that viewers could recognize and follow up these sometimes murky and mysterious clues?

Even where a painting’s general sense seems clear, moreover, the exact decoding of its content—and the question of what external evidence can legitimately be brought to bear—remains in doubt. The Woman Holding a Balance stands, solid and massive in her fur-trimmed jacket and crisp white headdress, holding an empty scale, in a much darker room than usual. On a table beside her, in an open jewel box, chains of gold and pearls glow against a dark-blue cloth. Behind her, in a painting, Christ appears in glory, come to judge the quick and the dead. How should one read this image of eschatological self-confidence?

The curators make it clear in their catalog that many irreconcilable theories have been proposed. Scholars have seen the woman as everything from Vermeer’s pregnant wife, weighing pearls to guess the sex of her next child, to a personification of vanity (Wheelock’s discovery that the scales are empty refutes a good many of these interpretations). On the whole, it seems far likelier, as Wheelock and Broos argue, that the work represents a woman confident in her own purity. Because Vermeer became a Catholic and worked for the Jesuits, they suggest, following Eugene Cunnar, that Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises may provide the picture’s key. In this rich text on meditation Ignatius taught that the Christian must imagine himself as standing at Judgement Day, his soul delicately poised, like a balance, to follow the right course.16 This seems a perfect illustrative text, one that explains all the elements of the picture.

Here, too, however, problems arise. Ordinary laymen—and ordinary Jesuits—did not necessarily know the Spiritual Exercises, which served more as a handbook for spiritual directors within the Society of Jesus than as reading matter for those they supervised. Could the painting not refer, more simply, to the description in the Book of Proverbs of the wife of valor, whose virtues will enable her to escape with ease the judgment that awaits the wicked?

Such queries suggest that the exhibition could perhaps have achieved still more distinguished results if it had pointed more explicitly to the openness of many questions. Vermeer, after all, is a strangely elusive figure. No documents survive to identify his teacher or teachers. The names of his major clients—or, according to the Yale economist John Michael Montias, one of Vermeer’s most pertinacious and erudite students, his one major client—remain the objects of debate. More questions, fewer answers, would fit the state of Vermeer scholarship better.

One form of commentary, finally, would have shed another sort of light on Vermeer’s rooms and streets: a pictorial one. On the one hand, a richer selection of images from Vermeer’s own world would make the individuality and distinction of his painting stand out all the more sharply. Many Dutch painters specialized as Vermeer did, in portraying women in domestic interiors. With great enthusiasm and charm, as Wayne Franits has shown, they embedded wives and daughters in the concerns and appurtenances of an idealized home life, placing them under the benign patriarchal supervision of fathers and husbands and setting them to work as the Marthas of busy, shining households.17 Vermeer, by contrast, pared away the mundane. He turned a large number of his women—not only the bourgeois writers of letters but also the penniless but powerful milkmaid—into monumental figures, whom he celebrated as powerful and independent beings, unthreatened by any imaginable male onlooker. Visual parallels and contrasts could do more than verbal explication to highlight Vermeer’s remarkably individual attitudes and qualities.18

On the other hand, a careful choice of later paintings could have clarified another point—and one to which some contributors to the exhibition catalog, Albert Blankert for one, have devoted considerable research. Vermeer, though mentioned with respect by Sir Joshua Reynolds and others, did not occupy a high position in the artistic pantheon until the mid-nineteenth century.19 Théophile Thoré-Bürger, the radical connoisseur of painting and phrenology who rediscovered Vermeer, celebrated the artist’s use of light, his passion for the life of everyday streets, his ability to depict ordinary women totally absorbed in their activities. This was no accident: the critic who had gone on woodland walks with members of the Barbizon school and took lively, polemical positions on the new art of his own day as well as that of the masters of older times, clearly saw the many similarities between Vermeer’s art and that of later painters, from Chardin to Corot and Degas.20 The Mauritshuis Vermeer exhibition of 1966 made the visual comments of later artists one of its central themes; the subject is far from exhausted, and few collections would offer richer resources for such considerations than those of the National Gallery itself.21

In the end, the Washington exhibition represents a compromise between contrasting styles of presentation. It sometimes treats Vermeer as simply accessible, the easy master who, in music, is played in the second half of the program. But it sometimes places him in elaborately recreated historical and artistic settings. Unlike Vermeer himself, the curators occasionally seem uncertain about which windows to open, which shafts of light to admit, which decisions to make. Still, most of the curators’ explanations of Vermeer’s technique are models of clean, tactful exposition, which offer the visitor multum in parvo. And the paintings themselves inspire delight and wonder. Vermeer awaits, ready to enslave and puzzle.22

This Issue

January 11, 1996