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.
The words “camera obscura” mean “dark room,” and the device, which could take any number of shapes, including a dark booth that a viewer goes into or a box of some size that is looked down into, is about intensifying—essentializing—what’s seen with the naked eye. A hole of some small sizein the booth or box by definition pulls the image that is directly outside it, via light rays, into the darkened space. There it is projected, often upside down, but with a shimmering, more deeply color-saturated force, on the booth or box’s other side. The device, which was already in use by astronomers by the mid-fifteenth century, and came to be employed more widely in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, isn’t a primitive photographic camera. It’s closer to a primitive movie-making apparatus-plus- theater in that the image projected into the booth or box, completely dependent on the amount of light that it is sucking in via the small opening, is always, in a way, breathing. What drew early enthusiasts to the gizmo, which initially was often trained from a window down onto a street, was the thrill of seeing people move about on a kind of contained screen.
That Vermeer might have used a camera obscura is not a new surmise. From the 1860s, when he first became known outside Holland, writers referred to the “photographic” quality of his pictures. Lawrence Gowing, in what is widely regarded as the most perceptive study of the painter, said that while the details of the matter would probably always be buried, Vermeer had to have used a camera obscura for aspects of his work.* Gowing even wrote that it was only with the invention of photography and our becoming used to its way of representing reality that Vermeer’s work began to lose its oddness. No one, though, has gone as deeply into the matter as Steadman, who pursued his investigation armed, eventually, with a working knowledge of the room Vermeer operated in. This knowledge permitted him to ascertain what Vermeer’s own point of view had to have been—where he was standing to have seen his models and tables and so forth in just this way.
Recreating the painting The Music Lesson (which isn’t in Liedtke’s show) with a scaled-down, doll’s-house-size model, Steadman determined that if the opening hole—or lens—of a camera obscura was the same place where Vermeer had to have been standing, then the projected image on the back wall of his booth was basically the same size as the finished painting. In short, Vermeer used the image projected onto the back wall of the booth as the very basis of his painting. He might even have traced it, or worked on his picture right in his booth (or, as Steadman neatly puts it, his camera within his camera)—though Steadman makes clear throughout that the device was essentially a tool in Vermeer’s arsenal as an artist.
There are plenty of drawbacks to Vermeer’s Camera. Many of the paintings don’t include floor tiles, meaning it’s impossible to measure the interior space of the work—meaning it’s impossible to verify that the artist had such and such a relationship to what he was looking at. If that information is lacking we can’t be sure if there is a match between the size of the painting and the size of a projected image of it inside a camera obscura. Thus the stunning small paintings of women’s faces in the National Gallery in Washington can’t be scrutinized in relation to the camera, nor can a good number of paintings of figures where there is no floor. These include such key works as the Met’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Woman with a Balance, also in Washington.
Left out are also Vermeer’s two extraordinary townscapes—though Steadman describes one scholar’s certainty that the chillingly photograph-like A View of Delft had to have been done with a camera obscura. Steadman acknowledges, too, that, although some camera obscuras were built so that the projected image was seen right side up, Vermeer might have been working, like certain photographers using plate cameras, with an image inside his booth that was upside down.
Yet Steadman’s findings ring true. There’s a poetic inevitability to his account. Anthony Bailey writes that, learning how in so many cases there is a direct correlation between the sizes of images projected inside a camera and the sizes of Vermeer’s painting, he was convinced by Steadman. What wedded me to Steadman’s work was a point that isn’t made much of. It derived from what he found when he analyzed the glass sphere that hangs above the woman in the Met’s own Allegory of the Faith. The sphere has little blobby lines and patches on it which seem to reflect spots of light in the room in this picture. Steadman’s analysis of the sphere, based on a scaled-down re-creation of the room it would be reflecting, is a revelation. He makes it clear that the little milk-drop-like patches in the sphere do represent distinct elements in the room; and when Steadman, inching along in his presentation of the light and dark areas, comes to a dark zone that fits every description of a camera obscura, you may find yourself suddenly breathless. Taking in the little dark battle station, with light streaming around it, is like coming face to face with Vermeer himself.
Beyond these extraordinary findings, Steadman’s descriptions of the properties of the image produced by a camera obscura dovetail perfectly with the distinctive qualities of Vermeer’s art. What’s transfixing about Vermeer’s pictures is the way he seems to think in depth and on the surface simultaneously. Whether or not the issue of optical devices concerns you, you are aware both of how measured the space of his individual picture is as it moves inward—how easy it would be to walk right in—and, flabbergastingly, of how that picture’s elements are so perfectly locked together on the surface that they might as well be flat. The Met’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, for example, has the force of an abstraction. Every shape can be taken as if it were on the same flat plane, with no depth. Every item appears both as its sculptural self and as a silhouette of itself that has been tacked against the back wall.
Images produced by the camera obscura, as Steadman describes it, compress space in the same way. Furthermore, the camera presents forms exactly as Vermeer painted them, as softly glowing areas of light and shadow. It has been much commented upon that X-ray photography of Vermeer’s paintings shows that he never laid down his shapes with drawn lines. There’s no conventional drawing in his work, just masses of dark and light—exactly the information he’d get from the projected image of a camera obscura.
The very point of the Met’s exhibition, which was the brainchild of Walter Liedtke, a curator at the museum, is that Vermeer’s Camera is completely off base. Steadman actually isn’t mentioned by Liedtke, and Liedtke’s discussion of the camera obscura and other optical devices takes up only a fraction of his immense catalog. Yet the spirit animating Liedtke’s project is that, awesome artist as he is, Vermeer is the opposite of an isolated, not-quite-knowable, secretive genius. In its broadest terms, Liedtke’s subject is the way an art community functions and how extraordinary talents can only come into being if they have the blood of such a community in them. As we can infer from Liedtke’s comments, a seventeenth-century artist giving himself wholeheartedly to working with an optical device would be a violator of that communal spirit.
Liedtke believes that Vermeer was nurtured and goaded exclusively by Dutch art of his time and by the traditions of his hometown. And Liedtke has an unusual, expanded idea of this place. Traditionally, Vermeer and Delft, or the School of Delft, have been seen as one and the same. What the school was known for was a new feeling for natural light and atmosphere and a taste for perspective and measurement, for the tricks of illusionistic art—art that draws attention to the ways in which an artwork can be confused with “real life.”
A conventional exhibition on the subject would have attempted to understand how, beginning in the late 1640s, for little apparent reason, first one artist and then another moved to Delft and began, in different ways, to make brighter and spatially more exacting works than had been the norm in Dutch painting. (Dutch painters of the time regularly relocated, and different cities had different heydays.) The show would have included the painters of the interiors of Delft’s churches, chiefly Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte. There would be pictures by two talented artists who died quite young—Carel Fabritius and Paulus Potter—and it would come to a climax with works by the well-known genre painter Pieter de Hooch and by Vermeer (who, unlike these others, was a native and lifelong citizen of Delft).
Liedtke includes these painters but his point is far more complicated. An authority on the painters of Delft church interiors, he has widened the story to make the small city itself—its longstanding character—his true subject. He begins roughly in the 1570s, when Delft found itself headquarters for the then-nascent drive of the Dutch provinces for independence from Spain. When this freedom was eventually achieved, Delft failed to remain Holland’s seat of power. That honor fell to The Hague, which was nearby. Existing in the shadow of power, Delft for the next hundred years remained a center for breweries and potteries and home to a proper, even patrician class of citizens. Though sleepy compared to Amsterdam, its comfy, tradition-minded natives, regularly visited by men of learning and business acumen going to and from The Hague, kept sponsoring pictures and objects that were equally conservative and sophisticated. Liedtke acknowledges that Delft’s moment of true renown was the period when the various relocating artists began dealing in their work with natural light. These are the artists he is most involved with. Yet what’s paramount for him is that we see that Vermeer derived from a place that for a century cultivated a taste for the refined and the undemonstrative, for, as he says, “light, space, and surfaces, not blood and guts.”
The resulting overstuffed exhibition and catalog are bound to make all but specialists a tad confused. There are fifteen works by Vermeer, including the considerable The Art of Painting, a picture of an artist in his studio, working from a model, which didn’t make it to the 1995 Vermeer exhibition in Washington and The Hague. Most of the Vermeers, though, appear at the show’s very end, and to get to them we first pass by Delft tapestries and pieces of decorative art, and encounter in our progress somewhat stiff portraits, allegorical pictures, flower studies and still lifes, and drawings of many varieties—works that don’t much register as the collective breeding ground for Vermeer.
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.
May 31, 2001