Camera Work

Vermeer and the Delft School

Catalog of the exhibition by Walter Liedtke, with Michiel C. Plomp and Axel Rüger.
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 8–May 27, 2001, and the National Gallery, London, June 20–September 16, 2001.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 626 pp., $75.00

Vermeer: A View of Delft

Anthony Bailey
Henry Holt, 272 pp., $27.50

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…

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