In an uncanny anticipation of his subsequent reception history, Johannes Vermeer made one of his first appearances in the printed record in the guise of a phoenix, the mythical bird that regenerates itself from its own ashes. The context was a poem by the printer Arnold Bon, published in 1667 to commemorate the premature death of the painter Carel Fabritius in the explosion of Delft’s gunpowder arsenal thirteen years earlier, and Bon concluded his lament by reassuring his fellow citizens that a worthy successor had nonetheless miraculously emerged to take Fabritius’s place. Despite this evidence of the esteem in which Vermeer was held at the time, his name largely vanished from accounts of Dutch painting in the centuries that followed, only to reappear—phoenix-like—when the French journalist and art critic Théophile Thoré devoted a three-part article to this “unknown of genius,” as he’d earlier dubbed him, in the Gazette des beaux-arts in 1866.
Vermeer’s virtual disappearance from the record is usually explained by the small size of his corpus—modern scholars estimate that the entire oeuvre consisted of some forty-five to fifty works, as compared to more than 350 currently attributed to his great compatriot Rembrandt—and by the fact that a significant number of his paintings were swallowed up in a single private collection during his lifetime. If the art historian Ben Broos is right to speculate that the influential chronicler of Dutch painting Arnold Houbraken managed to skip the crucial lines about the newly risen phoenix because they appear on a separate page from the rest of the poem, then an accident of printing may also have helped consign the artist to oblivion. (Houbraken’s The Great Theater of Dutch Painters first appeared in 1718, and the commentators who followed mostly took their cues from him.)
The result was that when an occasional Vermeer did circulate, it was often attributed to someone else, and even admirers of his paintings didn’t know whose art had actually captivated them. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (circa 1657–1658)—recently restored by the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden and the centerpiece of its Vermeer exhibition less than two years ago—was purchased in 1742 for the elector of Saxony as a Rembrandt; two decades later Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, better known as The Music Lesson (circa 1662–1664), entered the Royal Collection at Windsor as a Frans van Mieris. When The Art of Painting (circa 1666–1668) changed hands at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was attributed to Pieter de Hooch—an error that persisted until Vermeer’s signature was deciphered and De Hooch’s identified as a forgery in the 1860s.
Thoré called his discovery “Van der Meer de Delft” in order to distinguish him from the bewildering array of other Van der Meers and Vermeers who wielded a brush in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, but such discriminations have long outlived their usefulness, as the recent exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam clearly demonstrated. Titled simply “Vermeer”—the “Johannes” that still preceded it for the last monographic exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 1995–1996 apparently felt superfluous—the Rijksmuseum show sold out its entire run of tickets just days after it opened. Though much still remains unknown about the artist and the man alike, there is no question about the spell he continues to exert on his viewers. One of the most intimate and quiet of painters, and one who often chose to work on an unusually small scale, Vermeer has become, paradoxically, a crowd-pleaser.
Managing those crowds can’t have been easy, especially since the Rijksmuseum’s advance publicity made much of the fact that the twenty-eight paintings on display represented the largest group of works by Vermeer ever assembled—probably more, according to the museum’s director, Taco Dibbits, than the artist himself could have seen at any one time. (The previous record holder, the 1995–1996 exhibition in Washington, consisted of twenty-one paintings and proved so popular that people lined up in the winter cold for as long as twelve hours to view it.) Any museum that hopes to stage a Vermeer exhibition also has to contend with viewers’ tendency to linger longer before his paintings than they do before the work of his contemporaries—the sort of behavior curators ordinarily welcome but that must make estimating the pace of admissions particularly difficult.
Despite the challenges, however, this latest version of blockbuster Vermeer largely succeeded in reconciling its contradictory imperatives. Having begun by exercising some wise restraint on ticket sales, the museum followed up by hanging the paintings in a sequence of spaciously arranged rooms, each of which afforded viewers ample opportunity—physically, at least—to fulfill the promise of the show’s rubric: “Closer to Vermeer.” If the art so magnificently displayed can still elude our desire for other kinds of closeness, that’s one of the principal ways, after all, it keeps us looking.
Of the thirty-seven paintings now attributed to Vermeer, only four bear complete dates,1 and the show mostly subordinated the question of chronology to other concerns, both formal and thematic. Though it did devote a single room to his early ambitions as a history painter, the first thing to catch the viewer’s eye was not one of the canvases with which the artist launched his career but the one that helped to precipitate his modern revival: View of Delft (circa 1660–1661). Acquired by the Mauritshuis in 1822, it was the first of Vermeer’s paintings to enter a public museum under the artist’s name and the first with which Thoré, writing more than four decades later, chose to introduce him to contemporary viewers. Allowing for the change of venue, the opening line of Thoré’s pioneering article—“In the museum at The Hague a superb and very singular landscape arrests all visitors and vividly impresses artists and connoisseurs”—might still serve to gloss the experience of those lucky enough to have acquired tickets to the Rijksmuseum.
By calling View of Delft “very singular,” Thoré presumably meant to distinguish it from other landscapes with which he was familiar, but the painting has proved virtually unique in Vermeer’s corpus as well. Persuaded that its creator must have specialized in the genre—about a third of the seventy-odd works Thoré tentatively attributed to him were landscapes or cityscapes—the artist’s nineteenth-century champion ended up constructing a Vermeer very different in this respect from our own. Only the painting known as The Little Street (circa 1658–1659), which hung on a wall adjacent to View of Delft at the Rijksmuseum, continues to represent this version of the artist. (A third such painting, known to modern scholars from a seventeenth-century sales catalog, has never been located.) Despite the fact that Vermeer’s wife gave birth to fifteen sons and daughters, eleven of whom are known to have survived his death, these cityscapes are also his only pictures to feature children: a tiny figure carried by a woman in View of Delft and the two youngsters playing in the foreground of The Little Street. The modern Vermeer is primarily an artist of the interior, and his celebrated silence partly depends on keeping those children, imaginatively speaking, outside the walls.
In one of his several contributions to the catalog, Gregor J.M. Weber observes that the hint of clouded sky and a red building just barely visible through the casement in Officer and Laughing Girl (circa 1657–1658) represents the single such outward view in all the artist’s oeuvre. That determination to close off his space to everything but light is among the characteristics that most distinguish Vermeer from a contemporary like De Hooch, with whom he otherwise shared so many motifs. There are no figures in the doorways of Vermeer’s interiors or glimpses of a cheerful courtyard, only an illuminated enclosure that often seems to double as a metaphor for the inwardness of the solitary woman—or occasional man—who inhabits it.
Commentators on the paintings frequently remark their tendency to leave things out: not just the things we cannot see through the window, but the elements Vermeer originally painted and then removed from the picture and the narrative cues he deliberately suppressed, sometimes by painting them over, too. (A man could once be seen in the inner room of A Maid Asleep (circa 1656–1657), for instance.) Rather than emphasize such absences, however, the contributors to the catalog prefer to follow the lead of the exhibition, arguing that more of what lay beyond Vermeer’s windows made it into his pictures than a casual viewer might think.
Sometimes this takes the form of calling attention to individual figures, like the “fashionable intruders”—by definition male—said to “bring the outside world into the intimate inner world of the elegant young women” in three early paintings of courting couples: The Glass of Wine, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, and Girl with a Wine Glass (all circa 1659–1661). At other times we are urged to notice particular objects that serve as physical representations of the wider world—the map and globe in The Geographer (1669), for example—or the pieces of paper that implicitly travel back and forth between sender and receiver in the six paintings of women reading or writing letters, “piercing the confines of domesticity like so many windows and doors,” in the apt phrase of Marjorie E. Wieseman.
Less satisfying, I think, is a repeated attempt to divide Vermeer’s figures between “introverts” and “extroverts,” as if the border between inside and out could be mapped directly onto their psychology. At its most literal, the distinction is clear enough and loosely corresponds to the well-known divide between absorption and theatricality first advanced by Michael Fried in relation to eighteenth-century painting: while many of Vermeer’s figures are apparently absorbed by something within the picture itself and take no notice of our presence—think of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (circa 1662–1664), for instance, or The Lacemaker (circa 1666–1668)—others face the viewer, as if inviting us to meet their gaze. Probably Vermeer’s most famous “extrovert” in this sense is Girl with a Pearl Earring (circa 1664–1667), but the category includes his other small head studies, or tronies, like Girl with a Red Hat (also circa 1664–1667), as well as individual figures in a range of works both early and late, from the smiling young man to the left of The Procuress (1656), who has sometimes been identified as the artist himself, to the two women at the virginals, one seated and one standing, who look out at us from a pair of late paintings that usually hang in the National Gallery in London.
Yet physical orientation is no guarantee of psychological effect, and with a few arguable exceptions, like the awkwardly laughing young woman in Girl with a Wine Glass, “extrovert” feels like the wrong term for Vermeer’s figures, even when they literally turn outward. Nor does the distinction really address the way they respond to one another within the pictures. On which side of the divide, for example, should we place the young woman of Officer and Laughing Girl, as she turns her luminous face not toward the painting’s beholder but toward her enigmatic visitor? Like the gentleman who attends to the woman’s performance in The Music Lesson—or, for that matter, the artist who faces away from us and looks toward his model in The Art of Painting—she is as much removed from the viewer by a state of absorption as any of the single figures engaged in their solitary tasks.2
Even when Vermeer’s figures do turn our way, the fact that they typically look at us over their shoulders rather than confront us directly, as Lawrence Gowing long ago noted, means that there remains something oblique and withheld in the very gesture with which they meet our gaze. Perhaps because it classed her among the extroverts, the Rijksmuseum chose a reproduction of Girl with the Red Hat to welcome visitors, but that curiously androgynous face still kept its secrets—and so too did that of Girl with a Pearl Earring, for all the radiance of her image. Despite their parted lips, it remains impossible to imagine what either young woman is about to say.
“At one for once with sunlight falling through/A leaded window”: as this lovely phrase from Howard Nemerov’s 1962 tribute to the artist implicitly affirms, what does resolve the dialectic between inner and outer in Vermeer is light. Nemerov’s resonant lines lack a subject, as if the poet wished to leave ambiguous whether that sense of oneness belongs to the subject of the painting or its beholder—who may, of course, also be the painter himself. Elsewhere in the poem, the speaker evokes “those little rooms/Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light”: a line that manages elegantly to identify a physical phenomenon with a state of consciousness by playing on the double meaning of its final phrase as illumination and release from burden.
Both the physics of light and its psychological resonance are also crucial to Weber’s account of the artist. In one of his contributions to the catalog, he draws on a 1678 treatise by Vermeer’s contemporary Samuel van Hoogstraten in order to explain how we respond to the lighting of a painted interior. Having observed that the brightest surface of any interior is always darker than the shadows outside, Van Hoogstraten advised his fellow artists to save their most brilliant white for any glimpse of sky or clouds they wished to include in the picture. By choosing to foreclose such possibilities, however, Vermeer freed himself to use that white within the room instead, typically employing it, Weber notes, for a window jamb or wall: a maneuver whose paradoxical result is to make viewers’ imagination of what they cannot see shine still more brilliantly than what they can. Though we have no way of knowing if Vermeer made such decisions consciously—unlike Van Hoogstraten, he never attempted to theorize his practice—the paintings themselves provide abundant testimony to their creator’s understanding of how vision operates.
Scholars have long speculated that Vermeer must have had access to a camera obscura, since certain features of his work—especially the areas of blurred focus and the dots of bright paint he often scatters on the canvas—resemble the effects it generates. Consisting in its simplest form of a pinhole in a wall through which sunlight projects an image onto an opposing surface in a dark room (the literal meaning of “camera obscura”), the device has been known since antiquity, and versions of it can be readily documented from Vermeer’s time. Advocates for its connection to his work like to cite the eyewitness testimony of the Dutch statesman and polymath Constantijn Huygens, who acquired such a camera in 1622 and wrote ecstatically to his parents of its “admirable effects”: “It is impossible to describe for you the beauty of it in words: all painting is dead in comparison.”
But while Huygens suspected that at least one Dutch artist of his acquaintance had secretly employed the camera for his illusionistic still lifes, and Van Hoogstraaten would subsequently refer to it in his treatise, no definitive evidence has emerged to link Vermeer to such an instrument. An inventory of his possessions compiled after his death lists other artist’s paraphernalia, like easels and palettes, but says nothing about a camera. Nor have attempts to associate his apparent knowledge of its effects with the optical experiments of another Delft citizen, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, proved especially fruitful, despite the tantalizing fact that the microscopist later served as executor of Vermeer’s estate.
Weber, however, has a different candidate, one literally closer to home: the inhabitants of the Jesuit residence just down the street from the house where the adult artist lived with his Catholic wife, Catharina Bolnes, and mother-in-law in the neighborhood of seventeenth-century Delft known as the Papists’ Corner. Weber is the head of Fine and Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum, and in Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection he elaborates an argument he briefly advances in the catalog—that the Jesuits were not only neighbors of the Vermeer family but a principal source of the painter’s optical knowledge. Equally important, by this account, they also provided the chief inspiration for his treatment of light as a spiritual phenomenon.
Weber is not the first to connect Vermeer to the local Jesuits, who have sometimes been identified as possible commissioners of the late painting known as Allegory of the Catholic Faith (circa 1670–1674), a technically sophisticated exercise in Baroque religiosity that many of the artist’s modern admirers have nonetheless found difficult to love. More recently, scholars have speculated that the Jesuits next door may also have commissioned the early Saint Praxedis (1655), a copy apparently signed by Vermeer after an Italian original by Felice Ficherelli. Not every authority has accepted the attribution, but if the painting is indeed Vermeer’s, as Weber and his colleagues believe, its depiction of the saint serenely wringing the blood of martyrs from a sponge would represent perhaps his earliest attempt at an image of female absorption—a macabre forerunner of works like The Milkmaid or Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (both circa 1662–1664). Only when his brush drew a fluid squiggle of red paint beneath the dead snake in Allegory of the Catholic Faith, however, would he again mark a canvas with the sign of blood.
Yet while many scholars have consulted Jesuit sources for the iconography of such images, they have not typically mined those sources for the kind of optical knowledge that Weber’s new book uncovers or connected that knowledge to Vermeer’s own experiments with vision. Like other attempts to fill the gaps in the record, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection inevitably rests much of its case on informed speculation, and claims as to what the artist “must have” seen or known appear repeatedly in its pages. But by building on the work of those who have gone before him, Weber makes some significant new discoveries whose cumulative impact persuades this reader, at least, that the local Jesuits probably did serve as the conduit for Vermeer’s knowledge of the camera obscura. Whether we must therefore conclude that they also shaped his view of the world is another matter, however, especially when we can begin to share in that view by looking at all the paintings they didn’t commission.
Central to Weber’s argument is a Jesuit emblem book first identified by the Dutch iconographer Eddy de Jongh as a source for the mysterious reflecting globe that hangs from the ceiling in Allegory of the Catholic Faith. Published by Guilielmus Hesius in 1636, the book shows a similar globe whose capacity to reflect both a sun and a cross serves as an emblem of faith, its meaning glossed by the motto Capit quod non capit (It grasps that which it cannot grasp). Weber goes De Jongh one better by locating a manuscript version of the book whose emblem resembles the painting still more closely, since its globe appears indoors rather than outdoors and is framed by a curtain drawn to the left, just as it is in Vermeer’s picture. More to the point, he also identifies another emblem in the book that features a camera obscura—there are two in the manuscript—and traces the personal connections by which knowledge of the earlier document might have reached the artist. Though he has to concede there’s no hard evidence that the Delft Jesuits actually owned such a camera, Weber argues plausibly that a drawing by one of their number was composed with its aid and drives home the argument by noting that the maker of the drawing died in the spring of 1656—the very year, he contends, in which the effects of the camera began to appear in Vermeer’s paintings, as if the device had somehow made its way into the hands of the artist.
It’s a persuasive story, and so too is Weber’s demonstration that the Jesuits were fascinated by optical phenomena because they associated the properties of light with those of the God they worshiped. But the argument carries with it a troubling corollary: that both Vermeer’s overtly religious paintings and his work as a whole are best understood as the product of his Catholicism and that the visual pleasure of his art should always be measured against the didactic traditions he inherited. Advanced most strenuously in Weber’s book, the argument also filtered into the exhibition, where it came to the fore in the moralizing comparison that closed the show: two of Vermeer’s most radiant images, Woman with a Pearl Necklace (circa 1662–1664; see illustration on page 32) and Woman Holding a Balance (circa 1662–1664), pointedly displayed alongside Allegory of the Catholic Faith—despite the decade separating them—and glossed by the solemn rubric “Reflections on Vanity and Faith.”
In a lengthy contribution to the catalog, Pieter Roelofs offers to bring us “closer to Vermeer” by using the posthumous inventory of his estate to produce a meticulous reconstruction of his living arrangements. Weber’s book draws on the same document to place him squarely within what it calls “Vermeer’s Catholic household,” a move that takes for granted not only the well-established fact that the painter married out of the Dutch Reformed Church in which he was baptized but that his probable conversion to his wife’s Catholicism—for which we lack any written evidence—entailed considerably more than a formal profession of faith.
Weber also presumes, oddly, that it was Vermeer who “must have taken the lead” in the hanging of the household pictures, despite the fact that the house in question had belonged to his Catholic mother-in-law before the couple moved in and that she continued to share it with them for most of the artist’s career. Because the notary who compiled the inventory recorded a picture including “all kinds of women’s things” right before “one of Veronica” (either the saint or the miraculously imprinted veil that serves as her icon), we are meant to understand that Vermeer would have invited a similar comparison: hence the show’s final juxtaposition of Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Woman Holding a Balance. While the first looks in the mirror and admires one of those “women’s things” that Weber identifies with female vanity, her faithful sister stands before a painting of the Last Judgment in the place ordinarily occupied by Saint Michael and meditates on how she too will finally be judged.
Shift the frame, however, and the picture changes. Aneta Georgievska-Shine’s Vermeer and the Art of Love also draws on textual sources to illuminate Vermeer’s art, but the legacy of Petrarch figures far more prominently in her book than that of the Jesuits, and the texts she cites most frequently are the poems—not the sermons—of John Donne.3 Though her title might suggest that she focuses on Vermeer’s depiction of courtship, she is more concerned with his amorous relation to what he painted: “that lover-like absorption with the object of representation,” in her words, that ends by making the beholder of the painting fall in love, too.
This is not a biographical argument, and Georgievska-Shine touches lightly on the idea that we may be responding to visual evidence of Vermeer’s feeling for his wife. (If he did convert to Catholicism in order to marry her, however, it’s at least an open question whether the “personal religious beliefs” Weber detects in the pictures were their primary inspiration.) Nor does Vermeer and the Art of Love merely address the techniques by which the male artist negotiates his relation to beautiful women, though the book offers a suggestive analogy between the remoteness of Petrarch’s beloved Laura and the various strategies Vermeer devises for rendering his own objects of desire at once alluring and unattainable, like the curtain that promises “either to disclose the scene more fully…or remove it forever” in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. By repeatedly pausing to note “the subtle tension” Vermeer maintains between the descriptive character of his work and its formal qualities, Georgievska-Shine also seeks to account, however partially, for our own lover-like absorption in the paintings. What keeps us looking, she implies, is what keeps us unsettled—caught between our surrender to illusion and our consciousness of the art that makes that illusion possible.
In 1922 the British poet, novelist, and essayist E.V. Lucas paid tribute to Woman with a Pearl Necklace by dwelling not on the woman herself but on the white wall behind her, “beautiful beyond the power of words to express,” while fantasizing about extracting from the canvas what amounted to an incipient piece of abstract art. “It is so wonderful,” Lucas wrote, “that if one were to cut out a few square inches of this wall alone and frame them one would have a joy for ever.” That’s one way of looking at Vermeer, closely akin to the modernist spirit in which Lucas’s more famous contemporary Marcel Proust was arranging that same year for his fictional novelist Bergotte to spend his dying moments admiring the “little patch of yellow wall” in View of Delft.
For Weber, who would presumably regard such blithe neglect of iconography as an anachronism, the luminous expanse behind the woman with the pearl necklace signifies the God on whom she has turned her back in order to focus on her own image in the mirror. But Vermeer’s light falls on her, too, and to divorce that light from his human subject is also to cut up the picture—if only, like Lucas, by an act of mental vandalism. Scholars have responsibilities that poets are free to ignore, but in this case Nemerov’s “At one for once with sunlight” feels truer to Vermeer than the dictates of the emblem books.
A catalog essay by Pieter Roelofs refers to “five” dated paintings, but this includes the recently discovered evidence of a Roman numeral on The Art of Painting whose last digits scholars have not been able to decipher completely. The catalog elsewhere dates the painting circa 1666–1668—a judgment based, like all such approximations in Vermeer’s case, on a loose consensus as to the artist’s stylistic development. ↩
Neither of these great paintings, unfortunately, made it to the Rijksmuseum. ↩
Lest the Donne connection seem too far afield, Georgievska-Shine informs us that Constantijn Huygens was a great admirer of the poems, nineteen of which he translated into Dutch and published in a collection in 1658. ↩