Vermeer mesmerizes. His paintings cast a spell on present-day audiences, so much so that when a strike disrupted bookings for the comprehensive exhibition of his work at the National Gallery, Washington, five years ago hordes of hardy art lovers lined up before dawn in bitter February weather for a chance to enter. This spring they have been crowding around Vermeer’s paintings in preference to almost anything else in the Metropolitan Museum’s ambitious survey of the context that formed him and in which he worked, “Vermeer and the Delft School.”1 “It’s easy to tell where the Vermeers are in any of the galleries,” a young artist reported to me. “You just go to where there are twenty people in front of a painting.”

That’s no casual choice. There have been...


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