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 complaints that the exhibition is not exclusively devoted to Vermeer, mostly from those immune to the charms of the luxury items—tapestries, elaborate gold and silver objects, portraits of the ruling classes, and the occasional elaborately painted tile—included to establish that the city, despite its size, was wealthy and sophisticated in the seventeenth century. (But how could anyone resist an ensemble of elaborate tapestry horse-trappings, neatly tied on the shoulder, which puts anything at Hermès to shame?) Others have expressed their limited tolerance for the large numbers of church interiors (many depicting the Delft Nieuwe Kirk’s glory, the tomb of William the Silent, the assassinated martyr of Dutch resistance to Spanish rule) despite the fine improvisations on pale geometric forms in the best of them and the amusing anecdotal inclusions in almost all. (Seventeenth-century dogs had the run of Dutch churches and according to the paintings, at least, abused the privilege.) There is a perhaps excessive number of images of the city, in prints, drawings, and paintings, though admittedly all good examples and interesting enough in isolation. At least one work, Daniel Vosmaer’s limpid view, The Harbor of Delft (c. 1658–60, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico), requires no justification beyond its merits as a painting, and cumulatively the selection sets the stage by conjuring up the streets and the exteriors of those white church interiors and the houses in which Vermeer’s pensive women tune their lutes, read their letters, and admire their necklaces. Yet it is hard to avoid thinking that the painter’s regrettably absent iconic view of his home town would have made the point more economically and more satisfyingly.

But many of Vermeer’s most celebrated colleagues are represented no less impressively.

But these are quibbles. “Vermeer and the School of Delft” brings together a splendid selection of works that allows us to see this most enigmatic of painters not as a unique figure, but as a member of a community of artists in the prosperous little city where he spent his working life. The assembly of Vermeers is impressive—almost half of his surviving thirty-odd works, some of them rarely seen away from the museums that house them, a few not included in the Washington show. But many of Vermeer’s most celebrated colleagues are represented no less impressively. The exhibition includes, for example, lively drawings by Paulus Potter—best known for his paintings of large, contemplative cows—done during his short sojourn in Delft, an ample group of Pieter De Hooch’s best domestic scenes and streetscapes, and a truly astonishing number of the few extant works of Carel Fabritius, the superbly gifted pupil of Rembrandt—apparently a crucial influence on the young Vermeer—who died young and tragically. For Vermeer to dominate the field in such company is a clear indicator of the hold he exerts on the viewer’s imagination.

Why is this? Partly because his best pictures are, quite simply, so wonderful and partly, I suspect, because they are so convincing and seemingly so transparent. Each of his intimate, meticulously crafted images appears to be a window into a miniature world at once wholly artificial and wholly real. Vermeer’s preternaturally ordered, silent interiors are like subliminal demonstrations of an ideal, otherworldly geometry; ordinary furnishings have magically assumed a perfectly harmonious relationship to their setting, to everything else in the picture and to the shape and proportions of the canvas itself. (That perfect harmony makes it especially startling to learn that Vermeer and his wife raised eleven children in the house in which he lived and painted; perhaps that’s why, unlike most of his colleagues, he produced so few pictures—scholars estimate that the surviving works represent about three-quarters of his total oeuvre—although the fact that his wife was a wealthy woman may have also been a factor, since it lessened his need to make work in order to earn his living.)

Perhaps it is the underlying tension between artifice and actuality (despite the effect of harmoniousness) that makes Vermeer’s best pictures so compelling. They are clearly made of blocky strokes of pigment, and yet they vividly evoke our visual and tactile experience of the everyday world: its textures, the character of its inanimate objects, and above all the particulars of its light and its spaces. Like Velázquez a generation earlier, Vermeer never gets a tone wrong; the best of his mysterious pictures conjure up specific times of day, temperatures, and seasons, from the chilly gloom of a brief, Northern winter afternoon to the pale radiance of a spring morning. He allows us to become the unseen observers of a continuous, uneventful present, turns us into witnesses to the quiet domestic rituals enacted within spaces we begin to find familiar: a room lit by tall windows on our left, with geometric tile floors and pale plaster walls hung with maps and paintings. The furnishings vary slightly, from picture to picture, as do certain details—the floor patterns, window mullions, and the tiles that sometimes appear at the base of the wall—but we begin to recognize a particular tapestry curtain or a set of chairs with lion finials. It all seems utterly peaceful and hermetic. Time moves slowly, as though its inexorable progression were somehow held in check by the firm verticals and horizontals of Vermeer’s compositions. Yet this disciplined pictorial framework is softened, blurred (metaphorically, at times literally) by nearly palpable sheets of light. Nothing of great significance seems to be happening. Whatever drama there is hinges on the contents of a letter or a reaction to a proffered glass of wine.

Vermeer’s world appears to be entirely domestic, but that impression quickly evaporates.

Vermeer’s world appears to be entirely domestic, but that impression quickly evaporates. We don’t need to know very much about the conventions of seventeenth-century painting to realize that there is often more implied. If we look attentively at the details of the seemingly anecdotal furnishings of the room, a picture of a woman weighing gold—a miracle of cool gray-blue planes and masses—starts to take on a moral message about vanity, for example. At the same time, it all seems so specific, so faithful to perception, that we become certain that Vermeer is permitting us a glimpse into his reality, that he is presenting us with a faithful record of something that he has scrutinized. Yet the more intently we look, the more unreal it all becomes. Not only do we realize that Vermeer’s pictorial structures are so idealized as to verge on abstraction (no, he is not a modernist ahead of his time), but we also become aware of strange discrepancies of scale and inexplicably abrupt shifts in spatial relationships that hint at reliance not on acute observation, but on some intermediary optical device. Paint declares itself almost independently of what it alludes to, in little flickers and patches that are intensely evocative of the play of light on particular surfaces without in any way describing them literally. (That’s part of why the Impressionists found Vermeer so exciting when he was rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century by the French critic Thoré-Bürger).

The exhibition at the Met makes clear that Vermeer was very much a man of his time. Each of his pictures in the show is presented among related works by his peers. The first Vermeer we encounter, an early effort completed about the time the twenty-one-year-old artist joined the painter’s guild in Delft, is the radiant Diana and Her Companions (ca. 1653–54, Mauritshuis, The Hague), hung in the company of works by earlier Delft painters documenting the entire range of subject matter popular at the time: portraits (including a stiff group portrait of an anatomical demonstration that reminds us forcibly of Rembrandt’s genius in transforming the genre), religious scenes, church interiors, views of the city and its environs, and so on. Diana was a common motif of the period, it seems, but the luminosity of Vermeer’s painting and its subtle modelling of form seem very much his own. So does the ampleness and four-square architectonic massing of the large-scale figures, the heft of their bodies beneath the silky fabrics. There are some mild infelicities of drawing and proportion, but they seem inconsequential. What transforms the picture—seeming to prefigure Vermeer’s mature work—is a sense of a private moment observed, of an ordinary event—even among immortals—glimpsed unawares. The absorbed young women in the group turn away from us. One kneels to sponge the feet of the goddess, another studies the sole of her own foot; all seem lost in thought, silent. With the luxury of knowing what was to come, we can see this early mythological scene as prefiguring the motifs with which Vermeer is most closely associated, the domestic interiors populated by introspective women.

The overt Italianate qualities of Diana and Her Companions raise interesting questions about what Vermeer’s links with Italian painting might have been throughout his brief career (he died suddenly at the end of 1675, aged forty-three). There’s no evidence that he ever went to Italy, but he seems to have been recognized as specially knowledgable about the subject; almost twenty years after the Diana was painted, as an established (if atypically non-prolific) member of the art community, Vermeer was one of two Delft painters called to The Hague as experts to examine twelve pictures presumed to be Italian masterpieces. (They testified that the works were “great pieces of rubbish and bad paintings,” not worth a fraction of their asking price.) Scholars debate whether the artist’s father, a tavern keeper cum art dealer, may have dealt in Italian art or whether Vermeer himself did, since he seems to have supplemented his activities as a painter by buying and selling pictures. In the Met’s installation another link is suggested by the proximity of two paintings by Leonaert Bramer, a popular artist a generation older than Vermeer but apparently connected to him and his family; Bramer spent many years in Rome before returning to his native Delft, undoubtedly full of information about the latest developments in the South.

As we move through the show, we are simultaneously dazzled by individual works and encouraged to make connections between them. Vermeer’s transition from the large-scale history paintings of his youth to the smaller, more intimate subjects for which he is best-known is announced by a grouping that begins with the glowing Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c. 1655, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). This trio of generous figures, all intent upon one another even though each occupies a different spatial zone in the picture, is loosely linked by a swirl of hands, each positioned differently in space. Like the Diana, the painting is notably Italianate, yet the bowed, broadly painted figure of Martha, holding a basket of bread and leaning forward across a table draped with a white cloth over a Turkish carpet, seems to point to what Vermeer’s future will be. If we break free of the Edinburgh picture and turn to the left, we see The Procuress, Vermeer’s only dated picture—1656—a thrilling inclusion for those of us who have never made it to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. At first glance, it seems a typical enough “merry company” of the period, with its leering musician and hooded old woman, and its compliant young woman who allows herself to be fondled, for a price, by an assertive type in a red jacket and a rakishly-angled plumed hat. Yet The Procuress is an odd, inconsistent picture, both because of its compressed spatial qualities and its strange overtones of the Caravaggio-influenced “low life” paintings of the Utrecht School. It’s so inconsistent, in fact, that its attribution has been debated and so reminiscent of Utrecht School pictures that it has prompted suggestions that Vermeer may have studied there. Set near the exhibition’s other (generally smaller scale) “merry company” pictures, The Procuress settles down a little. It still looks young, tentative, and a little unformed—perhaps Vermeer had more solid prototypes to rely on for his early religious and mythological pictures—but it makes sense as a step towards the picture hung beside it: the Met’s slightly later interior with a young woman dozing over a wine glass, A Maid Asleep (ca. 1656–57). This picture is most seductive for its narrow view into an adjoining room, but the suggestion that the maid is drunk connects this domestic vignette with the tradition of the “merry company,” while on a more formal level, the stiff, rucked-up carpet on the table of A Maid Asleep seems like a more rational version of the related, but differently patterned rug apparently draped over a balcony in The Procuress. Where the Met’s picture differs most strikingly from Vermeer’s earlier works, with their large-scale figures in ambiguous spaces, is in the way the specifics of the setting begin to play a role equal or even more important to that of the figures; that open door, that glimpse into the next room powerfully stir our associations with time and place.

But good as these pictures are, and logical and instructive as this grouping of early Vermeers is, it’s hard to understand why visitors are concentrating on these works— especially on A Maid Asleep—at the expense of their near neighbors. It’s true that pairing this familiar image with The Procuress makes us see both works freshly, but that’s not the only exciting comparison afforded by the wall of this gallery. To the left of The Procuress are two (presumed) self-portraits by the elusive Carel Fabritius, one a roughly stroked, strikingly direct image from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, thought to have been painted about 1648–50, just before the young painter settled in Delft and not long after he left the studio of Rembrandt—whose influence is palpable in this arresting picture. The second self-portrait, from the National Gallery, London, is dated 1654, the year of Fabritius’s death, aged thirty-two, in the horrendous powder-magazine explosion that flattened a considerable part of Delft. Rembrandt’s example was obviously invaluable, but being on his own was obviously good for Fabritius. The later self-portrait is no less direct than the first, but the paint handling is notable broader and smoother, the tawny palette more light-struck.

There’s evidence that Vermeer owned works by Fabritius.

The show includes two more extraordinary paintings by Fabritius from his final year, one the well-known, enchanting little goldfinch chained to its perch, the bird rendered with a dozen assured strokes of reddish brown, beige, black, and dull gold, against an expanse of creamy wall. Miraculously, the picture is installed where it can be seen close up, in good light, which is, alas, not true of how it is usually displayed at the Mauritshuis. The other~dash\perhaps the high point of the exhibition—is the indecipherable masterpiece, The Sentry (Staatliches Museum, Schwerin), on one of its rare trips away from Northern Germany. (Napoleon may have taken it to the Louvre in the early nineteenth century, but it’s not certain.) Cumulatively, this remarkable ensemble of potent works, a good portion of the tantalizingly small legacy of an amazingly gifted artist, reinforce the exhibition’s thesis that Fabritius, ten years older than Vermeer and with the authority of having studied with a celebrated master in Amsterdam, had a powerful influence on the younger painter. (He seems to have had a similar effect on Vermeer’s contemporary, De Hooch.) There’s evidence that Vermeer owned works by Fabritius. At the Met, The Sentry makes a forceful case for a connection between the two not only because of its combination of broad and delicate paint-handling, but also because of its virtuoso deployment of the planes of walls, both near and far, and of architectural volumes, from a shadowy stairway to an overhanging arch. Fabritius organized these complex spaces almost symmetrically, anchoring them with a dominant central column and forcing them into spatial coherence with an extraordinarily rich, delicate harmony of grays, creams, ochres, and luminous pale apricot. The setting and space of Fabritius’s composition are crucial to the formal and expressive effect of the picture, just as they will be in Vermeer’s mature works, while the sprawled figure (asleep? working on his gun?), like the watchful dog, turns away from our gaze, just as Vermeer’s figures do; yet the conversation among the rhythmic drawing of the portcullis, the vines and their geometric framework, and the edge of the steps seems Fabritius’s own.

Fabritius’s paintings suggest, like Masaccio’s, that had he lived longer the course of painting in his time might have been noticeably different. They suggest, as well, that his example may have helped the younger Vermeer to form his distinctive manner. At the same time, however, the exhibition’s large group of pictures by Pieter De Hooch, who was just about the same age as his fellow Delft painter, reminds us how much Vermeer’s work also owed to his close contemporaries and how much it reflected the desiderata of his time; his “distinctive manner” had more to do with nuance than with radical reinvention. As the selection at the Met makes plain, De Hooch, a native of Rotterdam who worked in Delft from about 1654 to 1660, painted small-scale domestic interiors and “merry companies,” not dissimilar to Vermeer’s. There’s even evidence that Vermeer followed De Hooch’s lead in some compositions, all of which helps to explain why the Delft master’s paintings were attributed to those of his colleagues, including De Hooch, whose work remained in favor, during the eclipse of Vermeer’s reputation in the eighteenth century, but that’s another matter.

The selection of De Hoochs at the Met makes plain, too, that he was capable of wonderful effects of perspective and light, and sometimes of color: rooms opening into rooms, doors seen edge-on, a view from a courtyard through a passageway and across a canal, a patch of sunshine on a rosy tile floor. But even at their most structurally inventive, De Hooch’s pictures always seem more anecdotal, less rigorous than Vermeer’s. The exhibition neatly underscores the similarities and differences between the two painters by grouping a pair of De Hooch’s most delightful views of figures in the courtyard of a Delft house (both 1658, one from the National Gallery, London, the other from a private collection) with Vermeer’s beloved and enchanting Little Street (ca. 1658–60, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The De Hoochs engagingly contrast a contained, shallow space and a long view through a passage, while giving an apparently faithful record of what you might be likely to find—or do—in the carefully paved and tended precincts behind the narrow, severe façades of Delft houses. Vermeer, typically, suppresses the anecdotal to concentrate on essential relationships of geometric shapes pulled parallel to the surface of the canvas. The Little Street is brilliantly organized in two dimensions, but everything is also located within a larger scheme of things by the welcoming plane of the street, which leads us from our own space outside the canvas to the wall of buildings just within; the women absorbed in their tasks offer delicate punctuation to a variety of spaces, while a large expanse of sky offers another coordinate. Still, the overall effect remains of extreme frontality, just as, despite the wealth of convincing detail (deceptive, since the building is architecturally illogical), despite the powerful illusionism of textures and the uncanny effect of time’s being stopped, the picture seems almost abstract, as though the only possible next step was Mondrian.

And there are many more pleasures to be had in “Vermeer and the Delft School.” There’s The Glass of Wine (ca. 1658–59, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin), recently cleaned and glorious in color, with the tender rose pink of the girl’s dress competing for attention with the vivid characterization conveyed by the way she raises her glass to drain it. There’s the little head of a girl with a fantastic red hat from the National Gallery, Washington, with its startling flicks of paint and broad planes. In this context, we look with fresh eyes at the Met’s own treasured Vermeers, pictures we’ve all grown up with, such as the Young Woman with a Pitcher of Milk (ca. 1662), a model of how cool, diffuse sunlight picks out the glitter of well-tended brass, the reds of a Turkish carpet, the crisp folds of white linen, the yellow of a striped jacket, or the ultramarine of a skirt. The context also clarifies our view of the Met’s cooler, more subdued Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63), another familiar painting of a wholly engrossed woman in a setting whose geometry seems at once inevitable and surprising.

Both allegories are triumphs of high illusionis.

These paintings look better than ever in the company of the rather rigidly constructed pair of insipid, self-conscious women playing virginals, from the National Gallery, London, painted about a decade after the Met’s pictures. New Yorkers shouldn’t gloat, however; the show’s brilliant finale is the complex masterwork, The Art of Painting (ca. 1666–68, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and it makes the Met’s Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72), a disconcerting painting at best, appear even more theatrical and problematic than usual. The Art of Painting is one of Vermeer’s most intellectually and formally ambitious works (and one of his most achieved), with its elegantly but anachronistically dressed painter seated at his easel, scrutinizing a model accoutered to symbolize fame, its wash of pale sunlight, and its delicate orchestration of warm grays and creams brought to life by dull oranges and intense blues. Both allegories are triumphs of high illusionism, almost certainly achieved with the aid of a camera obscura, but in The Art of Painting, these technical feats are subsumed by assured paint-handling, inventive color, and evocative light. In the rather inert Allegory of Faith, verisimilitude is forced into a shotgun marriage with elaborately staged symbols, making us grateful that, at least according to the evidence of the majority of the surviving works, Vermeer concentrated on genre rather than history painting.

It’s all fascinating and, often, illuminating. Seeing Vermeer in context helps to locate him more firmly within the history of art, but he remains enigmatic, plainly of his time yet fundamentally different from his peers. That we must form our idea of this difficult, appealing painter almost entirely from his art is part of the fascination. Nothing at all is known about his training. He left no record of his method nor did any of his contemporaries comment on it. The fragments that have been pieced together about his life and practice rely a great deal upon informed conjecture, cautious assumption, circumstantial evidence, and intelligent speculation. Even the name “Johannes Vermeer” poses problems. A definitive overview of the field is provided by the exhaustively researched, copiously illustrated catalogue that accompanies “Vermeer and the Delft School.” The question the catalogue, like the exhibition, addresses is “would Vermeer have become the same painter had he lived in Amsterdam, Haarlem, or Leiden?” The conclusion that he would not is reached by a series of essays that provides a vivid picture of the artistic traditions of Delft, including detailed discussions of the work of the city’s leading artists—Fabritius, Bramer, De Hooch, and Vermeer. There’s also an “Imaginary Walk Through Seventeenth-Century Delft” and a section devoted to plans of the city from the period with “locations of major monuments and addresses of artists and patrons.”

A trio of more specialized recent publications offers a closer look at Vermeer himself. Anthony Bailey’s Vermeer: A View of Delft2 is an eminently readable, literate compendium of the recent research into the history of his elusive subject. Bailey isn’t quite as good as Simon Schama at bringing the smells, and sights, and textures of the past to life—to his credit, he is far more concise—and he sometimes is overly literal in his approach to paintings, but the book is an informative gathering of what is currently known about Vermeer, thoughtfully presented.

More arcane aspects of Vermeer’s practice are dissected in Philip Steadman’s slightly obsessive treatise, Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces,3 which must be the most thorough discussion ever of the history of the camera obscura and of Vermeer’s use of the device as an aid to representation. Absent any documentation from the artist, Steadman bases his theories on visible evidence within the paintings—it’s complicated, and the book is full of diagrams—corroborating his conclusions by building scale- and full-sized models of the set-ups from which Vermeer is presumed to have worked. It’s entertaining and persuasive, although it doesn’t explain why Vermeer’s pictures, whatever their technology, are so much more resonant and just plain better than those of his colleagues, who presumably had access to whatever tools well-equipped artists of the period had at their disposal.

Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory, and Art Museums4 by the Vermeer scholar Ivan Gaskell, curator at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, is described as standing “at the intersection of art history and criticism, philosophy and museology.” Gaskell takes as his starting point one of those bland, late paintings of musicmaking women from the National Gallery, London, and traces, among other things, the history of the perception of its merits and value, and its relationship to other works of its period, examining, along the way, the various factors, techniques, and theories that have influenced such notions. The book is full of provocative ideas, but Gaskell, alas, is a master of impenetrable academic prose; no idea is too simple or straightforward to escape convolution or ponderous phrasing. Vermeer may have loaded his pictures with subtle meanings that modern-day viewers must work hard to discover, but he also valued clarity and lucidity. If only Gaskell did.

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  1.   “Vermeer and the Delft School” was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from March 8 to May 27, 2001. It will also be seen at The National Gallery, London, from June 20 to September 16. A catalog of the exhibition, edited by Walter Liedtke, has been published by the museum in association with Yale University Press (640 pages, $75). Go back to the text.
  2.   Vermeer: A View of Delft, by Anthony Bailey; Henry Holt & Co., 256 pages, $27.50. Go back to the text.
  3.   Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, by Philip Steadman; Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $25. Go back to the text.
  4.   Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory, and Art Museums, by Ivan Gaskell; Reaktion Books, 280 pages, $27. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 46
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