The subtle modesty of Vermeer

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive, says Craig Raine. The pull of his paintings are apparent to most, but their precise qualities are almost impossible to explain.

Vermeer's paintings are clear but not "crisp". They contain a phantom nimbus, much subtler than May Ray's photographic solarisations. Above: a detail from "The Music Lesson".

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive. Everyone feels the pull of these paintings. No one can quite say how they exercise their magnetism, their unique beauty, their compelling mood. When people attempt to define the paintings, they often speak of Vermeer’s “poetry”. If you are a poet, you wonder what they mean by this. After all, there are many kinds of poetry, as Auden noted in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “By all means let us touch our humble caps to/La poésie pure, the epic narrative;/But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.”

On 20 June, in his Guardian blog, Jonathan Jones talked about “the camera-crisp art of Vermeer”. Which is exactly wrong. Crisp. The paintings are clear, yes, but with a faint, phantom nimbus, much subtler than Man Ray’s photographic solarisations, where the image is surrounded by an edge of fierce light like an eclipse of the sun. Vermeer’s images are as if magnified. They have that shimmering granular quality you experience looking through binoculars. There is an indefinite surrounding glow, an almost infinitesimal tremor of light, common to the face of his ermine-clad female guitar player, the city of Delft and a milkmaid pouring from a jug, wearing coarse workaday cloth next to her white skin and the dark russet-pink of her hands.

These are modest paintings, confident in their calmness. They are composed. And their composition is part of their subtle allure. The Little Street is unpretentious. You can see it in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It shows us a sewing woman, the backs of two children playing a game together, whose nature and outcome we will never know, a woman with two brooms down an alley. It is a painting that, as it were, turns its back on us. It is absorbed in itself, the private place of family life, fortified against politics, against the larger world of telegrams and anger. “Fortified” is the mot juste because the form of this picture is crenellation. The top of the brick house is candidly, deeply crenellated, in three U shapes. At the bottom of the painting, we have a pseudo-crenellation of thick whitewash, of protective Potmolen.

We can see the dirty marks left by the bodies of people who have sat on the bench outside the house. One of the strange pleasures of this picture is that, in it, paint represents paint. And this isn’t an accident. The line of whitewash makes an inverted set of crenellations as it goes round the doorway, the archway, and under the sun-faded, green-shuttered windows. The top of the house is mirrored in the bottom of the house, like two facing mirrors in a railway compartment. The form tells us that this is a world which is self-contained, rapt in its own reflection, satisfied, complete in itself.

There are five Vermeers in the current National Gallery exhibition, “Vermeer and Music”, one of which is, I think, a fake. It is privately owned and sometimes said to be by the circle of Vermeer. It shows a woman at a clavichord, whose mouth is taken from the National’s own A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (circa 1670-72). Its title and dates are identical but it is inert and strangely denuded. The wall behind the woman playing is empty, an uncharacteristic void. Vermeer knows that walls are for paintings and even his milkmaid has a hanging wicker basket, an ember carrier, a nail and the shadow cast by the nail. Compare this dull vacuum with the greatest painting on show here – and one of Vermeer’s absolutely greatest paintings – and the difference is at once apparent.

The Music Lesson (circa 1662-65) is from the Royal Collection. At some distance from the viewer, at the “end” of the picture, a woman with her back to us is standing, playing the muselar virginal. Her face is only visible in the mirror above the instrument – tantalising, readable, but not quite accessible. To her right is a long-haired man in black, with a sash, large starched white bands at his neck and white billowing sleeves like something from a lava lamp. His right hand is resting on the virginal, his left poised on a cane. It is a painting of propriety. It is also a picture of courtship, a painting of overlap.

In his great monologue, Playing Sandwiches, Alan Bennett manages to show us, sympathetically, the inner workings of a paedophile. Graham loves little children as well as desiring them. The crucial, the fatal moment comes when he is playing a game with his victim, playing sandwiches – where one person puts a hand over the other person’s hand, one after another, taking the hand from the bottom of the heap and putting it on the top. At some stage in the game, he closes his hand and says “there’s nothing there for you” – and the little girl worms her finger into his closed fist, an action he interprets as a signal, the semiology of sex.

In The Music Lesson, we see a similar process at work, a series of overlaps. Vermeer is playing sandwiches with his viewer. The left foreground is an expanse of black and white marble tiles like a checker board. To the right is first a magnificently painted carpet over a high table in the Dutch manner. On it, there is a metal tray, on which rests an elegant white porcelain jug with a hinged metal lid. The carpet is extraordinary. It takes up nearly a quarter of the painting. The carpet is thicker than usual, its two folds stiffer, twofold like the roots, the bole of a great tree. In the absolute foreground, the greenish carpet fringe frays on the floor like the ragged wash of a wave.

Immediately behind the carpet is one of Vermeer’s characteristic ultramarine chairs of studded velvet. Where the table is completely occluded by the carpet, the chair is a threequarter view. Immediately behind that is a partial sighting of a viola da gamba, supine on the floor, on its back, its strings on view, its neck occluded. Then we see the woman at the virginal, which has a partially obscured Latin motto: MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S MEDICINA DOLOR[UM], “music is the companion of joy, the medicine of sorrow”.

Vermeer has painted the dance of courtship, the steps, the gradualism, the ritual of wooing, its obstacles, its hesitations, its loaded obliquities, its indirections – like the woman’s face seen only in a glass darkly.

The other three genuine Vermeers on show at the National Gallery are good but they come nowhere near this quietly spectacular masterpiece. In his perfectionism, Vermeer painted only 34 pictures in his short life before he vanished from view for more than 125 years, thanks to his omission from Arnold Houbraken’s lexicon of Dutch painters, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (1718-21). (He seems, like Shakespeare, not to have been much prized by his contemporaries.) Within this tiny oeuvre there are miracles and there are lesser miracles and the merely good. Compare, for example, The Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, and The Guitar Player borrowed from Kenwood House for this exhibition.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s miracles. The girl is virtually without eyebrows. Her half-open mouth is one of many great Vermeer mouths. No painter captures oral liquidity better. Her look, sideways yet direct, holds us. She may be about to speak – words that will never reach us. But it is the form, so subtle, so firm, that contributes crucially to the painting’s eternal eye contact. The earring catches the light like a nearly new moon, a crescent of brightness, lit from the left. This is echoed in her lovely, left-looking eyes, which are like moons in wane, the whites and the dark irises, as she turns to hold our gaze.

But this is a painting of suspended verticals also. Her turban has a hanging train, which mirrors her nose – a nose not unrelated to those wedge noses in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignonand suspended from those almost non-existent eyebrows. The mouth is suspended from the nose . . . as the earring is suspended from the ear lobe. It is a composition of great harmony.

The Guitar Player (circa 1672) has its own set of internal echoes. The woman’s yellow satin jacket has beautifully rendered ermine trim at the lapels and the cuffs. This picks up the ebony and ivory trim of her guitar, just as the intricate fingering is mirrored in her plait and Elizabeth Barrett Browning ringlets in triplicate. The folds of her dress are splashed with shadow, freely and convincingly. Every ermine spot is differentiated, without fuss or pedantry. Her face is brightly lit and boldly shadowed. She is manifestly happy, with a high colour to her cheek. What makes this excellent painting fall short of Vermeer’s greatest work? It is, I think, the face, which is inclined to the rudimentary. It isn’t simplified, but it is a close thing.

This absorbing show has a factitious quality. How to create an exhibition around only four Vermeers? Answer: all four conveniently ready-to-hand Vermeers include musical instruments, so use the theme of music to eke out the show with a display of instruments – violas da gamba, lutes, guitars – and contemporaneous Dutch painting by Jan Steen, Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Jansz, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gabriël Metsu.

Some of these are interesting painters. The Fabritius, for example, shows a seller of musical instruments – a lute and a viol da gamba painted from an unusual and testing angle athwart the canvas – while there is a neat miniaturised Nieuwe Kerk in the background. The viol is on its back, so you can see the suspension bridge of its strings – claiming kin with two bridges in the townscape, as well as the rising approach to a third bridge seen head-on. The lute’s “broken” neck is paralleled by the seller’s hand with its open thumb. Behind the stall is an exquisitely dirty wall that was well worth painting. A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall (1652) is a charming picture but it does not come within a mile of the Vermeers. The other artists are by no means negligible but neither are they great.

One marvellous feature of this exhibition is the final room where the wall notices are given over to photomicrographs – images of the Vermeers taken through a microscope. Alas, this fascinating material – a bit like the tutorial on fresco painting that accompanied the long-ago “Frescoes from Florence” – isn’t reproduced in the catalogue. For example, we learn about Vermeer’s preference for ultramarine (expensive, ground lapis lazuli) and the way he used it unadulterated in those blue chairs and mixed it with browns in the ceiling of The Music Lesson. You can see it, too, in the thick carpet where it faces the viewer full-on. There is much to be learned about his use of thin paint to let undercolours show through.

In The Music Lesson, the micrograph shows that in the underdrawing the man was originally leaning forward much more. But red chalk underdrawing is invisible to infrared imaging. Perhaps the most interesting wall note concerns Vermeer’s characteristic granular surface. We are told this “has sometimes been interpreted as a deliberate painting technique”. Which is my view. However, the note continues: “under magnification the effect is shown to be the result of lumpy particles protruding through the paint surface. These particles, known as soaps, are an alteration product caused by chemical interaction between lead (in pigments such as lead-tin yellow and red lead) and the oil binding medium”. Science. Science blinded by science?

“Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure” is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 8 September