He is everywhere

A View of Delft: Vermeer then and now

Anthony Bailey <em>Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £16.99</em>


One bold brush stroke of white fixes our eyes on the heavy pearl that hangs from the ear of Vermeer's girl as she glances towards us over her left shoulder, red lips parted, very slightly out of focus, mysterious. She isn't on the cover of an art-book but on a recent novel, Tracy Chevalier's vivid recreation of the model's life in 17th-century Delft, Girl With a Pearl Earring. Vermeer has been everywhere of late: in fiction, in multiple "clickable images" on the internet, on stage in Harold Pinter's adaptation of Proust for the National Theatre, in this month's crop of non-fiction books and, most of all, in the big exhibition coming to the National Gallery this summer, "Vermeer and the Delft School". We seem to have an insatiable appetite for this painter's reticent, remote interiors, half-shaded from the yellow light outside.

Just 35 pictures survive, and physical facts about the painter are elusive. His masterly Portrait of the Artist in his Studio may be a self-portrait, but it is painted from the back, so we see only some dark curls, his alert pose and confident calves in dashing red stockings. Born in Delft in 1632, Vermeer was the son of an innkeeper. He married a Catholic, Catherina Bolnes, from a wealthy but troubled background. Vermeer was a "headman" of the Delft artists' guild, though he painted only two or three paintings a year, and was highly valued in his lifetime - a baker paid 600 guilders (one or two years' wages) for one of his single figures. He and Catherina had 15 children, of whom 11 survived; and when the Dutch war with France ruined his main trade as an art dealer, Vermeer's debts deepened. At the age of 43, he fell into "decay and decadence", and passed in a day and a half from health to death.

Vermeer's latest biographer, Anthony Bailey, author of a lively, readable biography of Turner, sometimes has a struggle with the scantness of the records. He tells us repeatedly what Vermeer "may have", "might have" or "could have" done. He is at his best when he is most concrete, recreating the disastrous explosion of the national gunpowder store in 1654, or describing the work of Delft's tile-makers. One important corrective he offers to most background pictures of "Golden Age" Holland is his detailed account of the lynching of the Dutch leader Johan de Witt in 1672, the Rampjaar or "year of catastrophe", when Vermeer was 40.

The supposedly liberal, civil Dutch populace, renowned for giving property and divorce rights to women and allowing Catholics, Jews and Protestants to live side by side, seized de Witt and his brother and disembowelled them, hacking off their fingers and toes and either roasting and eating them or preserving them in spirits. This was in The Hague, a three-mile walk from Vermeer's studio. Bailey shows that the calm of Vermeer's paintings was sometimes an escape from political and domestic turmoil.

Why is Vermeer ubiquitous now? Perhaps because, as we live life more and more within our own man-made walls, his interiors feel almost familiar. There is none of the alienating histrionic rhetoric of large-scale religious or historical paintings. The activities he portrays - a woman reading or writing a letter, a woman sewing, men and women playing music or flirting - have changed very little over time. Perhaps an idealised notion of Delft itself draws us in, an imagined place of intimate human meaning that precedes machines.

If so, Philip Steadman's ingenious Vermeer's Camera will come as a rude shock. Steadman argues that Vermeer's uniquely accurate perspective stems from the painter's use of that 15th-century mechanical invention, the camera obscura. In his account, it was probably a large booth at the back of the room, big enough for the painter to sit inside, with a pinhole and lens through which the scene was projected on to a flat surface for tracing. He adduces the extraordinary coherence of the canvases, whose actual sizes correspond closely to the image that would have been obtained on the back wall of the room if a camera obscura had been used, and also cites Vermeer's use of "photographic" effects, such as varying sharpness of focus.

But is this stylistic trait really photographic? The human eye has a lens, after all, that focuses clearly now on one part of what it sees, now on another, allowing a peachy fuzziness to veil those parts of the view not of immediate concern. Perhaps we love Vermeer's velvety interiors not because they are like photographs, but because their mixture of soft bloom and sharpness exactly captures the way human beings reclaim the world from vagueness, an inch at a time - that curve of a pearl earring, this patch of sunlight.

Walter Liedtke, the chief author of the magisterial Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue that will accompany the new Vermeer exhibition, is dismissive of the camera obscura theory: "There is virtually no evidence." Liedtke's beautiful volume weighs a tonne and costs £55, but is unlikely to be beaten in the foreseeable future as a source of information about Vermeer and his contemporaries in Delft and The Hague. There are seven long and generously illustrated essays, maps, tables of Delft's fluctuating population (21,000 in 1665), an excellent section on Vermeer's talented contemporary Pieter de Hooch and fine colour plates that do justice to the still radiance of Vermeer's interiors.

Bailey's biography is very good on the fall and astonishing rise of Vermeer's posthumous reputation. By the 1930s and 1940s, the thirst for more Vermeers had become so great that a rather clumsy Dutch painter, Han van Meegeren, passed off a series of audacious forgeries. The Dutch government bought one for 1.3m guilders, and some of the Netherlands' most illustrious art critics were duped; they refused to believe van Meegeren when he subsequently confessed to the fraud in order to avoid a charge of treason for passing a "Vermeer" to Hermann Goering during the war. Van Meegeren's claim that he had managed to exchange his own forgery for 200 genuine Dutch masterpieces confiscated by the Nazis made him a popular hero, but he was still convicted of fraud and sent to prison, where he died.

As a young man travelling in Holland, Marcel Proust saw Vermeer's only large exterior, View of Delft, and, as he said, "recognised it for the most beautiful picture in the world". The last time he ever left his Paris flat alive was to see it on exhibition in the Jeu de Paume. In the final act of the National Theatre's recent adaptation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the vast empty frame that stretches across the width of the stage is suddenly filled by Vermeer's glowing masterpiece. The 17th-century Dutch town lies before us, separated from our eyes by the river and a stretch of pinkish sand. The clouds in the foreground are caught up like heavy curtains, leaden grey with touches of blue, suggesting that at any moment rain may fall and wash the already glistening barges and red rooftops with fresh light; the sun shines fitfully across the town and captures, over to the right, the luminous fragment that Proust held in the balance against the whole of human life, "precious in itself, [the] little patch of yellow wall".

Maggie Gee is a novelist