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10 February 2023updated 12 Feb 2023 7:07pm

An unmissable view of Vermeer’s secret worlds

This unprecedented gathering of the artist's works at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reveals the painter's mastery, if not his mystery.

By Michael Prodger

Johannes Vermeer is art’s great painter of stillness. The majority of his pictures show little more than women engaged in silent tasks and quiet contemplation – reading or writing letters, toying with jewellery, pouring milk. Occasionally they sit at a virginal or play a lute; once or twice a gentleman caller visits for conversation or song. But the sounds Vermeer’s pictures radiate are muted, never raucous.

Except for just two pictures, his mature work is set entirely indoors – a sealed environment where doors can be closed, secrets hidden, and the wider world kept safely on the other side of the windows he painted so often, as if glass was as strong as armour. This is the world of Vermeer’s paintings but it was not Vermeer’s world.

Almost nothing is known of his personality; there are no letters from him, no diaries and no recorded conversations except for the tiniest of snippets. Even his burial place in Delft’s Oude Kerk is uncertain. But we do know that his world was a noisy and often stressful place. He grew up in an inn on Delft’s main market square where his picture-dealer father sold paintings in the taproom; he possibly spent six years away from his home learning painting in either Amsterdam or Utrecht; his marriage brought him at least 14 children, several of whom died in infancy; he was twice elected head of Delft’s Guild of St Luke, the painters’ guild; and he lived through tumultuous events in both his city’s and his country’s history. Not that you would know any of it from his paintings.

In 1654, for example, when Vermeer (1632-75) was a young and coming painter, Delft’s gunpowder magazine, known as “The Secret of Holland”, exploded. Some 80,000 pounds of powder had been amassed during the Eighty Years War, the independence struggle between the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Habsburgs that had ended just six years earlier, and its accidental detonation instantly turned 100 houses into rubble, damaged hundreds more, blew out the windows of Vermeer’s local church and killed at least 100 citizens. The “Delft Thunderclap” was so loud it could be heard on the Wadden Islands nearly 150 miles away.

One of the dead was Vermeer’s fellow artist Carel Fabritius, who had painted The Goldfinch shortly before the explosion. The death of “the greatest artist… Delft or Holland… ever had”, according to the contemporary publisher-poet Arnold Bon, left Vermeer unrivalled. Bon’s eulogy for Fabritius was softened by optimism: “Thus that Phoenix remained in his thirties, in the midst and at the height of his powers. But happily, there arose out of his fire Vermeer, who, masterfully, trod in his path.”

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There is, however, no hint of any of this in Vermeer’s paintings – no lament or sense of loss, no disorder except for one tiny broken piece of glass in the lattice window of The Milkmaid (c1658) through which the travails of the outside world can get in. In The Little Street, a sliver of houses, passages and cobbled street, painted that same year, and then his View of Delft (c1660), there is no debris or dust, no building work, scaffolding or cranes, and no sense of this being the aftermath of a catastrophe. The city is calm and peaceful, its citizens go about their daily lives unchanged, and Delft’s spires and belfries rise serenely above a calm river Schie. The civic tragedy has no place in his pictures.

A second upheaval did, however, impinge profoundly on Vermeer’s life. In the “Disaster Year” of 1672, the Dutch Republic was invaded by England, France and German factions, much of the country was overrun and its economy crashed. Vermeer did his bit, becoming a pikeman to defend the city – bringing to mind the part-time soldiers in The Night Watch (1642) by his slightly older contemporary Rembrandt – and while there is no record that he was ever called on to fight, the ramifications of this troubled time were to cost him his life.

Vermeer died suddenly in December 1675, aged 43, and left his widow Catharina Bolnes with ten children living at home and mountainous debts. The painter had been a prosperous burgher, a well-known and successful artist and picture dealer, but the money was all gone. The economic collapse meant that from 1672 he didn’t start a new painting and sold his stock of pictures at a loss. The financial stress hurried him to his grave.

A petition of 1677 from Catharina to the States of Holland pleading for financial assistance poignantly described the circumstance: “He had lapsed into such degradation and decline, which had affected him so deeply, that he, as though struck by total confusion, had gone from healthy to dead in a matter of a day and a half.” Catharina never was able to discharge her debts and filed for bankruptcy. Her penury was such that she gave the local baker, one of her creditors, two of Vermeer’s paintings to settle her bread bill.

In some ways, the physical legacy left by Vermeer is equally as paltry. In an active career lasting from 1654 to 1672, he painted little more than two pictures a year. Some of his pictures may remain undiscovered, certainly five whose subjects are recorded are known to be lost. So, what is left of a body of work that amounted to perhaps just 40 or 45 works is 37 paintings, one of which, The Concert (c1662), was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and has never been recovered.

It is a vanishing small number; by way of comparison, Frans Hals left 200 paintings and Rembrandt 350. Now, 28 of Vermeer’s paintings have been brought together at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is an unprecedented gathering (the exhibition at the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1996 assembled 23); even Vermeer himself never saw so many of his own works in one place at one time. Of the pictures that haven’t travelled, the only one that is really missed is The Art of Painting (c1666), a demonstration piece and summation of his aesthetic and aims, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. However, his great crowd-pleasers, such as Girl With a Pearl Earring (c1664), The Milkmaid and View of Delft, are all present to efface the absence.

The chronology of Vermeer’s art is imprecise (he signed only five works), one of the reasons the curators decided to exhibit the pictures by theme – the outwards gaze, music, faith and so on – although many of the pictures could easily cross into other categories. They are displayed through ten rooms, some containing just a single painting, a hang that gives due reverence to the works (although the occasional painting by Vermeer’s peers to dispel the idea of the solitary genius might usefully have replaced some of the rudimentary explanatory wall texts), and they look simply wonderful.

What seeing the paintings together allows is for his subtle differences in both handling and composition to come to the fore. Vermeer would change the pattern of the black-and-white chequerboard tiled floor that features frequently or the grid of his leaded-glass windows, swap pictures for maps on his room’s wall, or alternate gilt and plain frames, and shuffle his props – a pearl necklace, the turkey carpets that were used to cover tables, chairs with lion’s head finials. The result is more than variations on a theme but a series of coherent compositions, each ­satisfyingly complete to itself. It was some 70 years before another painter, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, came close to touching his lyrical mastery of the hermetically enclosed domestic world.

There has been much ink spilled about whether Vermeer used optical instruments when making his paintings, in particular the camera obscura – a darkened room with a hole on one side to project a slightly blurry image upside down on the opposite wall. It was an idea first suggested by the American artist Joseph Pennell in 1891 as a way of accounting for the fact that some details in Vermeer’s pictures are in sharp focus – a ribbon in a girl’s hair, the fretboard of a lute, a piece of lace being worked – while those immediately surrounding them are blurred, the effect given by a camera obscura.

The method, if he did indeed use it – and alas, no drawings by him exist to give definitive evidence of his method – would have been of greatest help in working out tonal values and did not, for example, give a clear outline for tracing. To transmute it as a tool, the technique needed Vermeer’s skills in composing scenes, contrasting colours, and applying paint in innumerable ways, and above all his mastery of mood and light. His artistry, in other words, is undiminished.

The exhibition organisers approach Vermeer’s interest in optics through religion. The painter grew up a member of the Dutch Reformed Church but when he married Catharina, a Catholic, he may have converted. The family moved to a Catholic quarter of Delft and next door to their house was a Jesuit mission – one of Vermeer’s children was named Ignatius after the order’s founder Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits were known for their fascination with lenses, seeing them as a way better to observe divine light, and it was these clerical neighbours who may have introduced the new member of their faith to the camera obscura. Vermeer’s paintings therefore reflect both the Jesuits’ religious and scientific influence.

It is a contested view but the one overtly religious painting of his maturity, Allegory of the Catholic Faith (c1670-74), gives it credence. In it, a female figure surrounded by Catholic accoutrements and with a snake crushed by a Bible on the floor, puts her foot on a terrestrial globe while contemplating a glass sphere representing purity and the celestial realm that hangs from the ceiling. Meanwhile, two of his early works, when he was trying his hand as a biblical painter, show Catholic sympathies, Saint Praxedis (1655: a copy of an Italian painting) and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c1654).

While the Jesuit connection is a fascinating conjecture, it is of limited use in understanding the bulk of Vermeer’s works, which wear their symbolism more lightly. The various pictures of sumptuously dressed girls with pearls – an ermine-trimmed yellow satin bed gown is a regular prop – may offer lessons about the illusions of vanity, while those showing women reading or writing letters hint at the dangers of temporal love, but they were first and foremost paintings made to please.

Vermeer’s usual subjects – domestic scenes and the Dutch and Flemish genre of tronies (character heads that were less portraits than studies of expression, such as Girl With a Pearl Earring) – were also treated by successful contemporaries such as Pieter de Hooch, Gabriël Metsu and Gerrit Dou. There was a healthy market for them, although it is unclear who bought Vermeer’s paintings; the most likely patrons were a wealthy neighbouring couple, Pieter van Ruijven and Maria de Knuijt, who had known the painter for years. Their daughter inherited 20 Vermeers.

Where Vermeer surpassed other artists though was in his handling of paint and the mystery of his narratives and atmosphere. He could paint in fijnschilder – fine painter – style, meticulously reproducing detail with miniaturist accuracy, but no one equalled the softness he conjured up with dabs, liquid strokes and semi-translucent glazes that turn lips glossy and make fabrics textured and arms rounded.

Nor, even in an age when paintings were filled with emblems, could others tell stories as unobtrusively and deftly. In The Milkmaid, for example, one of the tiles that comprise the skirting board shows a miniature figure of Cupid – a tiny clue to suggest her thoughts are on the affairs of her heart rather than the contents of her jug. In Woman Writing a Letter, With Her Maid (c1670) a crumpled missive lies on the floor: it could be her first draft but a tiny spot of red next to it, a wafer of sealing wax, shows it to be a letter she has received and screwed up. Her reply, to an admirer we suspect, is, for all the calm of her demeanour, being written with passion and even anger. Behind her, her maid stares out of the window lost in thoughts of her own, the dramas of her hidden life unreadable but ripe for suggestion – though, perhaps, a hint of enjoyment at her mistress’ discomfiture plays around her lips. While in Woman Holding a Balance (c1662), a painting of the Last Judgement on the wall behind the figure as she weighs her jewels indicates the cost of earthly covetousness in the afterlife.

It is through such careful intimations, there for us to see as we peek into his rooms and the life they contain, that Vermeer gives meaning and poetry to ordinary lives. In the stillness of his paintings nothing is going on and everything is going on.

Vermeer” runs at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 4 June

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere