‘The nearest approach to this,’ I said, ‘would be a Vermeer.’
Yes, a Vermeer. For that mysterious artist was trebly gifted – with the vision that perceives the Dharma-Body as the hedge at the bottom of the garden, with the talent to render as much of that vision as the limitations of human capacity admit, and with the prudence to confine himself in his paintings to the more manageable aspects of reality.
Aldous Huxley’s suggestion, in The Doors of Perception, that to take mescalin is to see the world as Vermeer saw it is typical of the painter’s canonisation in the 20th century. Pater’s Romantic flight of fancy established da Vinci as an artistic visionary for late 19th-century aesthetes: the modern Impressionist turns to Vermeer. In Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater remarks of ‘Lady Lisa’ that she is ‘older than the rocks among which she sits’; Ciaran Carson (Fishing for Amber, 1999) feels that the 17th-century Dutch walls in Vermeer’s paintings are ‘as old as Egypt’.
As a man Vermeer is little more to us than a signature. There is virtually no evidence for his artistic training, his character, or even his appearance, and his modest oeuvre – 35 canvases, not counting a couple of debatably attributed pieces – was unknown to the international public until Théophile Thoré, a French critic, began to collect and promote it in the mid-1860s. It offered a new version of the homely Dutch art invoked by mid-19th-century novelists such as George Eliot, who made her famous defence of ‘vulgar’ realism in Adam Bede. The pictures Eliot had in mind are probably by Breughel, or Pieter de Hooch, with their omniscient narrator’s eye for errant children and dogs. The richly coloured solitude of Vermeer’s interiors (and two exteriors) – described by André Malraux as the work of an artist ‘tiring of the anecdote’ and rejecting ‘the myth of narrative action’ – were more to the taste of the novelists who came later, shifting the emphasis of their art from the history of a social group to the momentary experience of the individual.
Feeling for an art-historical analogy for this shift, Van Gogh wrote to his brother in 1888 that he considered Maupassant to be to Zola what Vermeer (in his ‘rarely encountered pictures’) was to Rembrandt. By 1921, Proust was working an autobiographical encounter with one of the 35 canvases into the penultimate volume of A la recherche du temps perdu. Bergotte, the writer, collapses in front of Vermeer’s only townscape, View of Delft, on show at the Jeu de Paume. ‘I should have used more colour,’ he reflects about his own work, before dying on the gallery floor. Joyce, a writer with little interest in the visual arts, had a reproduction of the same painting hanging above his mantelpiece, the one picture in his flat which was not a family portrait. The obsessive curator of an ordinary day in Dublin seems to have admired the picture mainly because it was a meticulous portrait of a city. The autobiographical invisibility of the painter would also have had its appeal: Proust spoke of him as ‘an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer’. He came close to the ideal cherished by Flaubert, and Joyce, of the impersonal perfectionist, the artist as God of creation, ‘invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his finger nails’. In 1934 Paul Claudel was celebrating ‘a pure gaze, bare, sterilised, washed of all substance, of an ingenuousness in some ways mathematical or angelic’.
The fictional re-creations of Vermeer’s private life – elusive in much the same way as Shakespeare’s – by Tracey Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland in the latter part of Girl in Hyacinth Blue incline to a more sentimental view of the painter. Both are descendants of what George Eliot called (in her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’) ‘the modern-antique species, which unfolds to us the domestic life of Jannes and Jambres, the private love affairs of Sennacherib, or the mental struggles and ultimate conversion of Demetrius the silversmith’. The problem with the genre, Eliot complains, is its casual projection of a modern author’s ‘feeble sentimentality’ onto the alien past. The heroes and heroines are sensitive souls whose unappreciated sufferings could only be relieved by metempsychosis. Vreeland’s Vermeer is a cut above the other Delft craftsmen, ‘all apparently content at their anvils and tubs and benches. He felt no affinity with any of them.’ Chevalier implicitly contrasts her refined genius with a butcher’s son, who crudely woos Vermeer’s housemaid, Griet (also the narrator). Both books imagine the painter as a creative exile in his own house, working privately in his studio, his long-gestated pictures paralleling his wife’s successive pregnancies.
In Chevalier’s version, a narrative reminiscent of Jane Eyre develops: moody master takes sensitive serving girl into his trust, for erotically charged paint-grinding sessions. He recognises her humble beauty – and we recognise his status as inspired artist – when he chances on her cleaning the window panes of his studio: ‘Stop … Don’t move.’ Eventually, at the request of his lecherous patron, he paints her wearing his wife’s pearl earrings, later bequeathing them to her in his will. The book is told mostly in brittle, sub-Brontean, first-person preterite: ‘I did not know what he would ask that I would want to say no to, but none the less I did not like the position I had come to be in.’ Other characters add stock historical flavouring: ‘Lord love us,’ ‘She is with child’ and so on. Griet, terrified to move anything in the studio at first, acquires enough confidence in her own judgment actually to contribute to the composition of Lady Writing a Letter: ‘There must be some disorder in the scene, to contrast with her tranquillity,’ she explains to the grateful artist (cf Eliot on the typical heroine: ‘her superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men only have to set their clocks and all will go well.’)
Vreeland’s variation is to imagine a lost painting, a picture of Vermeer’s daughter, Magdalena, dressed in the colour of the novel’s title. Successive chapters follow it from modern day rediscovery back to initial inspiration, then forward into the life of Magdalena who, like Griet, is thwarted by her chauvinist times: ‘All of it is ordinary to everyone but me, she thought.’
The distinction between a novelist’s Vermeer and a biographer’s Vermeer is not immediately obvious. The would-be biographer is in a similar situation to Chevalier’s newly-appointed maid: ‘I saw nothing to indicate that he had been there at all. Nothing had been moved, the palettes were clean, the painting itself appeared no different. But I could feel that he had been there.’ And so the human space attested to by signed legal documents and canvases must be filled with intuitive assertion. Anthony Bailey’s clever choice of title allows his book to expand into a portrait of Vermeer’s environment. Mixed in with much pedestrian scene-setting – ‘the Catholic faith was sneered at by diehard Protestants as “Romish superstition”’ – there are some interesting facts. The information, for example, that Vermeer’s girl’s huge pearl earrings are probably fakes, ‘thin spheres of glass’ filled with a preparation made from ‘the silvery scales of a river fish’ – which rather undermines Chevalier’s climactic scene, in which they are sold to a man who bites them to test their authenticity.
Inevitably, Bailey often has to take matters into his own hands. At its most fanciful this means resorting to biology – Vermeer’s maternal grandfather was accused of forgery, therefore ‘the skills of deception were in his genes’ – but mostly it is presented as hopeful speculation: ‘he must have’, ‘it was impossible not to’ etc. The nature of Vermeer’s sexual appetite is fleshed out in several coy asides: ‘for all his well-demonstrated ability to get Catharina pregnant, Vermeer showed no great desire to paint children’; a cradle and a table for grinding paint on, listed in an inventory, are symbolic of ‘the two forms of production in which Vermeer was involved’; ‘the red dress worn by the Girl Being Offered Wine clearly excited him. (The result was art, otherwise one might have said it sexually excited him.)’
This odd distinction is typical of the reluctance of all three authors to allow Vermeer to be less than two parts saint to one part man. They hope that he was a politically advanced, sexually chaste human being. Bailey imagines him a family man, noting that his firstborn child was ‘dutifully or lovingly’ named Maria, after his mother-in-law, and believing the subject of Woman Writing a Letter to be his wife (‘This is she’). Chevalier’s more tortured artist never paints his wife, but always maintains a purely aesthetic relationship with his other models. Vreeland whimsically speculates that he decorated a cradle with a trial-run for View of Delft. Vermeer’s ‘loving’ nature must be inferred from the tender quality of the paintings, however, as there is evidence only of his sense of duty: witnessing legal business, acting as an adjudicator on art forgeries at The Hague, serving on the Delft craftsman’s guild.
The quality which seems to connect Vermeer the man and Vermeer the artist is an unusual tact. Here, the absence of any distinctive personal detail may constitute the evidence. Chevalier and Bailey agree that the Protestant-born Vermeer must have been a very diplomatic personality to share a house with his Catholic mother-in-law, a tough old widow who was estranged from her son and refused at first to approve her daughter’s marriage. In the case of the pictures, X-ray analysis of what Vermeer painted out has suggested a temperamental aversion to busy or obvious art. The visual silence of the white wall behind Woman with a Pearl Necklace, where originally there was a map, is an arresting compositional decision: the golden woman’s gaze, and the mirror’s reflection, meet invisibly in the great patch of pale light spreading from the window towards her. At first, Woman Weighing Pearls seems to offer a more moralistic scene. Behind the woman is a picture of the Last Judgment: earthly vanity forgets its fate. Closer inspection, however, shows that the scales are actually empty. Her serenity is suddenly mystic, Marian, a vision of peace opposed to the scene of anguished souls in the background.
Yet it is a mistake to extrapolate a saint from thirty-odd depictions of heaven on earth (‘what peace desired of man,’ Mario Praz remarked, ‘has ever held greater enchantment than that which breathes from Vermeer’s interiors?’). Vermeer’s genius lies partly in his subtle variations on stock scenarios: as Bailey points out, he frequently ‘showed no originality in his choice of subject matter’, quite deliberately lifting scenes and arrangements from contemporaries. Here again, he resembles Shakespeare; what evidence there is suggests that, far from being an inspired innocent, he was a shrewd operator in terms of financial credit and artistic debt. The circumstances of Vermeer’s death, like Shakespeare’s, are clearly problematic for hagiographers. According to his widow’s statement to a court, he died (aged 43) after a sudden lapse into ‘decay and decadence’, apparently brought on by money worries.
Psychobiography and its many assumptions coarsen interpretation. Bailey is genially sceptical about John Nash’s reading of the eye-catching threads in the foreground of The Lacemaker as the ‘blood red and milk white spilling from the womb that precede the birth of a child’: ‘Even if we think the painter chose red and white for purely painterly reasons, this picture can be seen as Vermeer’s final tribute to Catherina as the mother of his children.’ But why not place ‘purely painterly reasons’ at the centre of our understanding of a picture? The visual illusion of loose cotton threads is created by a little area of Jackson Pollocky loops and skeins of paint: the artistry of the lacemaker is associated with that of the painter, giving form to material flux (there’s also the fine thread of milk poured by the milkmaid). The Art of Painting, on the other hand, its model laden with unwieldy symbolic props, argues for the vitality of disorder: the better painter shows the imperfection that undermines our neat abstractions, the discarded props on the lesser painter’s work table. A rare outdoor scene, The Little Street, seems to tease us about the illusion of perspective, emphasising the painting’s existence as an arrangement of shapes on a flat plane. The woman bending down to a barrel halfway along an alley, framed in the doorway, is reminiscent of one of Vermeer’s beloved pictures-within-a-picture, an eye-catching evocation of depth placed among a flat patchwork of walls, windows and shutters.
Philip Steadman’s short, lucid, exemplary book offers an explanation for Vermeer’s ‘perplexing and paradoxical quality: a perfect perspectival illusion of depth coexisting with an effect of surface flatness which can suggest mosaic or marquetry’. His title nicely puns on his main thesis: that Vermeer used a camera obscura. This theory isn’t new, but Steadman attempts to prove it indisputably, by offering geometrical evidence derived from ‘the only available source of information’ – the paintings. If Vermeer was painting a real room, it should be possible to re-create that room as a furnished scale model. The method then is essentially simple: if a camera lens positioned at the theoretical viewing point of a given composition reproduces the perspective geometry of that composition as painted by Vermeer, a strong case can be made against reliance on the naked eye. Furthermore, the size of the image projected by the lens on the posited back wall of the room can also be discovered; in at least half a dozen cases, Steadman finds, this image is precisely the same size as the final canvas. Steadman is conscientiously scientific in his method and sophisticated in his logical unpicking of other writers’ romantic assumptions about the working artist. He speaks with the authority of a practised draughtsman, and on his first page dismisses the ‘old and – one might have thought – long-since settled controversies about whether photography can be an art’. Such a device, far from being a technical shortcut, must have put Vermeer to great pains – including working in near darkness during the initial stages of a painting. And however much it helped him to obtain precise outlines of the elements of his scene, no camera could have mixed his intense and subtle colours for him.
The portrait of Vermeer that emerges would have satisfied Joyce and Proust. Chevalier’s Vermeer uses an elegantly portable camera, and Vreeland’s doesn’t use one at all, but Steadman posits a camera that was literally a little room, enclosing a space big enough for Vermeer to sit and work in. As he marked in the areas of light and shade (another curious finding of modern analysis is that there are no dark underlying compositional lines on the canvases), he may well have been working with an image inverted by the lens, further abstracting the human scene. He is revealed, like Joyce with his maps of Dublin, as an ‘unnecessary’ perfectionist: where his contemporary de Hooch improvised the painting in of floor tiles (they don’t quite match up if the figures which obscure a given area are removed), Vermeer reproduced the underlying grid precisely – ‘not that this is at all important to the way we read the pictures,’ Steadman comments.
It is interesting that the rediscovery of Vermeer coincided with the advent of photography. It has given critics a useful point of comparison. Kenneth Clark described View of Delft as ‘the nearest … painting has ever come to a coloured photograph’. But, as photorealist painters such as Gerhard Richter have sought to demonstrate (in Richter’s case, with compositions artfully reminiscent of Vermeer’s portraits), photographs are not neutrally accurate, but involve their own distortions. Huxley’s mescalin comparison implies just this: art reminds us of the ways in which we don’t see the world. Steadman points out that the modern viewer, ‘accustomed to foreground objects appearing very large in snapshots’, may not be as surprised by Vermeer’s compositions as his contemporaries were.
But ultimately it is not mechanical accuracy of reproduction which moves us. In his late poem ‘Epilogue’, Robert Lowell lamented the way
sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralysed by fact.
He advises the artist to
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
Accuracy of visual detail is one thing, but accuracy of emotion – to render a girl ‘solid with yearning’ – is a further, finer art. Philip Steadman wisely keeps analysis of the one and the other separate, respecting the reticent spirit of the artist who in The Music Lesson teases us with a glimpse of an easel’s foot in a mirror, but no human foot beside it. Assessing the small discrepancies of the originals compared to his reconstructions – ‘why is there such a brightly lit patch of wall below the sill of this window?’ – he concludes candidly: ‘I have no answers to these questions.’ Vermeer might have said the same.