Don’t Move

Jeremy Noel-Tod

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
    HarperCollins, 248 pp, £5.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 00 651320 4
  • Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
    Review, 242 pp, £6.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7472 6659 X
  • A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now by Anthony Bailey
    Chatto, 288 pp, £16.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6913 3
  • Vermeer's Camera by Philip Steadman
    Oxford, 207 pp, £17.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 19 215967 4

‘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’.

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