February 10–June 4, 2023
Many a traveler has journeyed just to see paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Thus obsessed, the French art critic Théopile Thoré revived interest in this nearly forgotten Dutch artist in 1866, nicknaming him the “Sphinx of Delft.” No one has yet definitively determined how the apparently self-trained genre painter rendered the ordinary so extraordinary, but curators and scientists at the Rijksmuseum, in collaboration with the Mauritshuis in The Hague, now confront the Sphinx anew. For this exhibition, Vermeer, they’ve assembled from seven countries, twenty-eight of the thirty-five Vermeer paintings known to exist. Their efforts, intensely researched archivally, art historically and technologically, bring us closer than we’ve ever been to answering the biggest riddle of all: What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?
To find out, first follow the dots; that is, the sea of light spots animating the painting View of Delft (ca. 1660-61), which depicts the prosperous city where Vermeer lived with his wife Catharina Bolnes, and sired fifteen children. He welcomes us from a vantage point on the southern bank of Kolk Harbor, dazzling our eyes with punctiform lights bouncing off a pair of herring boats quietly docked across the water. Follow them upward, to the distant rise of New Church’s golden tower, and they evaporate into the cool blue sky dominating the cityscape. From there, diffused light casts soft reflections of Delft’s many steeples and rooftops into the calm waters ebbing along the shoreline where we stand. But why, on this otherwise crisp sunny day, does Vermeer render dark and brooding the largest of several buoyant cumulus clouds floating above this vibrant city? Does he allude to ongoing religious divisiveness, international wars and conspiracies, or the devastating plagues ravaging Europe? That this all resonates with our contemporary world underscores the timelessness of a Vermeer.
Most of Vermeer’s three-dimensionally constructed interiors feature women alone, with a maid servant, or with a visiting male suitor—protagonists playing out their roles in typical period rooms bathed in light and filled with familiar objects, including musical instruments, letters, and maps. Each item conveys a visual phrase in some unfinished story. In Young Woman with a Lute, (ca. 1662–64), the woman in question gazes out the window in ardent anticipation of a visitor, the lute in her hands a symbol of love and harmony. In Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1670–72) she weighs her gold, a painting of the Last Judgment hanging on the wall behind her. In The Love Letter (ca. 1669–70), a maid delivering a letter interrupts her mistress as she plays her lute, the seascape on the back wall alluding to an absent loved one. Vermeer used these props to metaphorically distill life’s uncertainties, connecting familiar interiors with a widening commercial universe, conflating inner thoughts with outward appearances, and summoning Christ and Cupid, overseers of the sacred and the profane.
Astonishingly, Vermeer painted Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (ca. 1657–58), one of his first interior genre scenes, only a year or so after completing Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (ca. 1654–55), and Diana and her Nymphs (ca. 1655–56), competent but uninspired traditional and mythological themes rendered in shallow space. When I asked Gregor J.M. Weber, exhibition co-curator, to explain this startling shift in style and subject, he noted that “the transitional moment occurred when Vermeer met and likely learned perspective from Pieter de Hooch, a popular and successful painter of genre scenes.” Weber pointed to a visible pinprick in the Milkmaid (ca. 1658–59), located just above her pouring arm, marking the spot where Vermeer attached orthogonal strings to plot a perspective grid, a technique used by Renaissance artists to credibly replicate three-dimensional space on a flat surface. With perspective mastered, Vermeer, a converted Catholic living in a Calvinist land, proceeded to devise his own means of conveying a spiritual message in the visual language of Dutch Baroque style.
In his insightful new book, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, Weber delves deep into Vermeer’s experiments with light, particularly his fascination with optics, lenses, and the camera obscura, a darkened room or box with a tiny hole which allows light to project an outside image on its interior back wall. Like other artists of his time, Vermeer likely used this device as he did perspective, a study tool for rendering lifelike scenes. But Weber’s discussion of the camera obscura in the devotional literature of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Order is fresh. These clerics, friends and neighbors of the Vermeer family, considered the camera obscura’s optical phenomenon as proof of divine light. This revelation likely set Vermeer’s imagination ablaze because it suggested the possibility of color as light—a mystical pencil of sorts—to merge temporal and metaphysical worlds.
The idea is crystal clear in Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670–72), a contrived composition on the one hand, but alternatively, a declaration of Vermeer’s independent impulse to manipulate optical phenomena to suit his thematic intentions. It features an idealized female figure symbolizing Christian faith gazing towards a glass orb suspended from the ceiling. This sphere, afloat like a bubble pervaded by pure light, “magically” captures within its void fragments of real life, fleeting moments of time.
Vermeer created a “Vermeer” through a meticulous process that transcribed color as optical light, a technique that exquisitely rendered eternal the ephemeral moment. Consider the Milkmaid, neither classically beautiful nor elegantly dressed. She’s a servant making bread pudding in a scruffy work kitchen. But Vermeer accords her a monumental, goddess-like presence: first by positioning the viewer’s vantage point from a sitting position, looking up; and then by working his magic with light. High-tech scans reveal how Vermeer began this painting with surprisingly slapdash under-drawings, roughed in more to block in areas of modulated light than to define specific objects. New technology also reveals how Vermeer experimented with optical effects and often changed his mind, not to replicate a camera-like image, but to reimagine reality as something more divine, an illusionist world abiding its own sense of light and space. He thus sprinkles his familiar points of light over crusty bread. We taste the crunch. Sharp, trompe-l’oeil nails protrude from the wall. These small but striking details, ordinarily seen in one’s peripheral vision, contrast with the patches of light revealing the milkmaid’s handsome features, which Vermeer deliberately rendered slightly out of focus. This brilliant strategy bathes the milkmaid in a “bubble” of colored light, an aura of mystery: we cannot know her by outward appearances.
These are but a few of the ways Vermeer immersed his subjects within timeless, serene settings where, distanced from a world awhirl in conflict, they experience inner peace. And the viewer, in the quietude of Vermeer’s space, can share that sense of peace. So, stay an extra moment with the Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1664–67). Lock eyes with her and the gaze holds from whatever angle you view this daunting masterpiece. But is her head turned toward you, or about to turn away? Her lips are moist and parted. Is she speaking to you, or has she said her piece? A shot of light exploding within her large, dangling pearl earring keeps us guessing. Will she be gone in a flash, or with us for an eternity? asks the Sphinx.