Vermeer and the Delft Schoolby Phong Bui
In considering the whole of Vermeer’s enterprise, the scholarly emphasis has been placed upon the remarkably little that is known about his background; up to this point, Vermeer’s biography is the equivalent of a visual biography, the record of the images he left behind. By placing Vermeer’s work next to that of his contemporaries, and thus in a social context, Mr. Walter Liedtke, curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum, has cleverly fashioned an exhibition that is satisfactory to artists, scholars, and the general public alike. This is the kind of exhibition where the Metropolitan Museum is always at its best. One would call it a major event.
Those who couldn’t make it to the National Gallery in Washington to see the 20 precious Vermeers on view there in 1996 would be just as pleased to contend with four fewer Vermeers and a whole lot more—an exhibition featuring 16 of Vermeer’s paintings, along with the work of 30 artists of the Delft School. This includes numerous prints, drawings, tapestries, silvers, and ceramics. It’s incredible to see so many of Carel Fabritius’s works in one breath and two or three Pieter de Hooch courtyard scenes next to Vermeer’s "The Little Street." Although it might not be fair to contemplate de Hooch in the same light as Vermeer’s impeccable formal perfection in composition and volumetrics of light, I must confess that some of de Hooch’s pictures have a warm, endearing clumsiness, and at times a humor that Vermeer markedly lacks. Take, for instance, de Hooch’s "Dutch Courtyard," in which, in the left-hand portion of the picture, are composed two standing men as well as a sitting man and a standing woman engaged in casual conversation. The painting would be far less interesting without the awkward and extremely columnar little girl standing in complete profile to the right, the center of her figure aligned exactly to the vertical line of the building behind. This kind of penetrating charm is repeated in several other of de Hooch’s pictures. In Vermeer it’s a completely different matter.
However one wishes to analyze Vermeer, in some small measure it makes sense that in Proust’s Du Côté de Chez Swann, that the favorite painter of both Charles Swann, an aesthete, and Bergoth, a writer, is Vermeer. Wouldn’t it be a bit strange if Proust had chosen de Hooch instead of Vermeer? Mind you, I am not suggesting that de Hooch is more accessible to most people or that Vermeer’s appeal is limited to a more sophisticated audience, but nonetheless this may be where distinctive parallels have to be drawn again and again between their different attitudes toward art, science and society.
The exhibition begins with paintings and other art objects that were made 40 or 50 years before Vermeer. Since we know so little about Vermeer’s life, the general tendency of recent interpretations has been to regard Vermeer as an original artist who was independent of his social surroundings. However, seeing his work in context, one realizes that this is certainly not true, and that the world of Delft had an enormous impact on Vermeer’s art. Vermeer was quite aware of what the norm was in Delft society; he understood the sophisticated but conservative taste of his time. Although Vermeer was not a prolific painter, he was considered one of the five or six most celebrated artists on the grand tour of the Netherlands. It is, however, important to place Vermeer as one of the youngest of the third generation of the great Dutch painters of the 17th century. He came at the end of a magnificent epoch, inhibited by an outworn tradition as well as by the achievements of the school of Haarlem, where Frans Hals was working, and of Amsterdam, which was associated with Rembrandt. For this reason, it is essential to appreciate Vermeer’s lack of interest in chiaroscuro. Even though early works, like "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" and "Diana and Her Companions," resemble Utrecht’s Caravaggio-influenced style (even Carel Fabritius has been identified as one of Vermeer’s early influences), the city of Delft was different from Amsterdam. It is likely that Rembrandt’s dramatic and theatrical treatment of his subjects didn’t accommodate the conservative taste of Delft’s old-money society.
“Vermeer and the Delft School” offers works by many artists other than Vermeer, among them several lesser known figures one ought to familiarize oneself with, such as Daniel Vosmaer, Gerard Houckgeest, and Emanuel de Witte. A variety of different genres and subject matters are also represented: allegorical and history pictures, still lifes, landscapes, state portraits, church interiors, and so on. But finally, one has to ask the big and obvious question: why do Vermeer’s paintings command such strong interest in us all?
To begin with, the first European artist to recognize Vermeer’s genius was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the English painter of portraits and allegorical subjects and the founder of The Royal Academy in 1781. Then, in 1866, the French critic Theophile Thoré-Bürger, writing under the pseudonym W. Burger, single-handedly rescued Vermeer from oblivion. Real appreciation of Vermeer came near the beginning of French Impressionism, and indeed one might compare Vermeer’s use of camera obscura with the way the Impressionists used photography. After all, Vermeer’s executor was Anthony Van Leeuwenhoeck, a pioneer in the study of optics, and it is almost certain that their friendship played a part in Vermeer’s fascination with optical effects and the behavior of light. If Rembrandt is the painter who reveals the emotional depths of humanity, Vermeer is his opposite, a painter who retains a curious psychological detachment. Vermeer actually reminds me of Piero della Francesca, who was only discovered in the 20th century and whose life, like Vermeer’s, is little known. Both had a great interest in science, and perhaps their intellectual inquiries lead them to treat the figure in a way that is strangely depersonalized. In spite of their paintings’ being constructed within a rigid geometrical framework, both possessed incredible control and a rare sensibility for color, pattern, scale, and proportion.
In Vermeer’s work, the theme of the domestic interior is elevated to the level of poetry. Everyday objects and mundane activities, observed with a passionate yet detached intelligence, become timeless. Whatever pictorial means Vermeer deployed in his representation of reality, the use of camera obscura had a lot to do with his visual process. One can detect, in his early works like "The Procuress," a blurriness in the hand areas that indicates the beginning of Vermeer’s evolution. Similarly, in "Maid Asleep," this conventional genre subject is interpreted quite differently from the average, stately treatments of his contemporaries: the space is structured as a landscape painting with the table and chair in the foreground, the figure in the middle and the door opening into another interior in the background. This is a rare picture that shows Vermeer having a difficult time painting the still life on the lower left. The whole area is heavily painted, the transparency of the glass bottle is not convincing, though this is probably due to some unskilled cleaning, and the table is just like the one in a Cézanne still life—about to fall right off the bottom edge of the painting.
Another favorite Vermeer is "The Little Street." The two kneeling figures on the sidewalk are definitely the result of last minute revisions; if you look closely, you can see the previously painted sidewalk through their clothes. The greatest of the Met’s five Vermeers is "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher." One is always amazed by the brilliant blue reflection on the right of the water pitcher from the blue cloth on the table. The same is true of the reflection of the tablecloth on the front side of the desk. Both "Young Woman Seated at the Virginal" and "Young Woman Standing at the Virginal" are good examples of Vermeer’s more removed, less intimate pictures, but they are also canonical of his infallible sense of composition. On the other hand, it is delightful to see the two pictures from the National Gallery collection, "Woman with a Balance" and "Girl with a Red Hat." While the former captures the precious moment when all actions are suspended, held by the ephemeral and serene gesture of the young woman who is transfixed by the balancing of her scale, the latter, unusually lit from the right-hand side, demonstrates how the pigments seemingly fuse in a beautiful glassy medium, the flickering brushstrokes evenly carried throughout the passages of light.
Like all of Vermeer’s work, the symmetry and balance of design, proportional use of tonal relationships and his unique selection of details must have taken him long to labor over in each painting. It is a similar case with Paolo Uccello, who spent so much time studying the art of perspective that he was unable to produce many works during his lifetime. Each of Vermeer’s paintings is an extremely complex mechanism. Every square centimeter of the canvas is fully realized, every brushstroke is considered. One can understand why Vermeer’s paintings generally lack anecdote, picturesque detail, or a real concrete interpretation of life, which makes the work of his contemporaries, like de Hooch or Jan Steen, so ordinarily human, so accessible. To some of us, Vermeer is like a sociologist and an alchemist who happens to paint as well. This is what separates him from the rest of the Dutch artists. Even though Vermeer’s field of vision is limited, he brings painting to some of its highest moments within the confines of pictorial perfection. Again, seeing Vermeer reminds one of Proust—the idea of time being atmospheric, fleeting and instantaneous at the same time. It’s a certain kind of lightness that is diving and uplifting.