View of Delft
It is a truism of responses to the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s life and works that what very little we know about the life stands in inverse relationship to how intimately we relate to the work. This is only one of many contrasts that shape our perception of the artist. His younger compatriot Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) may have been a reluctant correspondent – only seven autograph letters survive – but hundreds of extant paintings, drawings and etchings, and the legacy of pupils and assistants bear eloquent witness to Rembrandt’s artistic ways and means. Archival records and an extensive record of published responses to Rembrandt, going back to 1629, when he was in his twenties, enable scholars to trace connections between compositions in various media and the events in his life. When we engage with the magisterial paintings Rembrandt produced in the final decade of his life, for example, our empathy is stirred by knowledge of his bankruptcy in 1656, his complicated personal life, and the decline in favour he suffered. Johannes Vermeer’s surviving oeuvre, by contrast, consists of three dozen paintings but not a single drawing, letter or other autograph testimony to the process of making what are widely celebrated as works of timeless, universal appeal.
At the time of his rediscovery in the late nineteenth century Vermeer was dubbed the “Sphinx of Delft”. The sobriquet has stuck, in spite of what assiduous archival research has turned up. Vermeer was baptized in the Protestant Nieuwe Kerk in Delft in 1632 and buried in the Catholic Oude Kerk of Delft in December 1675. By connecting these and other data points scholars have reconstructed an impressive account of Vermeer’s world – if not of the relationship between the facts of his life and the how and why of his works. J. Michael Montias’s Vermeer and his Milieu: A web of social history (1989) altered the course of Vermeer studies by introducing a cast of characters, including his Catholic mother-in-law, and a sea of facts about them. We know that the painter’s forefathers were involved in a counterfeiting scandal, for example; and that he, like his father before him, sold art. We know that at the time of Vermeer’s death, ten of the fifteen children his wife bore were still living in their home; one had left home already and four did not survive infancy. But whereas the subjects of many of Rembrandt’s works are identifiable citizens of Amsterdam, or friends, lovers and relations, we cannot say with certainty whom Vermeer painted even though, thanks to Montias and others, we know who figured in his family life.
Publications of archival documents and other sources notwithstanding, mysteries continue to surround Vermeer’s artistic career. Who was his master? Did he have any pupils? What caused his death, at the age of forty-three, leaving behind paintings of his own and others he may have been selling, no drawings, a house full of children, and huge debts? Did he rely on a camera obscura, or other novel optical devices, to compose his paintings? These unanswered questions do not prevent wondering admiration for his work, however. When its home, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, was under renovation recently, the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” travelled the world. On exhibit in Japan in 2013, it drew over a million visitors. The “Mona Lisa of the North” is as widely known, and often viewed, as it is reticent as regards the conditions of her creation or raison d’être. A student once described his encounter with the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” as tantamount to meeting the love of his life and forgetting to ask her name. She is as engaged with our seeing her as she is absolutely oblivious to it, and in this sense she is an appropriate emblem for Vermeer’s work as a whole: what we know, and what we think is familiar, is forever vexed by its remaining unknowable and inaccessible.
Posed already in the late nineteenth century, the question of whether or to what degree Vermeer depended on such optical devices as a camera obscura in his studio has recently been the focus of intense speculation. His many ladies in light, caught in the act of doing nothing particularly dramatic – donning a pearl necklace, pouring milk, writing, reading or dozing at a table – are so many portraits of moments in time. His paintings are characterized by thick silence, keen attention to the qualities of light, and optical phenomena that are symptomatic of the use of viewing lenses. Indeed, the absence of any narrative flexion whatsoever in so many of his paintings encourages studying them as renderings of conditions of light and spatial configurations – taking them at face value, as it were, seeking clues to how they were made rather than, for example, why. There is so little documentary evidence to go on that the paintings themselves serve as (mute) testimony to speculation about them....MORE