Rijksmuseum, until 4 June 2023Show More
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In London​ , I had taken A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal for a dependable rest point on strolls around the National Gallery. In Amsterdam, relocated to join 27 other Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum exhibition, its strangeness re-emerged. This canvas, executed towards the end of Vermeer’s relatively brief career (some four years, perhaps, before he died aged 43 in 1675), commits to a tactic he had earlier only toyed with: to set an internal picture as a wholly self-contained block within his own composition, uninterrupted by foreground forms. Thus we see a rectangular firewall of gilt mouldings isolating a bucolic vista from the surrounding whitewash. The landscape is distanced – a hillside looked down on, its little farmsteads mere softened blurs. It has company, however. The scene’s contents reappear, foreshortened, with an additional repoussoir of trees, on the virginal’s inner lid.

Flanked by the cousin elsewheres, the musician hovers, her figure surmounted by a head so softly modelled it seems half to vanish. A reticent, ungrinning Cheshire cat, she awaits our cue to start playing. A light-hearted thought bubble is offered in the form of the Cupid who bestrides the dark internal rectangle behind her. But the card he holds up is empty. Blankness is the bedrock of this pictorial world. Nothing could be more positive than that clean, firm whitewashed wall. Creamy dabs and droplets, heavy with bright lead carbonate, have come down here and there on the more convoluted surfaces, on the gilt frame and the musician’s satin skirts. But the flat planes are immutable blocks of tone and no mark suggests that their outlines could alter. What are we to know of the objects to which they belong? Only their interactions with light.

This – cool, bemusing, faintly sardonic – is extreme Vermeer, an artist embracing his own waywardness. Scholars have reached, with some reason, for the word ‘abstraction’ to characterise his later work. The chequerboarding and invitations to play visual hopscotch align this composition not only with various other 17th-century Dutch genre pieces but inevitably with De Stijl; while in its companion piece, the National Gallery’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, the marbling on the instrument case offers Vermeer the opportunity to take off into free-form gestural brushwork. And yet the possibility of content continues to nag at these canvases. Beyond these walls lie actual hillsides and geographies. To every arrested figure there might belong a heart, the thought bubble could activate, the melody start unfurling.

‘A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’ (c.1670-72)

Bodies have insides. Pregnancy is the agenda in the Vermeer painting I find most affecting, the Rijksmuseum’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. In this canvas, painted several years before the virginals and with a terser palette and decor, the same foreground chair with its deep blue covering separates the viewer – whose self-consciousness Vermeer rarely allows us to forget – from a letter-reader standing in profile, her head and shoulder picked out against a wall-hung map of the Dutch counties. All our curiosity – about the message she studies so intently, about the child she is so big with – is channelled into a rush of emotion by the searing ultramarines of her bulked-out jacket. Ignorance so acutely addressed becomes a kind of bliss. In paintings such as this, or the Rijksmuseum’s Milkmaid, or Woman with a Pearl Necklace from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, or indeed the Mauritshuis’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer pits this economy of cues against a huge dangling weight of compassion. Few visitors to the exhibition will come away short-changed.

But I wonder how we got here. How is it that Vermeer’s paintings now strut the world stage, having skulked for two centuries in the wings? And I wonder where Vermeer himself thought he was heading. What sense can we make of the directions in which he chose to take his work? Answers to my first question might be partly circumstantial – vagaries of circulation not affording, throughout the 18th century and beyond, an art-world opening to the limited output of a small-town master. But we might consider the way that strategies shared by some of his contemporaries were pushed harder by Vermeer. The formalism of pieces such as A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal – the balancing, at once exact and faintly mischievous, of orthogonal blocks within the canvas’s rectangle – complements the cropping pursued elsewhere: for instance, in Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Lacemaker or the two more or less centreless townscapes, View of Delft and The Little Street. Both assert the artist as self-aware selector of optical information, subjecting the observed world to his dictates. Just as that assertion flatters modern sensibilities, it must have exasperated those with classical allegiances.

Kenneth Clark spoke for the other aspect of Vermeer’s reception history when he praised View of Delft as ‘the nearest which painting has ever come to a coloured photograph’. Can it be a coincidence that Vermeer’s rise to prominence occurred in the later 19th century, after eyes had become attuned to daguerreotypes? His art seems to record appearance as tonally as a photosensitive sheet, with as little reliance on contours, and the question of how much he relied on lens technologies has been a constant of subsequent scholarship. Many argue that his pointillés – his dewdrops of bright paint – derive from effects seen in a camera obscura’s projected image. Some compare them to pixels. Again, though, we might remember the weirdness. Oil painting relies on brushes, which are liable to generate lines and dynamism. To eschew those possibilities would long have seemed perverse.

But time proved kind. The pictures foretell visual habits we happen since to have acquired, and they reproduce attractively. Persuaded, we head for the Rijksmuseum – only to discover how different in fact they are from photographs. There in the opening gallery stands View of Delft, and there in its middle band – the town buildings sandwiched between thin air and yielding water – the oils are caked and burly. Gritty earth-colour gouts lay down the masonries of brick, mortar, slate and limestone. Facing Vermeer’s home town, we encounter the tension posed by his single-figure interiors: between the concrete fact and its not-hereness. This is the testament of an insider who needs to stand outside, who requires a far bank from which to grasp his own city’s substance. The morning river may be still and the figures on its foreshore few, small and faceless, yet there is a zeal to the gunky highlights that stud the sunlit roofs, a kind of staccato fury.

I turn from these notes of mine to the actual sentences with which Vermeer was first commended to a wider public in 1866. Like the Rijksmuseum’s curators, the French critic Théophile Thoré began with View of Delft. While the tone of the water reminded him of Philips Koninck’s landscapes, ‘the glare of the light, the intensity of the colour, the solidity of the impasto in certain sections, the highly real yet highly original effect’ – all these, he wrote, had ‘something of Rembrandt’. I find that it was not photography that contextualised the hitherto unfamiliar achievement, but rather the art which Vermeer himself could have seen: and I prefer this approach of Thoré’s to that which yokes Vermeer to technologies to come. The Delftenaar born in 1632 would have known his way around contemporary painting because, like his innkeeper father before him, he kept up a line in buying and selling it. Marriage at twenty into a Catholic family with connections to the Caravaggist painters of Utrecht must have expanded his awareness of the many stylistic effects on offer. If we jump, for now, to the groove into which he settled four or so years later, we see that both Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, his then colleague in Delft, were attentive to the subtly nuanced modern-life scenes devised by their Deventer-based senior, Gerard ter Borch. Ter Borch’s version of so called ‘genre’ was an engaging guessing game – ‘What, viewer, is the story here?’ – devised in cahoots with family members who served as models, the satin and lace they donned for their roles contributing to the glamour. Employing wildly expensive pigments (notably ultramarine) as mainstays of their palettes, the painters of this 1650s vogue were themselves plunging deep into the fantasia – a sustainable addiction, so long as patrons could be found.

For his part, Vermeer secured backing from a former neighbour whose marriage to a rich man allowed her to offer him sister-like support. The purchases made by Maria de Knuijt and her husband, Pieter van Ruijven, gave some licence to an artist with high ambitions but little career strategy. They allowed him to dream up compositions that, like Ter Borch’s, co-opted household support. The grave profile of Woman in Blue repeats that of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window – painted six years earlier and loaned to the show from Dresden. That pregnant woman can hardly be other than Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes. Of their eleven children, the eldest, Maria, is probably the teenager who posed for Girl with a Pearl Earring, if we are to judge from its pivoting of tension and tenderness, of ‘yours’ and ‘not yours’. The same window light of an upstairs studio shines on both, and on the National Gallery’s virginal-player. The scene is given some superficial tweaks – shutters up or down, posh furniture hauled in and out, drapes twitched and wall hangings switched.

Vermeer’s ambition is evident in his provocative twists on the Ter Borch template. The Dresden Girl Reading pits its subject not only against the framed Cupid to be found in the Virginals but against her own reflection in the windowpanes and a trompe-l’oeil curtain drawn back and hooked to the canvas top. The panes themselves are among multiple flash features of The Glass of Wine from Berlin, a mildly comic gallant-and-juffrouw piece also dating from Vermeer’s later twenties – their radiant and inscrutable patchwork of stained-glass fragments obsessively itemised along with a Persian carpet, a foreshortened cittern and the scarlet satin dress of the young woman plied with drink. Although Ter Borch possessed a nimbler wit and De Hooch a more roving eye (his comparable scenes peer through and beyond the windows and doors), Vermeer had the steadiest curiosity. The impulse that revealed itself in these analyses of appearances – one to which the camera obscura served as a part-time adjunct – was to hold the act of seeing in suspense, to stand back from looking, as it were, to scrutinise whatever arrays of light were being presented. Hence the disconcerting distortions in another early Vermeer, the Frick’s Officer and Laughing Girl; hence the fastidious discrimination of the various hues of shadow that windows cast on walls.

‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter’ (c.1663–64)

Vermeer found a strong distinctive voice well before 1660. To follow the track he took thereafter, a visitor to the exhibition would need to go against its layout. Some reasons for the adopted policy are sound. A thematic rather than chronological hang makes congenial sense in the galleries. When followed in the catalogue, however, it frustrates anyone who seeks plain information and who must instead trawl through assorted discursive essays.* Exhibit-by-exhibit entries in the old-fashioned manner would have offered Pieter Roelofs and Gregor Weber a forum in which to justify their guesses as to the sequence of studio production.

Only five of the 37 pictures they assign to Vermeer bear autograph dates; and, confusingly, in some cases their attributions fall apart on the walls. Whatever feel I have for painters’ facture tells me that while Girl Interrupted at Her Music from the Frick and a tiny Young Woman Seated at a Virginal from another New York collection nod to Vermeer’s manner and technique, they are decisively less accomplished in their handiwork. In the case of Girl with a Flute from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, an internal conservators’ report confirms such doubts. I see more arguments for than against Benjamin Binstock’s hypothesis that these are cases in which young Maria Vermeer was at work as her father’s studio apprentice. Binstock’s bolder assertion that the Frick has another of Maria’s pieces in the larger and more sophisticated Mistress and Maid might account for that painting’s singular dramatic instability and peculiar modelling. But when it comes to Binstock’s boldest claim – that Girl with the Red Hat, companion to Girl with a Flute in Washington but far superior in its technical pizzazz, constitutes Maria’s self-portrait riposte to her father’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – I hesitate. Is it merely suspect notions of ‘mastery’ that hold me back?

A greater frustration to interpreting Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum is that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna proved unwilling – or unable – to lend The Art of Painting. We might have seen the artist who thought not only about women, rooms and his home town, but also about their porousness to the worlds of knowledge beyond. As it was, a rather more modest canvas, The Geographer, presenting the show’s only lone male, stands in for those ambitions. The Art of Painting is one of Vermeer’s two ‘Look, here is what I can do’ declarations, the other being View of Delft. But just how Vermeer conceived the overall project they seem to crown, with what intentions he moved on from those peaks; how much indeed such a project existed in his own eyes (but then, it seems that he gave The Art of Painting its title): these questions must remain open.

Perhaps infrared images of The Milkmaid – a relatively early landmark – tell us something. They show cluttered shelves behind the serving woman, which were afterwards smoothed out to leave a bare wall. To isolate in this way the central mystery of the milk jug’s dark mouth, its dazzling descending trickle, was a potent decision. The desire to reduce information recurs in the run of pieces that followed, including the Pearl girls and Woman in Blue. So much so that their burdens of affection – ‘my daughter’, ‘my wife’ – are levered by near scepticism: ‘that figure, whoever she may be’. Lawrence Gowing expanded on this in his 1950 monograph on Vermeer. He characterised Vermeer’s stepping back from looking – his refusal to integrate the eye’s experience with the hand’s so as to picture the world in terms of body outlines – as a mode of ‘perpetual withdrawal’. His disinclination, in Gowing’s account, to disturb his female model’s privacy demonstrates spiritual nobility, a transmutation of ‘the attention that man pays to woman’ – a familiar topic for genre scenes – into a ‘detachment’ that constitutes ‘a quality of love’. Whether the subject is Catharina, Maria or the maid with the milk, ‘she remains outside him, essentially and perfectly other than he.’

All that the painter himself comes away with, therefore, is variegated light. Or in material terms, patterns of oily pigment, of lead carbonate suspended in slippery gels that alight almost weightlessly on the underpainting. With this whiteness – with, indeed, the blankness of a room’s far wall – Vermeer’s intentions head where words struggle to follow. Gregor Weber suggests a theological gloss. Having married into a Catholic family, Vermeer may have engaged with Jesuit clerics in Delft who discussed ‘the workings of light as a metaphor for God’ and who invoked the camera obscura as a model for the human eye. We could dream of building on that, plotting where love and light intersect or casting the milkmaid as a mythic creatrix. The unhappy limitation is that the one explicitly religious painting of Vermeer’s maturity was a disaster. Everything went wrong in Allegory of the Catholic Faith. He took a clear dislike to the model he had recruited to personify the Church, and she to him, I conjecture: it must be because she left off the sittings that he made such a hash of her draperies. To compensate, he paraded some stylisms, but the pixelations of the foreground curtain are mechanically inane. A squashed symbolical serpent drooling blood on the floor caps the screaming discordance.

The Allegory, even larger than View of Delft or The Art of Painting, is reckoned to date from Vermeer’s final years, a period during which a French invasion ruined the Dutch economy and, with it, his livelihood. ‘Because of this and the very onerous burden of childcare, while he had no assets of his own, he had lapsed into such degradation and confusion, which affected him so deeply, that he, as though struck by total confusion, had gone from healthy to dead in a day and a half.’ This is Catharina’s account, in a petition for state support, of the woes of 1675. The Rijksmuseum’s galleries do not form a one-way street, however, so rather than exit at the story’s sad end I turned to an only half-declared religious painting, and from there to the junior, only half-formed Vermeer.

The figure in Washington’s Woman Holding a Balance stands herself in equipoise: at once another earthly, pregnant Catharina and a vehicle for spiritual reflections. How, then, was the Jan Vermeer of c.1663 balancing his personal scales? The light-devoted art that he had developed feels freighted with individual purpose. Its counterweight is glimpsed when we revert to the main initiatory rite of his career, The Procuress. This big, frenetically impastoed and awkwardly assembled composition, signed and dated 1656, is already committed to cosplay: a younger Catharina obligingly poses. But both she and the lecher who paws at her breast are dead drunk and it is a roguish madam who stands to gain from the transaction in progress, while the broadest smirk belongs to the brothel’s musician. This starer-out connives with the viewer as if the show were his own – and perhaps it is. Conceive of him as a 23-year-old self-portraitist, and the co-opting and the fantasising (Vermeer is on record as tricky with money) are lent a face. This world of brutality, I infer, is what the succeeding Vermeer wished to grapple with and roll back. He projected instead fantasias first of gentility, then of luminosity and love. Force was to be marginalised, even by ‘perpetual withdrawal’.

So the sun shines on a Delft unscarred by the explosion of its arsenal that only a few years earlier had destroyed much of the city and more than a hundred of its inhabitants. That is all we see now: then, he could hardly blind himself to the down drag of the opposing scale. Vermeer’s religion might posit white light, but it also proclaimed red blood – which we see pushed to the exhibition’s far corners. Violence, the adversary, was never far off. Vermeer’s brother-in-law was a deranged bully whose knock at the door the household came to fear. A family maid told a lawyer in 1663 that he had come calling on ‘the wife of Johannes Vermeer, threatening to beat her on diverse occasions with a stick, notwithstanding the fact that she was pregnant to the last degree. The witness added that this would have happened had she not prevented it.’

Where was Vermeer? In the studio, perhaps, applying another blue glaze.

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