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11 april 2016
A couple of years ago, I decided to step up my attempts to see all 35 or so viewable Vermeers. Some of them began to fall into my lap: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, usually in Edinburgh, showed up at an exhibition of National Gallery of Scotland treasures in Fort Worth, and A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, privately held (and still of doubtful ascription), came to Dallas. But I also went out of my way to visit Dresden and notch two more: the odd early Procuress and the astonishing Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window. Sometimes projects don't seem so hopeless. Those would seem to be four of the harder Vermeers to see, unless of course you live in Edinburgh or Dresden. Now I only have to get to a few spots in the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, and Austria to fill in my life list ‐ though there are quite a few paintings there, in a variety of venues; and life is short and uncertain.
When I first started going to art museums in my adolescence, it seemed that every place I went had several Vermeers. Eight are in New York museums, and four in Washington, and I lived halfway between the two cities. Last month I was in the Frick Collection in New York where people passed casually by the three Vermeers on display. Like me in my youth, they supposed that every major museum had a few, like Monets or Picassos. "Vermeer did a lot of that kind of thing," said one patron pausing in front of Girl Interrupted in Her Music. But the thing is that Vermeer didn't do a lot of anything.
Anthony Bailey's 2001 biography Vermeer: A view of Delft is the book I imagined must exist about Vermeer, when I wanted to expand my acquaintance with the painter from a few museum impressions and memories into something more systematic. Genial, gently personal at times, neither obscurantist nor patronizing; linking the life to the work without venturing into overbaked explanations for connections that can never be known; conveying a world of information and evoking a society long-disappeared: Vermeer does everything that a one-volume introduction to an artist should do.
The great mystery of Vermeer's relative lack of productivity remains unsolved here, and will likely always remain unsolved. Bailey speculates that Vermeer's large family was a distraction, and wonders if, in his later years, the painter slipped into alcoholism and depression. Clearly he didn't support that family through assembly-line painting. He married into some wealth, and supplemented very modest earnings from his own art by dealing in the art of others. Internal evidence shows that he worked quickly enough, but with long periods away from a given painting for reflection and revisions that often change the theme of a picture substantially. He was likely a perfectionist, likely didn't take well to commissions, and likely "blocked" for long periods. But those are all mostly inferences.
Vermeer's life records are as scanty as those of Shakespeare, and in some ways Bailey's reconstruction of the relation of his life to his work resembles Stephen Greenblatt's evocation of Shakespeare in Will in the World. Yet Bailey is more circumspect in his speculations than Greenberg. Vermeer's range of themes, perhaps, makes circumspection more natural. Only two of his paintings are set outdoors, and both show views of Delft. Not much mystery there. We do not know who the models were for his many paintings of women indoors, but we know that they engage in a limited range of tasks: music, writing or reading, a few crafts, some domestic service. Again, there is not much sense in seeking out "sources" for this work: it must also come from direct observation of 17th-century Delft, though direct observation that has been exalted into sublimity by a mix of gorgeous detail and stark simplicity.
Bailey is careful to say that his book is biography, not really art history or criticism, but of course it manages to be all three. I already loved Vermeer and after reading Bailey's book I love his work all the more. Loving Vermeer is I guess a kind of clichéd taste, akin to loving Mozart or Keats or Joe DiMaggio. (I kind of like them too.) I think the tastes of anyone who experiences a lot of art and literature and music continually grow, and take a lot of false directions, sometimes informed by structures of knowledge that get in the way of aesthetics, sometimes drawn to the gravitational force of critics and companions. A lot of the time we simply like things that people we love or value or fear like. Behind and beyond these false starts is the sense of wonder you get from a picture like the Frick's Officer and Laughing Girl, where the laughing girl starts enigmatically and delightedly almost up out of her chair, but in complete confidence that she's caught something from the conversation (whatever it's about) that she cannot thereafter lose, and that still floods out of the light she reflects to us from a seventeenth-century sun.
Bailey eventually gets, as I hoped he would, to the death of Bergotte in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu and its description, or rather invocation, of Vermeer's "petit pan de mur jaune," that little bit of yellow wall that becomes symbolic of the connection we have to a more sublime purpose in the Universe. Ah, this sounds corny. The thing is, corny is a way of specifying why life is worth living.
Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer: A view of Delft. New York: Holt, 2001. ND 653 .V5B25