Vermeer: A life that was anything but still

Interest in this 17th-century Dutch master continues to grow, but so few paintings exist

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In light of the second major Johannes Vermeer exhibition in America during the past 10 years, and the recent rise of "Vermeer fiction," it isn't surprising that another biography of the 17th-century Delft painter is being published this month.

The challenge, of course, is to uncover new information in the limited archives already sifted by previous researchers. The lives of lesser artists contemporary to Vermeer are much better documented than his. Nevertheless, Anthony Bailey has given Vermeer lovers a compendium of known information and pieced together a vivid picture of the life that Vermeer might have lived, always careful to distinguish fact from speculation.

Where definitive information is missing - for example, Vermeer's apprenticeship and artistic influences - Bailey, not unexpectedly, posits Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, which might explain Vermeer's continuation of Rembrandt's theme of reverie. He also suggests Pieter de Hooch, who might have influenced Vermeer to lighten his palette and reduce his scale.

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The facts are simple: born in 1632 to an art dealer in a bourgeois town where paintings hung in shops and inns as well as homes; artists frequenting his parents' inn a few doorways from the crafts Guild of St. Luke; guild membership at 21; marriage in the same year, 1653; 11 children; two or three paintings a year, 35 in his lifetime; an occasional patron in the son of a brewer; art dealing, tavern-keeping, and loans from his land-owning mother-in-law providing subsistence.

With the French war ruining the Dutch economy and badly affecting the sale of luxury items, Vermeer had to sell his stock of others' paintings at a loss and serve in the militia, a fact rarely mentioned in previous biographies.

Suffering despair over family burdens, making only 200 guilders yearly from his paintings (compared to the 800 of a Delftware faience painter), at 43 he fell quickly from health to death, owing a baker 617 guilders. This is a particularly sad outcome in light of Johan Huizinga's assessment of Hollanders' "intense enjoyment of shapes and objects, the unshakable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things," an attitude which would seem to ensure a painter's success with his works tenderly depicting domestic interiors.

What Bailey adds to other biographies is expansion into areas peripheral to Vermeer's life and art. When he comments that Vermeer liked to paint pearls, he not only explains his technique - a thin grayish layer of paint beneath a white one to give it translucence - but he tells us about glass pearls fashionable at the time.

Similarly, he makes excursions into letter writing, the Dutch postal system, the role of music in Dutch social life, the making of Delft tiles, and the tangled politics of the day.

Bailey also suggests how to read a Vermeer, or at least how to imagine one, since the paintings seem coyly devoid of clear narrative intent. While some of his allegorical speculations might seem stretched to our minds, we are not of an age instructed from emblem books as the Dutch were.

Other comments serve to enrich our enjoyment of the paintings: Vermeer's light pouring through the window "never hardens but slowly moves ... [indicating] both time passing and warmth of life: the power of creation making itself felt in humdrum human circumstances."

The book concludes with a digest of Vermeeriana - thefts, ransom plots, forgeries - the empty frame hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston memorializing a 1990 heist; the 1940s van Meegeren forgery, to which the forger confessed, and even proved by painting another "Vermeer" while in jail, in order to avoid the more serious charge of selling old masters to the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.

Bailey takes pleasure in the irony of the Dutch calling the Nazi-tricking forger a hero, as well as in the criminal getting his just desserts when he was hoodwinked into buying 19th-century copies he thought were authentic 17th-century goblets to use as painting props.

A subtler pleasure is evident when he recounts the use of Vermeer's paintings in literature, a fascination begun by the multi-volume "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu," by Marcel Proust, in which a character, at great effort, makes a final excursion out of his Paris apartment in order to see a precious "little patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's "View of Delft."

Elsewhere, in Proust's words, "Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied ... as many worlds as there are original artists ... worlds which ... send us their special radiance centuries after the fire from which it emanated was extinguished." In this spirit, Bailey offers us his richly imagined view, one among multiple views, of the radiant world of Delft and its master painter.

Susan Vreeland is the author of the current bestseller 'Girl in Hyacinth Blue' (Penguin), a novel about a Vermeer painting.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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