Simple things that shimmer like a jewel

The impression is sometimes given that Vermeer's art is exclusively preoccupied with calm, balanced forms in a select design (on the one hand), and the impersonal miracle of clear light-fall (on the other). Both, certainly, are obviously wonderful features of his uniqueness -- a word which, for once, seems accurate for describing an artist.

The suffusing, quiet luminosity of the window-lit rooms, in which these shapes are placed with such satisfying inevitability, is tonal magic. It reproduces in paint something which is apparently so perfectly in tune with our experience of the day-lit interior of our own homes that, until Vermeer isolates it for us this way, we have done little more than seem it. What we haven't done is really look at it. But once Vermeer's light has been appreciated, the afterimage is so strong that all our surroundings suddenly seem transformed by it.

Similarly the ordering, simplifying quality of his pictures imposes on our visible world its ideal sense of rightness. In this afterimage we find our eyes are more selective and less confused by thousands of details which normally refuse to become subordinate to generality.

Perhaps these are the twin characteristics that until recently have given this 17th-century painter, largely ignored until the 19th century, such particular appeal to our 20th-century sensibilities -- his tranquil formality, and the tonal veracity of his record of light. There are easy parallels to be found in our century's emphatic awareness of two aspects of visual art, abstraction and photography, both exploited by virtue of their special limitations and partialities. But if this were the whole of Vermeer's vision, he would, I suspect, seem less fulfilled than he does.

He appealed in the 19th century to a love of anecdote, particularly in his evident sympathy for the home-imprisoned woman, enclosed by the unadventurous stability of her world, intruded upon only by letters from the outside, and (as here) by visitors.

The map on the wall, intensified by the three-dimensionality of the figures and their setting, also hints at the travel and scope presumably experienced by the girl's visitor. But this is incidental. The central point of attention in the picture is definitely the girl's face. Vermeer lets us know that light can change instantly, and also that a smile (and the girl really is smiling and not, as the more traditional title would have it, "laughing") is the most fleeting, momentary flicker of expression possible on a human face. He has captured it with the same uncanny sensitivity that he catches the swift play of light. This smile alone transforms a quite commonplace genre-scene from being a stock image of flirtation and merriment into an image that touches through to a tender and delicate phase in the tentative relation of a man and a woman.

The strong perspective draws the man away from the girl, making a space between them which is reinforced by the telling inflections of their hands, and even more by the way Vermeer shows light casting shadows into which forms simply disappear. We have no idea, and will never be able to see, what expression the soldier's face is wearing -- whether he is smiling, laughing, or gazing diffidently or boldly in answer to the girl's glance of affection.

Lawrence Gowing writes of Vermeer's isolated accent of light as being so assured that we are prepared to take the rest of the shape on trust, and this is true of the soldier. The viewer is ingeniously made to identify with this figure, who almost seems to invade our space outside the picture, for the very reason that so much of him is hidden from view: to us he is all guesswork.

Summing up the heart of this picture, Harry Berger has written: "We read his intentions only in terms of her visible response -- the receptive smile and half-open hand, gestures instinctively subdued yet warming to an attentiveness, sympathy, or delight, which is more personal than physical. So mirrored, the officer's motives are, at least for the suspended moment of the painting, purified of their conventional associations."

It is hard to better that reading of this small story told in oil paint: it transcends convention by a gentle reality that is wonderfully fresh.

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