by Roderick Conway Morris

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Master of the Fleeting Moment

By Roderick Conway Morris
AMSTERDAM 3 March 2023
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Milkmaid by Vermeer, 1658-59



Vermeer was dubbed 'the Sphinx of Delft' by Théophile Thoré, who collected, exhibited and traded in this artist's works in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The artist spent his entire life in Delft, except for brief excursions to Amsterdam, The Hague and Gouda. He left no personal letters or other written records and contemporary references to him are relatively scarce. He produced only a couple of pictures a year, perhaps 45 to 50 in all. Of the 37 or so that have survived, 28 have been brought together from both sides of the Atlantic for an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

At the same time an extensive programme of research has elucidated at least to some extent the mysteries of how Vermeer created his inimitable images - without, however, detracting from their enchantment. Indeed, some of the revelations will surely only increase our admiration and appreciation of this stupendous artist.

Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in October 1632 into a modest middle-class family. He was brought up in De Vliegende Vos (The Flying Fox), the inn run by his parents, but they also had a small art collection and his father Reynier was licensed by the Delft Guild of St Luke, the artists' confraternity, to deal in paintings. With whom Vermeer trained as a painter is still uncertain, but he must have served a least a six-year apprenticeship to be able to join the Guild himself as a master painter, which he did at the end of 1653.

Earlier that year he had married the Catholic Catharina Bolnes and appears to have left the Dutch Reformed Church into which he had been baptized. The couple subsequently settled in the Oude Langendijk to the south of the town's market square, a neighbourhood mainly inhabited by Catholics and referred to by Delft's overwhelmingly Protestant majority as Papenhoek (Papists' Corner). This quarter was also the site of a clandestine church and girls' school run by the Jesuits.

By then the city and rest of the country were enjoying an unprecedented period of tranquillity following the signing of the Peace of Münster in 1648, which ended the Eighty Years War with Spain and won formal recognition of the independence of the Republic of the Netherlands. It could almost be said that this new atmosphere of calm would come metaphorically to be reflected in Vermeer's supremely serene domestic interiors.

At first, however, the artist devoted himself to the more prestigious genres of religious and history painting, of which a handful of his examples survive. Nonetheless, the local Catholic market for religious images was limited and Vermeer clearly came to see more of a future in secular themes; in the second half of the 1650s he produced his first interiors with figures, among them 'The Milkmaid'. At the end of the decade he also executed his wonderful exterior scenes, 'The View of Delft' and 'View of Houses in Delft, known as The Little Street'.

Pieter de Hooch from Rotterdam and Carel Fabritius from Amsterdam were among a number of distinguished artists from other Dutch towns who spent time in Delft during this period and contributed to the local flowering of townscapes and paintings of church and domestic interiors. De Hooch, who was in the city between 1654 and 1660/61, was almost certainly a primary inspiration of Vermeer's early interior vignettes, although the Delft-born artist came utterly to transform the genre.

Vermeer may also have finally perfected his command of measured perspective by adopting from de Hooch the method of sticking a pin in the intended central vanishing point of the picture, attaching a chalked string and then snapping it against the surface to leave a line indicating the angle required. At least 16 of Vermeer's pictures have pin holes showing he used this technique, but he later finessed his measurement of perspective lines to enhance the viewing of his images from a greater distance.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Vermeer seems to have converted to Catholicism but so soon abandoned religious painting. However, his move to the Catholic quarter of the Delft and his close contact with the local Jesuits there may well have profoundly affected his subsequent secular images, as is persuasively argued by Gregor J.M. Weber, one of the two lead curators (along with Pieter Roelfs) of the Rijksmuseum's magnificent exhibition, both in the catalogue and in Weber's additional study, 'Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection'.

Then as now, of all the Catholic Church's orders, the Jesuits were the most engaged in scientific research. One of the instruments they were then employing to investigate 'divine light' was the camera obscura. This forerunner of the modern camera cast an image in a portable box through an adjustable lens and served as a practical tool in the study of optics. The painter and art theoretician Samuel van Hoogstraten (some of whose pictures Vermeer owned), who had been introduced to the camera obscura by the Jesuits in Vienna in the 1650s, wrote that, apart from its usefulness in 'obtaining knowledge of nature, one sees here in general what a good, natural painting should have.'

But whereas van Hoogstraten never seems to have tried to apply in his paintings the lessons that the camera obscura could offer, Vermeer employed them to a unique degree in creating his images. This is not to suggest that Vermeer ever turned to a camera obscura as a means of tracing an actual image - as it was adopted later by some view painters to provide the outlines of a scene - but rather that it gave him invaluable insights into how light behaved and how the human eye perceives reality, making it possible to maximise the illusion of verisimilitude in a painted scene.

Thus, for example, in 'The Lacemaker', the artist sharply focuses on the single white threads stretched on the bobbins between the young woman's hands, while blurring the white, red and blue threads more distant from her hands. This phenomenon of a sharp image at the focal point and blurring on the periphery could be observed with a camera obscura and exactly mimicks what the human eye does when concentrating its gaze. But Vermeer also applied numerous other results of his uniquely detailed observations of optic phenomena. Among these were that colours and the intensity of shadows are not uniform but depend on the strength of the light and the surrounding colours.

All of these observations had, of course, actually to be translated into paint and he deployed a host of techniques to do so. In 'The View of Delft', for example, he adds pointillistic touches of paint to the dark hull of a barge to suggest the sunlight reflected by the water, and he constructs the more distant tower of the Nieuwe Kerk with minute vertical ridges of thickly applied yellow paint that catch the light on the surface of the canvas to imitate sunlight striking the tower's stonework. In other works he uses subtle and varied cocktails of dots, dabs, blobs, streaks and minuscule mosaic-like tesserae of paint to achieve the desired illusionistic light effects.

Having accurately observed that warm yellowish light casts cold, blueish shadows (which only later was established as an optical law), in 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter', for instance, he painted an underlayer of blue on the white wall behind the figure to create the illusion of reflected brightness streaming through the window illuminating the interior of the room.

Scientific analysis of Vermeer's paintings has also allowed us to see that Vermeer constantly strove to simplify his compositions, excluding extraneous elements to lend them the greatest impact. In 'The Milkmaid', to take but one of many examples, he painted out a shelf on the wall behind her with a row of jugs hanging from knobs, to enhance the effect of the stark white wall, with its tiny nail-holes in the plaster and, high up, two remaining sharply focused rusty nails.

Vermeer's life came to a tragic end after the 'disaster year' of 1672, when the Dutch Republic was simultaneously invaded by England, France and the Bishoprics of Münster and Cologne. The economy collapsed and the artist found himself unable to sell any of his own paintings or those he was trading in. Vermeer died suddenly in December 1675 at 43. Ten of his children who had survived infancy were still at home, the youngest only 18 months old. As a petition sent by his widow seeking assistance from the state related: 'he had gone from healthy to dead in a matter of day and a half.'

Through his tireless striving for perfection Vermeer created a unique and timeless visual world but left posterity with the smallest oeuvre of any of the great Dutch masters. This exhibition gathers together more of these rare and exquisite paintings than are likely to be seen in one place ever again.

Vermeer; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; 10 February - 4 June 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024