It is the first time such a show has appeared in the United States and, considering that the artist's complete body of work consists of only thirty-five paintings, the exhibition is quite a feat. In almost every work, this Dutch master carefully composed every form to achieve a unity that few before or since have been able to rival.
Not a great deal is known about the artist himself. He was born, lived, and worked in the Dutch city of Delft. As the exhibition catalog mentions, he was described in the city's official documents as being a "master painter" but had to make a living by other means--most probably as an innkeeper and a picture dealer. He was relatively unknown in his time, and after his death he dropped into obscurity. It was only in the nineteenth century that his work was rediscovered, and it was not until 1935 that there was an exhibition devoted solely to his work. According to the catalog, it was with this show that Vermeer finally achieved "eternal fame."
Why are his paintings so intriguing? One reason is their exquisite and cunning composition. Almost every piece in the National Gallery exhibition implicitly and explicitly reveals a rectangle, or grid, structure. Many painters before Vermeer had used the shape of the rectangle to give the illusion of space--perspective is more or less based on the grid--and to express forms such as walls, windows, doors, frames, mirrors, and, of course, the canvas itself. Vermeer added to this repertoire letters, tables, books, musical instruments, jewelry boxes, and maps, either literally representing them as a rectangle or figuratively suggesting one. The latter can be seen in Woman Holding a Balance, in which the jewelry box depicted is not visually a rectangle but suggests that shape.
One painting in particular, The Little Street (shown on the cover of this issue), is a brilliant example of the use of the grid. What makes this landscape so magical is that every form depends on another to achieve its balance. As with almost any masterpiece, if you cover up one shape, small or large, the whole work seems to crumble. (Vermeer's explicit use of the grid is why so many art historians and critics compare him to one of the most famous modernists of the twentieth century, Piet Mondrian [1872-1944].) With only minimal use of atmospheric and scientific perspective, Vermeer created not only an illusion of space but an unforgettable image of an orderly world expressed through architecture, human gestures, and control of the paint itself.
As the catalog to the show points out, it is astounding that this painting might have been Vermeer's first attempt at a landscape. In his book Venneer & The Art of Painting, Arthur K Wheelock, Jr., cocurator of the National Gallery show, writes of The Little Street that "no other streetscape from this period is so devoid of the UW of human activity that usually passes for a painting's subject.... Vermeer reinforced this sense of timelessness in the deliberate patterns in the architecture, specifically in the emphasis on the horizontal and vertical lines of the buildings' forms, and in the self-containment of the figures as they pursue their daily concerns in their own spheres." He goes on to mention Vermeer's impulse to infuse abstract ideas into depictions of everyday life. Both of Wheelock's assertions could almost pass for descriptions of an Edward Hopper painting, revealing why Vermeer's work is so appealing to
Vermeer & The Art of Painting, by Arthur K Wheelock, Jr. (Yale University Press). modern and contemporary sensibilities.
Vermeer's dependence on juxtaposition links him to artists such as Chardin, Degas, and Hopper. In fact, The Little Street seems to anticipate Hopper's work in so many ways, with its slice-of-life atmosphere, its formal exactness, its austere space, and its ambiguous message. Unlike many paintings of his time, Vermeer's mature paintings do not teach a lesson or reveal an obvious narrative. Instead, they express a timeless, somewhat mysterious message about the human condition. The space in all his work is crystal clear; the message is not. Another element that makes his work look so different from that of the artists who preceded him is technology. It is widely believe artist used a prototype of the camera, called a camera obscura, to trace or sketch from. Many of his paintings exhibit the distortions of perspective and optics that come from using such a device. Yet because of his keen eye and intuitive sense of balance, these distortions are not extreme; he uses the cameralike machine as a tool, not as a medium.
Nevertheless, most art lovers don't look at Vermeer for his rectangles, his use of perspective, or his kinship with Photo Realism. They first fall in love with Vermeer's sense of light. As much as any figure or object in his work can symbolize Newton's ideas or ideals of clarity and vision, it is this worldly, clear, yet mysterious light that not only expresses the essence of reason but hints at its limits. This light creates cbiaroscuro that does not depend on operatic drama or otherworldly spirituality. And although the slow movement from light to dark is calm, calculated, and earthbound, there is something elusive about it as well. It brings to mind what another scientist, Albert Einstein, expressed about mystery several centuries later. He said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Einstein's remark could apply to Vermeer's light.