In his early thirties, Jan Vermeer, of Delft, was conspicuous enough in his native town to be looked up by the French traveller Balthazar de Monconys. The interview is recorded with tantalizing brevity in Balthazar’s Journal des Voyages, published in 1665: “At Delft, I saw the painter Vermeer, who had none of his own works, but we saw one at a baker’s, which, though it had only one figure, had been sold at six hundred livres.” It may be suspected that the baker was something less than the Maecenas he appeared, for ten years later Vermeer’s widow had a suit with a baker to whom two pictures had been pledged for precisely this sum. Vermeer’s honorable, if short and unprosperous, career is represented today by half a dozen civic dates and by some thirty-seven magnificent pictures. On October 31; 1632, the year of Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” he was born in the clean and delightful town of Delft. Of his parents’ condition and his own early education we know nothing. April 5, 1653, in his twenty-first year, he took a wife, Catharine Bolenes. They settled in the Old Long Dyke, and in twenty-two years of wedded life she bore him ten children, of whom eight survived their father. Eight months after his marriage, December 29, 1653, he joined the Painters’ Guild of St. Luke. It was three years and a half before he fully paid his initiation fee of only six florins. Nevertheless, in 1662, his fellow painters made him head man of the guild. He served for two years, and again for the same space in 167o and 1671. He died on the 16th day of December, 1675, early in his forty-fourth year, and was entombed in the Old Church. Twenty years after his death his pictures were still esteemed. In an Amsterdam auction of 1696 twenty of his pictures-the list is still the basis for identification of his works-fetched very fair prices. Then followed more than a century and a half of obscuration.
His pictures, to be sure, for the most part survived, but were casually attributed to other artists-to Terborch and Pieter de Hooch, which was tolerable; to Metsu, which was somewhat less so, and to Eglon van der Neer, which was atrocious. When the indefatigable John Smith was compiling his Catalogue Raisonne of Flemish and Dutch paintings, about 1840, Vermeer received only incidental mention. But the moment of rehabilitation was at hand, for Vermeer as for so many other forgotten artists. Before 1848, the year of revolutions, Burger-Thore had begun to hunt up and buy Vermeers. His comprehensive essays, which appeared in the Gazette des Beaux-arts for 1866, had the natural defects of all literature of discovery. Your true explorer is prone to see more than is there, and subsequent criticism has had to abate by half Thore’s list of some seventy-two Vermeers. It required still a generation to bring the world round to Thore’s feeling that Vermeer was a great master. As fine a critic as Fromentin could pass through the Netherlands in 1876 with only bare mention of Vermeer. Gradually the writings of Henri Havard and Doctor Bode did something to popularize the master, but the movement of modern art was making even more strongly for a revival. Hals and Velasquez had already been consulted by Manet and his fellow impressionists. The generation represented by Degas had need of a still more exquisite exemplar. Vermeer be-came par excellence the painters’ old master. Long before the dealers had perceived in him a sensational commodity, he was the shibboleth of cosmopolitan studios everywhere. Indeed, in one way and another he had anticipated many of the technical researches of the ’60s and ’70s. Nor was his spell there exhausted. As febrile an experimentalist as Vincent van Gogh was entranced by the poise and nobility of “The Reader” in the Rijksmuseum.
Scholarship and criticism have of late years amply confirmed the verdict of the studios. Hofstede de Groot’s monumental catalogue of the works of Karel Fabritius and Vermeer, 1907, was followed by the excellent little monograph of Gustave van Zype, not to mention a number of special articles by many hands, and lately Philip Hale, an excellent painter himself, and a veteran teacher and critic, has devoted to Vermeer the most elaborate stylistic analysis ever applied to any artist.
To one who has ever found Vermeer a painter of the most personal and intimate charm, Mr. Hale’s judgments come with a shock. Vermeer is treated as a cold realist, chiefly concerned with problems of lighting, values, edges. He was a pure eye: “He simply painted right on, striving to get the appearance of things.” Subject-matter was indifferent to him, save as it was convenient or challenged his dexterity. “It may be said that Vermeer’s vision was as impersonal as that of any painter who has ever lived.” He was not “primarily a painter of women in the sense that Gainsborough was, or Watteau, but one guesses it was more convenient for him to get them to pose.” His works are “simply coldly and definitely right, and they gain something of the hatred which those who are right must always endure.” If this were the truth, and the whole truth, about Vermeer, my task would soon be done. I should only’ have to epitomize Mr. Hale’s admirable analysis of Vermeer’s composition, values, tone, textures, edges, and repeat his warning to sentimentalists against merely subjective interpretations. But Mr. Hale’s entire critique is a signal illustration of the fact that a half-truth is more misleading than a flagrant falsehood. Vermeer was a great realist, and much more, and the much more is what greatly counts, and what we must endeavor to find. There is an established principle by which the artist tends to recreate the world in his own image, and the Vermeer reconstructed by Mr. Hale is amusingly like some able but not sufficiently appreciated member of the Boston school of painting, worthily pedestalled on unpopular heights. With a singular lack of humor, Vermeer is represented as a misliked artist. In this Vermeer I recognize as in a remorselessly skilful caricature certain traits of the artist that I love, but the whole picture seems so distorted that I must essay a far simpler portraiture of my own.
The aim of criticism is always to reconstitute a superior personality. If we stop with the mere analysis of his technic, we fail to explain why he ever undertook to create, for the motives to production, at least in the case of a great artist, involve the whole man, and especially his emotional life. His finest thoughts and feelings are the only value in his art. These thoughts and feelings are, of course, expressed by means of his technic. But if we study it merely for itself, we fall short of the vision of the artist. To him it was no cold device for simulating difficult reality, but the symbol of his dearest emotions. These symbols we must endeavor to read. Such reading, naturally, is more or less inferential, but at worst it will be truer to the facts than is the figment of the artist as a mere prestidigitator in a world from which all but art has been scrupulously eliminated. By a simple analysis of Vermeer’s subject-matter we may ascertain his preferences. What, then, are admittedly the finest Vermeers ?
The finest Vermeers, almost without exception, have no more ambitious subject-matter than a young and usually capable woman en-gaged in some household occupation. Some-times she is a milkmaid, carefully pouring milk in her buttery (Amsterdam), or as a placid housewife, with one splendid gesture, she grasps a ewer, while with the other hand she opens a casement (Metropolitan Museum). Sometimes she stands at a window and with gently bent head reads a letter (Dresden, Amsterdam). In the loveliest of all the Vermeers, at Berlin, she only holds out a string of pearls from her fair throat. In one hardly less fine, she is carefully weighing pearls in a balance (Widener collection). Again, in more girlish guise, she bends with unconscious grace over the lace cushion and bobbins (the Louvre). To these may be added the exquisitely candid portrait of a young girl at The Hague. I have named most of the finest Vermeers. Clearly drama or narrative is not of their essence. Sometimes Vermeer’s housewife is engaged in a more gentle occupation. She is writing (Morgan collection), playing a guitar or lute (Johnson and Huntington collections), playing the spinet (Beit collection and National Gallery), or standing at the virginals (National Gallery). Of Vermeer’s thirty-five figure pieces, twenty-two contain only one figure, in nine-teen cases that of a woman.
In eight cases, Vermeer painted compositions of two figures with some pretense of anecdotal subject-matter. Again, a woman always occupies the centre of the little stage. She is writing or receiving a letter, with a maid in attendance (Beit and Jules Simon collections and Rijksmuseum); she is chatting, drinking wine, or discussing a piece of music with a cavalier (Frick collection and Berlin). These conversation pieces are well carried off. They are more studied than a good Metsu, less pointed than a good Terborch. There is a little sense of effort in most of them, and the eight two-figure compositions include only two undoubted masterpieces, the bizarre, yet wholly lovely, “Painter in His Studio,” of the Czernin collection, Vienna, and the subtly complicated but very intimate “Music Lesson” at Windsor Castle.
Just three times Vermeer composed his anecdote with as many as three persons: “Christ with Mary and Martha” (Coats collection, Scotland); “Girl with Wine Glass,” at Bruns-wick, and the “Music Lesson,” at Fenway Court, the last formerly one of Thore’s pictures. All of these are fine Vermeers, but not quite the best. There is one four-figure composition, the early and not wholly successful “The Courtesan,” at Dresden. Five figures occur only in the homely idyl, “Diana and Her Nymphs,” at The Hague, again an early and experimental piece.
Does not this rather dull census after all suggest a temperament ? Contrast this thinly peopled, often solitary, woman’s world of Vermeer with the drastic man’s world of Terborch, the casual bustling world of Metsu, the swarming humorous world of Jan Steen. All that these contemporaries reckoned necessary in a picture-action, drama, crucial state of mind-Vermeer calmly ignored. His action is nil, the state of mind of his characters undramatic, habitual, almost bovine. Oddly, since his flavor is domestic, he never plays upon the obvious and always winning theme of mother-hood. It was an advantage he willingly con-ceded to Metsu and Rembrandt.
Shall we then conclude with Mr. Hale that for the charm of a Vermeer we must look merely to its consummate technic ? A little study of the four or five women who grace the finest pictures will suggest that we must rather look to some rare lyrical sentiment in the artist’s soul of which the technic, marvellous as it is, is merely a secondary evocation. Where else in Dutch art shall you find such women as Vermeer’s-the “Milkmaid,” stately as a Millet as she bends over the jug; the little “Lace-maker,” daintily alert as her beautiful hands attack resolutely their difficult task; the “Lady at the Casement,” quizzical, capable, with a peculiar sane sweetness; the plump creature of pearl-like blondness, radiant in azure and pale gold, who holds out a pearl necklace from a throat as lovely as the jewels; the candid, fearless young girl with a blue turban suddenly turning out of the picture, mouth half open at the wonder of a friendly world ? To her even Mr. Hale has softened. Regarding her, he cites the “Mona Lisa,” and the analogy, by which he signally fails to profit, might have suggested to him something peculiar in Vermeer’s attitude toward women. He observed them not merely with a remarkable attention, but with a special tenderness and reverence. M. van Zype has aptly called Vermeer’s emotional attitude chivalric, implying merely a respectful cult of womanhood and of beauty. It is just about the last sentiment one would expect to find in Holland of his time. Generally the Dutch masters treated woman as a plaything or a mere utility. They did not contemplate her; she hardly seemed worth the pains, but they plainly stated her points, chiefly as regards bed and board. Under such sensual and utilitarian criteria, the poetry which art usually detects in woman-hood vanishes. The Dutch artist often rather cynically pokes fun at his women-Terborch does so impliedly, Steen directly-or, after the fashion of Metsu, celebrates the paying house-wifely activities. Vermeer does this, and much more. He invests his women, in whom we may surely recognize his wife and daughters, with glamour. In the clean, bright spaces of his home on the Old Long Dyke he contemplates the moral and physical beauty of those who have made that house a home. He finds beauty in all the household ritual, and when he seeks it farther afield, he often fails to find it. If ever a painter deserved to be called a feminist, it is Vermeer. He was, despite Mr. Hale, a painter of women, in his own fashion a precursor of Watteau and Gainsborough. It was easier to get women to pose ? Possibly. Surely it was more delightful.
Jan Vermeer was also a most distinguished workman. Within his favorite scheme of straw-yellow and blue, his planes of color are scrupulously accurate in atmospheric placing. Hals, had he given himself to work in little, might have shown an equal scrupulousness; no other Dutch artist did. Terborch effaces too much; Metsu lets his objects clash for lack of atmospheric subordination; De Hooch, with a wider range of color, sets himself a far simpler task. There never were more truthful interiors than those of Vermeer, and there never will be. The mere modulation of the apparently uniform tone of a wall, the sparkle of a gilt frame, the blue translucence of an open casement-of these effects, Vermeer is subtlest of masters. His modelling is highly simplified and discreet. Everything is kept rather flat, after a sort that at times will suggest the blander mode of Cezanne, and the form is suggested by the right distribution of large masses of light and dark and by the very accurate placing and texturing of the high lights. The textures are admirable, though never obtruded. Painting with a loaded brush, he yet keeps the surface relatively smooth. Within this smoothness are the most extraordinary modulations, so that a slight change of stroke or thickness will mean satin, fur, white porcelain, fatten, or the Persian carpet which appears in so many of the pictures. Such bread and fruit as he painted quite incidentally you will seek in vain until Chardin. His contours or edges are most carefully graduated to accord with the background.
In general, Vermeer eschewed the strong contrasts affected by his contemporaries. The blondness of his work gives it a very modern look, and in fact in its endeavor to cope with the actual effects of lighting without forced contrasts it is entirely modern in spirit. Certain eighteenth-century devices of heavy dotting or stippling, for coruscation-Guardi’s habitual expedient-seem to have been first tried by Vermeer. You will find these loaded dots on almost any bit of still life, and particularly on the barges in the “View of Delft.” This fine but perhaps overestimated picture, for its quality is of a sort become rather usual to-day, well illustrates Vermeer’s love of harmonious tone and avoidance of crass contrasts. The salmon-pink strand of the foreground and the pale blue of the haven are so nearly of the same value that in a photograph the water-line is found with difficulty. No other Dutch artist would have dared set this bit of true observation against the notorious fact that land and water are very different elements. The whole picture swims in air and diffused light. The red roofs glow between sky and water, as they do in nature, but with a depth no other Dutch painter has attained. The eye goes straight to the picturesque sky-line of the town by virtue of the right placing and value of everything. There is no resort to the common device, which Goyen and even Rembrandt employed, of artificially darkening the fore-ground to lead the eye into the artificially irradiated middle distance. The attraction of Vermeer’s picture, a splendid experiment which apparently he did not repeat, lies less in any implication of sentiment than in a quiet candor, probity, and fidelity to actual appearances.
Vermeer’s figure composition, on the contrary, is highly conventional, though the convention again is legitimately deduced from facts. He builds his pattern out of rectangles -tables, chairs, casements, frames, floor-tiles cunningly assembled, against which the human figure serves either as an axis or as a contrasting arabesque. Sometimes, as in the Dresden “Reader” and the “Studio,” he hangs a curtain in the foreground, thus dividing the first plane into unequal rectangles. In the “Love Letter,” at Amsterdam, he makes a coulisse of several such rectangular forms, curtains and doors, and by displaying his scene far away in a tall slit, obtains an arresting, if rather sinister and uncharacteristic, effect. The convention is carried to the farthest point of refinement in the “Music Lesson,” at Windsor. The tall rectangles of casements and picture and mirror frames contrast with the oblong of the virginals high up in the picture. The tessellated floor repeats the geometrical pattern in a transverse sense. The figures of a girl and her auditor are skilfully set to break the severity of the scheme. A ‘cello and a heavy rug trailing over a table are contrasting elements. Everything gives a sense of quietude and harmony. The respectful attitude of the man is rare in Dutch art, and wholly typical of Vermeer. Sometimes, as in the Amsterdam “Reader,” the rectangles overlap in interesting fashion, forming an elaborate fret. A more simple and normal use of this standard motive may be seen in the “Charming Lady at a Casement,” in the Marquand Room of the Metropolitan Museum. A table and map cut the wall into a sideways T (H ), which is filled by the double S curves formed by the woman’s outstretched arms and shoulders. There could be no satisfactory way of establishing a pattern, and the whole thing,
with its lovely harmony of faintly shimmering blue and pale yellow, gives an early morning peaceful impression, as of a day happily and well begun. The “Studio,” in the Czernin collection, which Mr. Hale regards as technically the finest Vermeer, shows a great variety of rectangles densely set about the map on the wall, with the figures arranged in piquant dissonantal relations to the general pattern.
Mr. Hale suggests that Vermeer may have drawn his rectangular-arabesque scheme from the study of Japanese paintings and prints. The coincidence is indeed interesting, but the Japanese did not systematically employ this system of space division until a half century or more after Vermeer’s death. The scheme, after all, had become, as Doctor W. R. Valentiner has convincingly shown, almost an academic requirement in Holland by 1660. Terborch, Metsu, and De Hooch employ it, often felicitously; Vermeer simply adds to it variety and refinement.
With fewest exceptions, the cool light ripples through Vermeer’s pictures from left to right. Generally the brush stroke follows the direction of the light, across and not with the forms. Such ability to secure the modelling by painting fearlessly down the light is, Mr. Hale justly observes, the surest mark of an accomplished luminist.
It would be easy and not unprofitable to carry the analysis of Vermeer’s style much further, but it may all be read in Mr. Hale’s elaborate and convincing chapters. I wish merely to remind the reader once more that this marvellous technic is not a thing in itself, the casual product of an uncommonly accurate eye and hand, but the means of _expression of a rare sort of man who was much more than a painter-his homage to the daily beauty that his womankind brought into his home.
If I am right in seeing, with M. van Zype, a painter of feminist type in Vermeer, the reader already knows a good deal what sort of person the artist was. But the reader must divest from the idea of feminism certain morbid features which it has acquired in recent time, and think instead of a cult of woman inspired only by a normal sensuousness and by a fine chivalry. It is the gentleman’s attitude today, and it was a pretty rare one in seventeenth-century Holland. Vermeer’s refinement and idealizing tenderness must have come to him by nature, but they may well have been strengthened by gradual processes of education which may be traced in his works, and con-firmed by marrying young a woman whom he loved. We may fitly end where logically we might have begun, by seeking for Vermeer’s artistic origins and inquiring what light they cast upon his personality.
To be sure, the contemporary poetaster, Arnold Bon, deploring the death of Karel Fabritius in a powder explosion, represents Vermeer as a phoenix, an alter ego of Karel, rising superbly from the powder reek, but this does not say that Vermeer was Fabritius’s pupil. Still, modern criticism has grasped at the possibility of such a link between the mysterious and exquisite Fabritius and his younger friend, and by including the two in his great Catalogue Raisonne Hofstede de Groot has given great currency to what is rather an unlikely hypothesis. Many critics, following Thore, assume that Vermeer developed under the influence of Rembrandt. Against this is the blondness of the work, its straightforwardness, and lack of fantastic quality. A more plausible theory is that he was the pupil of the accomplished chiaroscurist, Leonard Bramer, who had studied at Rome with the idyllic Elsheimer. In 1654, and later, during Vermeer’s early membership in the Guild of St. Luke, Bramer was head man, and presumably a leading spirit, in the small artist circle at Delft. An Italianate taste is betrayed in the pictures represented in Vermeer’s interiors. A “Crucifixion,” a “Last Judgment,” a “Doubting Thomas,” a “Finding of Moses,” and a “Cupid” attest the master’s admiration for the grand style. The occasional poor Vermeers-they are so disconcerting that John Van Dyke needlessly evokes a pseudo-Vermeer in explanation-I mean the two pictures in the National Gallery and the “Love Letter” at Amsterdam as types-these poorer Vermeers suggest that in his later years he, too, was yielding to the general Gallic sleekness of which the Mierises were the most offensive exponents. Throughout, he seems something of an eclectic. In what may well be his earliest pictures, “Christ with Mary and Martha,” and, “Diana and Her Nymphs,” Vermeer is evidently composing his groups after the consecrated pyramidal formula invented in Italy.
The gravity of the New Testament scene is remarkable, the relief salient, but without giving much sense of air and space; the Martha pleading for the active life as she offers bread is a noble, amiable, and even pathetic figure; the pyramid made by the three forms is carefully established in three dimensions. At long range the picture might easily be taken for an exceptionally fine work of the Caracci school, and there we must seek its inspiration.
Still quite Italianate is the “Toilette of Diana.” The five figures are disposed as an oblique pyramid. Primarily the picture is a study in delicate light and shade, the landscape being merely perfunctory. Five buxom Dutch girls are nearly dressed after their swim. One shows part of an exquisitely modelled back. One kneels and is drying the modestly exposed feet of the lass who is designated as the Sylvan Goddess only by the crescent in her filleted hair. What is impressive about this little pastoral is the ritual gravity of these wholesome young creatures in their trivial actions-the delightful unconsciousness of it all. Among the Dutch painters, only Rembrandt, in the “Finding of Moses,” of the Johnson collection, has conceived anything at once so arcadian and so homely. There is an odd Correggian suggestion about Vermeer’s group. Unquestionably he had studied classic Italian art both in engravings and in such derivative pictures as those of Rubens and Van Dyck. The travelled and cultured Leonard Bramer may well have inspired such studies. In fact, there may have been a moment when young Vermeer, too, might easily have slipped into a hazardous cosmopolitanism. But his lucidity and intellectual independence were no less notable than his flexibility. For him experimentation afield was only the road to a finer native idiom.
In the big canvas, “The Procuress,” dated 1656, he is plainly finding the way. It is a bordel picture, of the sort which Frans Hals had made staple at neighboring Haarlem. Four quite unconvincing revellers are seen at half-length behind a table, over which falls a fur wrap and an Eastern rug. At the right an eager, scarlet-coated gallant fondles a pretty wench from behind, thrusting a gold piece into her hand, which lies open on the table. Her face is untroubled, her air innocent, and while she receives the money, she carefully steadies a massive wine-glass with her other hand. At the right another long-haired celebrant grasps a glass, while clutching the neck of a ‘cello, and grins rather aimlessly out of the picture. Between the two wastrels the shrewd face of a middle-aged procuress peers greedily at her ward. The color is a handsome if startling blare of scarlet, crimson, and yellow. The composition, the table occupying all the lower half of the picture, making an odd formal arrangement, and the frame crowding the heads above, is unexpected, piquant, restless-everything that Vermeer in his maturity is not. The sense of space and quiet is absent. Throughout, the picture suffers from overemphasis. Vermeer brings to his uncongenial theme neither the moralistic unction of a Jan Steen nor the magnificent imperturbability of a Terborch. What is remarkable about the picture is the beautiful painting of the accessories and the endeavor to embody a thoroughly hackneyed matter in a novel and interesting composition.
At least it is the renunciation of the grand style. Mr. Hale thinks that the magisterial “Milkmaid” at Amsterdam may have followed this picture closely. Here the finished Vermeer is found. The serenity of his home, the charm of the serviceable women who kept it bright-here was the new and permanent vision. To the end of his short life Vermeer was to paint more like a dreamer and a lover than like a father and citizen. To lend truth and dignity to his dream he will spare no pains of acute observation and cunning craftsman-ship. Is not this the very simple secret of Vermeer, most engaging of Dutch artists, consummate practitioner among artists of every time ?
His home was full of music. Musical themes constitute the largest class of his works. Musical instruments are introduced into several others. His best pictures have something of the quality of a seventeenth-century motet. There is the same broad and generous harmony, those exquisitely balanced blues and yellows, in the details; something of the accurate, almost pedantic, construction of the whole in its calculated geometry. The glamour lies largely in this combination of breadth and spaciousness and lyrical sweep within a scrupulously formalistic framework. Such measured lyrism, with a tinge of preciosity, was a most characteristic artistic product of Vermeer’s times-it is the specific note of contemporary French and English verse, and he him-self is its most distinguished exponent in the art of painting.