The illusion of reality is immediate and surprising. One is suddenly looking into an actual room, full of solid furniture and hangings, in which a painter in Dutch costume sits motionless for an instant to glance at his model. The instant is prolonged, held rigid in eternal calm and silence. The effect is almost hypnotic, and one struggles to escape it by looking at details of the scene. The stiff paper map on the wall, warping and cracking in places; the smooth, demure face of the young model, the heavy curtain nearby, the unpainted wooden easel, the artist’s soft brown hair falling to his shoulders — every detail of these defies the longest scrutiny. They are not paint, but real objects in space.
The effect is quite similar to that of Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini and his Wife at London: an initial shock of vivid realism, which continues as one looks more closely, because of the microscopic exactitude of the drawing and the light gradations. Then one feels the more powerful and lasting appeal of design, which raises the picture from a tour de force to the level of art. In composition, too, the pictures are basically similar. Each is composed of two motionless persons and a roomful of surrounding objects, lighted by a side window, whose light reveals a pattern of rectangles and curves. As is natural, the Vermeer after more than two centuries of painting is more elaborate, more. broadly and massively composed, with all the cramped miniature feeling outgrown. It is more Venetian than Flemish in its method of building up a design of brilliant, rich textures. But the particular materials are quite original.
The principal note is a pure, intense blue, that of some Chinese porcelains, and of the porcelains made at Delft in Vermeer’s own day, in imitation of the Chinese. It is peculiarly his own as a factor in painting, and he uses it with great artistry, in countless different shades, blends and substances. Always it is toned to seem an integral part of the object; and in this regard blue has been the stumbling-block of more than one great painter.
One must follow these relations in detail to feel the picture’s full charm as a symphony of colors and textures. On the table are cloths of velvet and of silk, in a half-light that shines softly on the folds. They are not a pure blue or yellow, but are mixed with dull, dark green. The curtain is woollen, rough and heavy, with lustreless highlights, flowered in several tones of blue, dark and. light, pure and greenish. The floor-tiles are a dark gray-blue and white, with gray-blue streaks. The map is printed in a lighter but duller, grayer blue. In the model’s leafy crown, and in the artist’s painting of it, the blue is clearer but still has green and even violet admixtures. On the lighted folds of her stiff satin dress, it rises to its highest climax of intensity. Black and red, minor themes, are stated emphatically in the artist’s velvet cap and stockings, then echoed in the tip of his supporting rod, and in small spots on the map. They are diffused in a hundred different grays and reddish browns through his other garments, the chair-upholstery, curtain and map-rod. In the model’s book a fourth theme of pale yellow is at its purest and brightest; it turns a dark olive in the shadows of her skirts, a dull cream in the plaster mask, a greenish gold in the chandelier, grayish in the easel and brownish in the curtain. It pervades the light generally, giving a cool, clear, un-Venetian atmosphere.