A Clear View from Delft

The enduring appeal of Johannes Vermeer — a new exhibition of his paintings has just proved a runaway success at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and transfers to London's National Gallery this summer — is based on an enigma. The master of precision, mood and detail, Vermeer nevertheless avoided all that is discordant and jarring — what Anthony Bailey, in his engrossing new book 'A View of Delft' (Chatto & Windus; 224 pages), terms "the messiness of life."

What takes Bailey's book beyond art history is his ability to see Vermeer in the context of life in...