The enduring appeal of Johannes Vermeer-a new exhibition of his paintings has proved a runaway success at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and transfers to London's National Gallery in June-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; 272 pages), terms "the messiness of life."
What takes Bailey's book beyond the narrow confines of art history is his ability to see Vermeer in the context of life in mid-17th century Holland. To survive, an artist needed wealthy patrons-and the more the better. Vermeer had few benefactors, and he gained no more than a quarter of his income from painting; most came from his mother-in-law and his work as an art dealer. While contemporaries like Rembrandt and Frans Hals specialized in large canvases, lively down-to-earth realism and volume-40 or 50 paintings a year-Vermeer concentrated on interiors and demure women, and managed only a couple of works annually: small, frozen-in-time images with what Bailey calls, "the reality of dreams."
The son of an innkeeper, Vermeer was the father of 15 children, a Roman Catholic-leaning Protestant and a home-towner who rarely left Delft. But this is about all we know; no character descriptions or other salient facts exist. In his short life -born in 1632, died in 1675 of unknown causes although his wife, Catharina, blamed "decay and decadence"-he was never particularly successful. It was not until 1866, when a radical French critic named Théophile Thoré wrote three articles about him, that the art world beyond Holland took much notice.
What Thoré recognized was the revolutionary in Vermeer-his emphasis on a perfected state of life without external intrusions and noise, his stress on form rather than function and his extraordinary command of perspective. Thoré was writing at the dawn of photography, which helped artists see in a new way. Vermeer had broken the mold two centuries earlier.
Of course today Vermeer is acknowledged as one of the leading artists of the past 500 years. His influence extended to the Impressionists, Marcel Proust-even crime. Many of his 35 works have been stolen (one, The Concert, is still missing), and in the 1930s and '40s a forger named Hans van Meegeren made millions of dollars with at least six high-class fakes before being caught and imprisoned.
The man from Delft might have smiled at Van Meegeren's efforts. Few of his own subjects were original, he was ruthless in his pursuit of objectives, strove for perfection over volume and borrowed ideas liberally. But there any comparison must end. In a Vermeer painting serenity prevails and, as Bailey notes, a viewer is taken into a room and invited to walk around and talk to those present. It is this unique intimacy that ensured Vermeer's reputation over time, and that continues to enthrall.