This remarkably useful book is part of the rapidly proliferatingCambridge Companion series, which encompasses sub-series in literature, philosophy, music, and beginning last year, history of art. Wayne Franits’s volume is the first in the series to be devoted to a Netherlandish artist. Vermeer studies of the past three decades, culminating in the catalogue for the 1995 blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, have revealed an astonishing wealth of information about the artist’s family and professional connections, religious associations, his practice and process, and the desires and aspirations of his patrons and viewers. Yet until now there has been no synthesis of this information on a small scale. Franits has assembled ten essays, mostly commissioned but including a few reprints, which balance surveys of concepts with attention to specific works. (The reprints are particularly welcome since the originals are difficult to find. Franits is repeating the practice of combining new and previously published essays that he used for his 1997 Cambridge anthology,Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered.) This elegant condensation offers the latest in Vermeer scholarship in an accessible and inexpensive form. All the works, including some disputed ones and the recently attributed Saint Praxedis, are reproduced in black and white. I found it to be an excellent teaching text, and for other interested readers it offers a sound, nuanced introduction, not only to Vermeer but to many of the concerns currently of interest to scholars of seventeenth-century Dutch art.
The Vermeer that materializes from this collection is satisfyingly complex: the prominent citizen with a rich network of patrons, family connections and friends; the ambitious revisionist of new ideas about painting; the expert fabricator of light and space; the sophisticated viewer of erotic life through the lenses of intellect and faith; even the busy paterfamilias struggling for financial success under his mother-in-law’s roof (a struggle which may have hastened his early death). What persists throughout is Vermeer’s exceptional rigor, ingenuity, and wit.
The book opens, strikingly, with a large foldout: Kees Kaldenbach’s facsimile of an 1832 map of Delft. The key includes the dwellings of Vermeer’s patrons and other Delft artists, as well as the buildings depicted in the View of Delft. A skilful synthesis of numerous sources is essential to an anthology of this scope, and the essays do not disappoint. The text begins with Franits’s deft and thorough overview of Vermeer’s life, career, and artistic preoccupations; this is followed by Walter Liedtke’s examination of stylistic development, aptly titled ‘Vermeer Teaching Himself.’ Liedtke makes a forceful case for the young artists’ swift and probing absorption of Delft and Utrecht artists’ themes, motifs and tendencies. Arthur J. Wheelock’s essay on VermeerÕs painting technique, marshals over two decades’ worth of scientific analysis to assess the complexities of Vermeer’s practice, particularly his luminous effects and his taste for eliminating details as he revised.
In an exceptionally fine essay, Lisa Vergara takes on the enormous subject of Vermeer’s women, which involves ‘every aspect of his production, from professional aspirations to personal predilections, from broad cultural norms to private meditations, from mundane working conditions to exquisite pictorial adjustments.’ (p. 54) Vergara links the dominance of women in Vermeer’s work to his private circumstances, the desires of his elite patrons, and the Dutch construction of feminity. She focuses specifically on just three pictures: The Art of Painting, Woman Holding a Balance, and The Music Lesson. The next two essay, in turn, address the theme of courtship. Elise Goodman’s essay deals with Vermeer’s idiosyncratic use of the popular ‘picture-within-a-picture’ format as a quasi-literary trope. The landscapes inserted on walls or on the lids of virginals recall, in pictorial form, the Petrarchan conceit of woman as a garden. At the same time, Goodman invokes the theme of nature in Dutch musical pieces of the sort featured in Vermeer’s musicmaking scenes. This consideration of high-toned lovemaking and its literary/musical accompaniment segues nicely into the essay by H. Rodney Nevitt which also offers a ‘frame of reference’ (p. 89) for Vermeer’s themes. Nevitt surveys the themes and styles of Dutch literature on love in plays, poems, prose romances, and love songs, as well as in moralizing books and etiquette books.
As the book progresses to the other major themes in Vermeer’s work, Valerie Hedquist examines religion in the artist’s life and art. She reconstructs Vermeer’s ties, through his marriage and apparent conversion, to the Catholic and Jesuit communities in Delft; then on to religious motifs and themes in his paintings. Similarly, Klaas van Berkel turns to Vermeer’s representations of science. Van Berkel describes the scope of natural science in seventeenth-century Holland; he argues in particular that The Astronomer is essentially allegorical: an idealized conception of science rather than reflecting the actual practice of an astronomer.
Overall, the erudition behind these articles is worn lightly; the writing flows with commendable ease. This in itself is an achievement, particularly in an anthology, and is a credit to the authors and editor alike. Partly what accounts for this smoothness is the decision to limit the essays to the strictly art-historical, and to the relatively non-technical. Thus there is no in-depth discussion of Vermeer’s use of perspective, or of optical instruments (though Franits discusses these issues in his overview.) Also missing are any essays by, for example, literary scholars or historians. Instead, such non art-historical approaches are, to some extent, woven into the final two essays, in many ways the most interesting and surprising, which address the Vermeer mystique.
One is grateful to Christiane Hertel for her refreshing though problematic essay ‘Seven Vermeers,’ which squarely addresses the literary, philosophical, artistic and psychoanalytic response to Vermeer as opposed to the work of the art historian. Hertel starts with the premise that Vermeer’s work elicits the kind of ‘direct emotional and intellectual challenge usually connected only with contemporary art.’ (p. 140) While many people, particularly artists, would surely reject her assumption that only contemporary art poses such a challenge, it offers a useful framework to her survey of twentieth-century interest in Vermeer, from the point of view of artists, poets and fiction writers. Curiously, she never mentions Marcel Proust, whose ‘little patch of yellow wall’ passage in Remembrance of Things Past is the Ur-text of modern imaginative responses. With the exception of Edward Snow’s 1979 A Study of Vermeer, studies of Vermeer by literary scholars (such as Harry Berger, Bryan Wolf, and Jane Gallop) go unmentioned. A pity, since such approaches illustrate Vermeer’s remarkable appeal across disciplines, as well as reminding us, generally, of how profoundly the subject of visual art has been taken up by scholars of literature.
The final essay by Arthur J. Wheelock and Marguerite Glass likewise traces the abiding interest in Vermeer in modern America. Wheelock and Glass neatly merge the history of Vermeer scholarship, collecting, exhibits, forgeries etc, with the appropriation of his images in advertising and pop culture, visual quotations in films and contemporary paintings, and references in contemporary fiction. There is much to discover here: the ecstatic responses of American travelers at the turn of the twentieth century; the circle of Boston artists and collectors struggling to evaluate his work as modernist; the now obscure mid-century novels based on his life.
Some writers in Hertel’s essay argue that scholars (presumably art historians) look at the paintings differently, that is, with greater critical distance, than other people; this impressive group of studies does much to belie such a view. All these essays, openly or implicitly, reveal what Wheelock and Glass call ‘a sense of unrequited searching and desire that is only fulfilled through the experience of viewing these works.’ (page 178) That this book propels the reader back to the original paintings is a measure of its success.
New College, Hofstra University