Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) has come to represent the Golden Age of Dutch painting and yet only 37 of his paintings remain. Vermeer pulls together all 37 and then dives deeply into each of them to explore just how masterful an artist he was. This is the “first major authoritative study of Vermeer’s life and work in many years.” It is more than just an exhibition catalog for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, it is a must-have for anyone intrigued by art history.
Vermeer’s paintings might be pushing 350 years old, but they are fresh and alive on the pages of this monograph. The images are full color and about as high a quality as a paper preproduction can achieve. The initial pages feature each image with a catalog number, title, date, canvas size, location and/or ownership provenance, and cross-reference page numbers where the piece is mentioned throughout the volume. Nearly half of the book is dedicated to larger reproductions, zoomed-in detail segments highlighting certain features of Vermeer’s techniques, and figure pictures for discussion topics in the essays. Each image is truly stunning, and they are, collectively, reason enough to own this particular book.
However, there are plenty of other reasons to spend time in these pages. The 37 paintings have been divvied up into groupings and assigned out to a handful of Vermeer scholars who have written commentaries on certain aspects of each painting. These essays are a far cry from dry dull ivory tower lectures. On the contrary, the writing is fascinating. It’s hard to point out a winner here; they are all excellent. Which further goes to show just how intelligent and skillful Vermeer was if it takes so many scholars dedicating their professions to understanding him
Just what makes Vermeer so special is not an easy thing to identify. Rather, it’s a combination of concepts, symbolisms, compositions, confidence, and skillful techniques that build up painting after painting to reveal an overall impression. Looking at Vermeer’s oeuvre all together, laid out chronologically, with all of these aspects in mind, one begins to recognize the “voice” that makes a Vermeer a Vermeer. There is so much to see, so much to think about.
Things to think about include: the illusion of space; the assembly of items; the pictures-within-the-pictures paintings on the walls; the choice of clothing and accessories; the body language, facial expressions, and gazes; the players in the scene and where they are placed; the era and modes of the life and times in mid-1600s Delft; the introvert/extrovert personalities present and the inner stories being told; spiritual connections and commentaries on life and death; romance, love, and desire; and so much more.
Each scholar touches on these themes in their commentaries, picking and choosing their observations to round out perspectives on Vermeer. But one thing they all have in common, the one thing that is mentioned time and time again, because it is a constant presence in Vermeer’s work, is that they each see Vermeer as a painter of light. Vermeer works his scenes around lighting. Through windows either literal or figurative, light is the protagonist.
No one depicts light like Vermeer; he is indeed the master, a forerunner in the Golden Age of Light, so to speak. Which is why, hundreds of years from now, his works will still be glowing, and Vermeer will still be admired. Perhaps Vermeer, this book, will help maintain his status.