How to Look at a Vermeer


Of all the great painters of the golden age when the small, soggy Netherlands arose as an improbable global power, Johannes Vermeer is the most beloved and the most disarming. Rembrandt gives us grandeur and human frailty, Frans Hals gives us brio, Pieter de Hooch gives us busy burghers, but Vermeer issues an invitation. The trompe l’oeil curtain is pulled back, and if the people on the other side don’t turn to greet us, it’s only because we are always expected.

Vermeer’s paintings are few in number and scattered over three continents, and they rarely travel. The 28 gathered in Amsterdam for the Rijksmuseum’s current, dazzling exhibition represent about three-quarters of the surviving work—“a greater number than the artist might have ever seen together himself,” a co-curator, Pieter Roelofs, notes—and make this the largest Vermeer show in history. The previous record holder took place 27 years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at the Mauritshuis, in The Hague. Prior to that, the only chance to see anything close would have been the Amsterdam auction in May 1696 that dispersed perhaps half of everything he’d painted in his life.

At the Rijksmuseum, the light levels are low, the walls dark, and every painting has room to breathe. Visitors drop their voice as if in church. But for all the reverence his work now enjoys, and for all the moment-stretched-to-eternity quietude that his paintings project, the afterlife of Vermeer has been a rough ride, bouncing from local prominence to obscurity to cinematic stardom courtesy of Colin Firth. Vermeer’s work was at the center of the most stupendous forgery scandal of the 20th century, as well as its most spectacular art theft. (The Concert, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and not seen since, is a palpable absence in Amsterdam.) Vermeer, the man, has been depicted as a paradigm of Calvinist restraint, a passionate Catholic convert, and a model of empiricism. Almost four centuries after his birth, experts remain at odds about his intentions, his methods, and which paintings he actually made.

It is revelatory to walk through the complete arc of Vermeer’s career, from the early, inexpert attempts at heroic mythological and biblical scenes (reminders that even the most sublime of painters has a learning curve) to the late, strange Allegory of the Catholic Faith—but the works in between are what slow visitors to a crawl and then a standstill. Though the catalog offers a cornucopia of up-to-date scholarship and enlarged images, in the museum itself, wall texts are kept to a minimum. This is a show about looking.

The first thing you see is the sweeping sky of Vermeer’s View of Delft, glowing as if backlit, and then off to the side, his painting of timeworn Delft houses, The Little Street, truncated left and right like a prelapsarian Edward Hopper. His only extant portrayals of the outdoors, the two pictures stake the domain that he would make his own: a brick-and-mortar world made boundless through the workings of light.

Painting of city waterfront with blue sky and clouds
View of Delft (Mauritshuis)

Farther along are the tronies, or faces—radiant, intimate, and nameless. (The most famous tronie in the world, Girl With a Pearl Earring, joined the show for seven weeks before returning to the Mauritshuis for the high tourist season.) Around these, in profusion, are the interiors—light rolling in from the left, falling on chairs, paintings, maps, and people concentrating on a task. They read and write, play music, make lace. A man leans over a map with calipers, but lifts his head to look out the window, mulling a thought or interrupted by a noise. A woman cocks her head, listening as she tunes a lute. Another stands silent, studying a handheld balance. Again and again, our attention is directed to the act of paying attention. The irresistible appeal of the tronies is that they seem to have paused in their daily round to pay attention to us.

Our presence is invited, but it is also obstructed. Casually abandoned chairs and tables schlumped with ornamental carpets perch at the pictures’ edges as if about to tumble out into the museum. The border between painting and world, them and us, feels weirdly permeable. But we cannot read the words, or hear the music, or grasp what hangs in the balance. We are left on the lovely stoop, permanently on the verge of figuring it all out.

Many curators and art historians seeking a clearer view of Vermeer have found the path similarly occluded. Last fall, a collegial squall blew up between the Rijksmuseum and the National Gallery in Washington over a work being loaned to the show. After two years of study, the National Gallery announced that it did not believe its Girl With a Flute was from Vermeer’s hand. The Rijksmuseum countered with its opinion that the painting was absolutely by Vermeer. The team in Washington mounted a small exhibition with all four (or three) of its Vermeers, along with its two long-dismissed Vermeer fakes for technical comparison, and the high-tech subcutaneous imaging that had prompted its verdict.

The story made above-the-fold news, but questions had long dogged Girl With a Flute. Like Girl With a Red Hat (also owned by the National Gallery), it is a tiny picture of a young face topped with eccentric headgear, and unusual in being lit from the right and painted on a wood panel. The materials are authentic: wood felled in the mid-17th century and pigments that reflect unique Vermeer choices, such as the gray-green called “green earth.” But whereas Red Hat is something of a star (a five-inch detail from it fills a two-story banner on the Rijksmuseum’s facade), the flute girl is coarse in texture and clumsy in execution—her hands puttylike, her face flat, her cheek sunburned rather than flushed.

Left: Woman With a Pearl Necklace (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). Right: Girl With a Flute, attributed to Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum exhibit, and to the “studio of Johannes Vermeer” by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which owns it (National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection)

The National Gallery team, led by the curator Marjorie Wieseman, concluded that the picture had been painted by someone with access to Vermeer’s means and methods, but without his skill—a student, an associate, or a family member—and labeled it as coming from the “studio of Johannes Vermeer.” In Amsterdam, Roelofs had a different explanation: It was a “practice piece, clearly not intended for the market,” that showed Vermeer testing ideas that would eventually deliver Girl With a Pearl Earring. In the exhibition, both Red Hat and Flute are described as “experimental studies,” and the latter is labeled, with some nuance, “Attributed here to Johannes Vermeer.”

Squabbles over attributions are not rare. The Rembrandt Research Project spent almost half a century trying to reach consensus on that artist’s oeuvre, with mixed results. And if we were talking about Rembrandt, with his muddle of students, imitators, and uncompleted projects, the current disagreement might be greeted with a collective shrug. The problem with Vermeer is that we don’t know of other “practice pieces,” and there is no evidence of the painter having shared his studio.

Vermeer led a short life (by our standards) in a small city and left only the faintest footprint in the archival record. Most of what we know was not uncovered until the 1980s, when the economist John Michael Montias scoured municipal archives around the country for documents, building a social and economic framework for Vermeer’s life. But as Montias acknowledged, such legal and financial records mark merely the points where the individual intersects with officialdom. They have little to say about internal life.

After Vermeer’s baptism as a Protestant in 1632, the trail goes cold for 21 years, until he wed the daughter of a well-heeled Catholic family. Catholicism was illegal, but enforcement was sporadic, and Vermeer almost certainly converted. (Most of the couple’s 14 or 15 children were named for saints, including the overtly Jesuitical Ignatius.) Elected to a leadership position in the artists’ guild of Saint Luke, he was clearly respected. An elegy for the painter Carel Fabritius, killed when Delft’s gunpowder magazine exploded, named Vermeer as the phoenix who rose from the fire. Two art connoisseurs left mention of visiting him in Delft—one used the words excellent and celebrated; the other complained of high prices. But unlike his peers who moved from town to town chasing market opportunities, Vermeer stayed put, selling much of what he made to a local patron. His biggest relocation seems to have been from his father’s inn to his mother-in-law’s house, a distance of some 100 yards. He was financially undone by the consequences of the 1672 French invasion—the disaster that helped kill the golden age itself. No longer able to support his huge family, as his widow later explained, he fell into “a frenzy,” and “in a day or a day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead.” He was 43.

He left no letters or diaries. We don’t know what he thought, or how he felt, or what he hoped his art might achieve. We don’t know where he learned to paint, nor can we be certain what he looked like. We don’t know who the people in his paintings are (though most experts suspect they include family members). It is certainly possible that he left unfinished practice pieces kicking around his studio, and/or that one of his older children took up a brush with him. Or not.

[Read: Did Johannes Vermeer’s daughter paint some of his best-known works?]

When the first great account of Dutch painting was published, four decades after his death, Vermeer was mentioned only in passing; an update in 1750 omitted him entirely. His paintings continued to be bought and sold, but the origins of many were forgotten or reassigned to names better known. (The existence of other painters named J. Vermeer in Utrecht and Haarlem did not help.) When August III of Saxony acquired Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window in 1742, he thought he was getting a Rembrandt. The Music Lesson went to King George III as a Frans van Mieris, and Young Woman With a Water Pitcher changed hands as a Gabriël Metsu. All were admired, but in the absence of photography, easy travel, and public museums, few people had a mental category for “Vermeer of Delft” with which to join them up.

In 1822, however, View of Delft was bought for the newly public collection at the Mauritshuis. Then, as now, the painting was an astonishment. Stretched between scudding clouds and penumbral water, a strip of red-brick town lies in shadow, but a distant church tower gleams in broken light, while another shaft warms a clutch of tiny people waiting for a barge. The evocation of fitful sun after a morning shower is uncanny and palliative. (During the pandemic, people could book one-on-one appointments with the painting.) The Dutch term for mild weather is zacht (“soft”), and both clouds and water dissipate gently into adjacent hues, though the boat hulls and masonry twinkle as if scattered with sequins. One hundred years after its Mauritshuis debut, Marcel Proust pronounced View of Delft “the most beautiful painting in the world.”

By that time, Vermeer’s genius was ranked second only to Rembrandt’s, and his paintings were the cherished booty of robber barons. (Henry Clay Frick owned three.) Credit for this turnaround generally goes to the mid-19th-century critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who, having seen View of Delft, devoted himself to rediscovering the lost paintings of its creator and reviving his reputation. He was not alone: Other observers had also begun to recognize a distinct sensibility in certain golden-age paintings—less stagey than Van Mieris, less agitated than Rembrandt, and possessed of focal properties that struck people even then as “photographic.”

In The Lacemaker, for example, the threads in the woman’s fingers are hair-thin and sharp, while those that fall into the foreground slip almost to abstraction, like things half-seen out of the corner of your eye. Then there are the distinctive, oversize highlights that dapple Vermeer’s pictures. Called “circles of confusion” in optics, they usually arise from an object being too near to, or far from, the focal point of a lens. Human eyes automatically refocus, recalibrate for light, and flick between near and far, so we usually encounter these effects only in photographs or in the real-time projections of a camera obscura.

The Lacemaker (Musée du Louvre)

Since antiquity, people have known that light passing through a narrow aperture into a darkened room (camera obscura in Latin) will project the image of the lit world outside onto the facing surface. The question of whether Vermeer had access to such a device has been argued for decades. Once again, no documentary evidence exists—just the paintings themselves and the knowledge that his was a time of optical experimentation. Delft painters played with trompe l’oeil, constructed peep boxes, and innovated with perspective. Only a few miles away, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was grinding lenses while writing his Ethics, and the physicist Christiaan Huygens was grinding lenses to look at the rings of Saturn. Optics was where mathematics met art, and metaphysics met physics. No 17th-century camera obscura survives, but Huygens’s father wrote of his own experience, “It is not possible to describe for you the beauty of it in words: all painting is dead in comparison.” One can imagine that Vermeer would have jumped if an opportunity came his way.

Even if he did have access, however, an optical device was not a shortcut. Physical evidence reveals the laborious development of Vermeer’s paintings. Pinholes in the canvas mark the vanishing points for laying out perspective (a chalk line fixed to the pin could be pulled taut at various angles and snapped to mark lines of recession), and X-rays show him tweaking compositions over time—furnishings appear and disappear, maps and paintings scooch left and right, the watery reflections of Delft stretch and squirm like antsy kids sitting for a school photo. He was not tracing, not even reporting: He was building an architecture more perfect and purposeful than that of daily life. In his picture of the lute tuner, the window mullions, table edge, and map rod all point at her left ear. If you drew an X from corner to corner of the canvas portraying the woman with the balance, the lines would cross exactly where her fingers grip the scale above neatly horizontal, empty pans.

A camera obscura would, however, have offered a profound education for the eye, a guide to evicting the conventions of painting in favor of direct perception—factual, beautiful, and strange. His peers might employ hyperrealistic detail, but what makes Vermeer’s people and things feel so eerily present is the opposite: his strict adherence to what the eye sees from a fixed position, refusing any elaborations from what the mind might happen to know. He can be extraordinarily precise (the location of the black spots on a jacket’s fur trim remains the same in six different paintings), but will flatten a shadow or bit of ribbon with the ruthlessness of Manet. As the painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing put it in 1952, “The conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light.”

In 1866, the critic Thoré-Bürger proposed a list of some 70 Vermeers, including more than 20 outdoor views; today the accepted corpus is half that size. A 1935 exhibit at the Museum Boijmans, in Rotterdam, gathered 14 Vermeers, only eight of which are still accepted. Delineating the oeuvre was tricky—without a clear understanding of Vermeer’s achievement, it was hard to know which pictures fit, but without a clear notion of what fit, circumscribing his achievement was impossible. If Thoré-Bürger’s concept of Vermeer as a serious landscape painter seems odd to us now, it was surely no odder than the idea of something as magical as View of Delft being a one-off. The current disagreement over Girl With a Flute is just the latest instance of trying to square the circle.

As the corpus bulged and thinned, it changed personality. The Art of Painting, with its glamorous artist lifting his brush to portray a laurel-crowned model impersonating the muse of history, revealed an epistemic sophistication and intellectual ambition that no one had detected in the bawdy Procuress (an early work that may or may not include a self-portrait). The verification of Vermeer signatures found on Italianate paintings of Diana with nymphs, and of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha, forced further adjustments. Had he perhaps studied in Italy?

In the 1930s, this pliable plotline made Han van Meegeren’s fortune. A frustrated artist who wrote screeds against modernism and inscribed a book of drawings to his “beloved Führer,” van Meegeren had mixed success with forgeries before hitting on a novel strategy: Instead of imitating a known Vermeer style, he would invent an unknown one, and he would get the foremost Vermeer expert, Abraham Bredius, to authenticate it.

He picked a biblical subject popular in Italy, Christ at the supper in Emmaus, and arranged chunky figures around a table laid with speckled bread and a white jug borrowed from Vermeer interiors. He ground historically accurate pigments and applied them over a real 17th-century painting to ensure that even the back of the canvas passed muster. (The materials in The Supper at Emmaus were not proved wrong until 1967, when the decay of isotopes in the lead-white pigment was measured.) The anatomy is nonsensical, the faces catatonic, the space cramped and unconvincing, but to Bredius, who believed there must be a missing link between Vermeer’s Italianate dramatics and his homey Dutch scenes, it was “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Unveiled at the Museum Boijmans in 1938, it inspired raptures: The serving maid, one eminent art historian opined, was “the most beautiful ever painted by Vermeer.”

A similar Last Supper soon appeared, followed, during the chaotic war years, by a steady trickle of works escalating in awfulness. It is hard to pick, but the nadir of the forgeries may be The Washing of Christ’s Feet, which, apart from another Vermeerish white jug, might be decor from a zombie-themed tiki bar. (Almost inexplicably, this last was purchased for the Rijksmuseum. Nobody on the purchase committee liked it, and one member denounced it as a fake, but “we were afraid it would go to Germany,” another recalled.) The scheme crashed in 1945, when van Meegeren was arrested for his part in selling a “Vermeer” to Hermann Göring. Because the punishment for forgery was lighter than that for collaboration, he fessed up, proving his guilt as a forger, and thereby his innocence as a Nazi collaborator, by painting a smarmy Jesus Among the Doctors while in detention.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister)

The scandal has stood ever since as a psychological case study in how what we see is shaped by what we want to see, or believe we should see. Preload the viewing experience with the name of an unfamiliar artist and most of us go passive, waiting for the artwork to prove its worth. Call it a Vermeer, and people are inclined to work at finding the brilliance they expect to find.

The precision with which contemporary museums’ science departments can identify and date materials and methods is a great boon in ferreting out fakes, but as Girl With a Flute demonstrates, something can be made of the right stuff and still be iffy. Machine-learning systems have the potential to evade some of the human failings that plague attributions, but they are hampered by the same limitation we are: the need for a large, correctly labeled data set to train on—just what we lack in the case of Vermeer.

The last “new” Vermeer was identified in the 1960s (a copy of a minor Italian painting of an obscure saint). Today the action in scientific research takes place beneath the surfaces of known paintings, and it too has the ability to reshape our understanding of the artist. In the run-up to the current exhibition, the National Gallery, Rijksmuseum, and Mauritshuis showed that, contrary to assumptions about Vermeer’s slow and meticulous craftsmanship, the first marks on his canvases are swift and loose, and bear traces of a drying agent that hint at impatience.

More dramatically, restorers in Dresden discovered that the white paint eradicating a naked Cupid on the wall of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window had not been applied by Vermeer, as had been supposed, but by some later bowdlerizer. Removing the paint transformed a treasured archetype of quiet reverie into something much more rambunctious. Cupid not only says things about the letter; his raised hand coincides with the trompe l’oeil curtain in a way that suggests he is drawing it back for us, weaving games of illusion and visibility into the story. He looks at us; we look at the girl and her reflection in the window glass; she looks at the letter, a marker for people and places out of view. Attention ricochets around the room. The notion of Vermeer as the poet of serenity took a hit.

One reason we keep missing the mark is that Vermeer’s era straddled two quite different ideas of what painting might be—the old one of religious and mythological allusions to be untangled, and the proto-modern one of a reflection of personal experience. The Dutch populace was still reflexively religious, but also eager for pictures of its immediate world. It liked high-minded art with messages about piety and proper conduct, and it also liked still lifes, landscapes, and scenes of regular people doing regular things. Not infrequently, it liked them both on the same canvas.

Thus Gabriël Metsu’s tender picture of a mother cradling her sick child uses Dutch people in a plain room with an aged wall map, but arranges them as a pietà. A bout of iconoclasm in 1566 stripped Dutch churches of their religious art, but books with pithy word-and-image emblems gave painters a ready-made vocabulary of moralizing memes: virtuous women churning butter, foolish ones asleep at the table, etc.

Vermeer certainly played this game (the Last Judgment that hangs behind the woman with the balance is no accident), and scholars have dutifully scrutinized the objects and actions in his paintings for messages, though with ambiguous results. (Is the bordello scene behind the elegant girl at a virginal meant as a contrast to her character or as clarification of her employment?)

Others have taken a biographical approach, reading his models and settings as clues to a life lived. Many of the props we see in the paintings do appear in the inventory drawn up after his death, but the compositions are clearly staged inventions. Knowing the artist of the bordello scene (Dirck van Baburen) and who owned it (Vermeer’s mother-in-law) hasn’t gotten us much closer to knowing why he paired it with the young virginal player.

Rozemarijn Landsman’s recent book, Vermeer’s Maps, digs into the maps’ technical histories and political implications as well as their personal connections. (The Frick Collection’s planned exhibition on the subject was a casualty of the pandemic.) She also points out that such a study is possible only because of the peculiar—indeed, singular—care he took in their depiction. The map in Metsu’s The Sick Child is little more than a tan rectangle, but Vermeer’s maps can be identified not just by geographic subject, but by their makers, dates, editions, and condition. This loyalty to the observed universe, the art historian Svetlana Alpers argues, constituted a new kind of meaning in itself, an assertion of visual experience as the gateway to knowledge.

The latest addition to the menu of interpretive options comes from the Rijksmuseum co-curator Gregor J. M. Weber, who contends that, far from being a Catholic of convenience, Vermeer was deeply engaged with Jesuit thinking about natural science, optics, and faith. (Weber’s research so outgrew the exhibition catalog that it occasioned a separate book.) Huygens and Spinoza may have been just a few miles away, but the Jesuit mission in Delft was feet from Vermeer’s door. Weber has further identified a drawing by a Delft-based priest, Isaac van der Mye, as the probable product of a camera obscura, and notes that Van der Mye died in 1656, the year that lens-linked effects begin to show up on Vermeer canvases. Did the device end up in Vermeer’s hands? “It remains a theory,” Weber acknowledges. “But things do fall together nicely.”

The show closes with a curious trio of paintings—two of the most numinous of Vermeer’s career and, between them, the unloved Allegory of the Catholic Faith. Even Abraham Bredius, who owned it, described the Allegory as “large but unpleasant.” Its divalike central figure clutches her breast and rolls her eyes amid a clutter of Christian symbols—apple and snake, crucifix and chalice, and, more enigmatically, a clear glass sphere that dangles from the ceiling on a blue ribbon. Vermeer seems to have borrowed this conceit—a ball that holds nothing but reflects everything—from a Jesuit emblem book, where it is accompanied by the motto “Capit quod non capit” (“It grasps that which it cannot grasp”).

On either side of this overwrought effort are two pictures of standing women, each facing a wall whose surface is interrupted by a window and a small mirror. On the right, the Woman Holding a Balance, with her blue jacket, white scarf, and apparent baby bump, carries obvious intimations of the Virgin. Ignoring both the mirror and the curtained window, she contemplates her perfectly aligned scales with seraphic equanimity.

On the left, the Woman With a Pearl Necklace, luminous in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, lifts her chin as she pulls on the ribbons of her choker, a rapt expression on her face. The wall behind her, which X-rays tell us once held a map, now bears only the gradient of window light fading into shadow. Positioned opposite the stretch of wall between the mirror and the window, she might be looking at either. Nor is it really clear whether the ribbon is being tied or untied. Read the scene one way, and it portrays a pretty girl dressing up. Read it the other way, and she has paused to see the light—perhaps even the light of revelation. If, as is often suggested, the painting is meant as a warning against vanity, it is a failure: Everything in it—the plaster wall, the pearls, the girl herself—seems imbued with glory. Seldom has there been a more convincing argument for immanence.

Thoré-Bürger famously dubbed his quarry the “Sphinx of Delft,” and the notion of Vermeer as a riddle to be solved has stuck hard. Generations have set off in search of the presumed key to the presumed mystery, as if the paintings were two-dimensional escape rooms. Yet here we still are.

I cannot say what Vermeer had in mind when he made any of his paintings, but standing at the Rijksmuseum between Necklace and Balance, I saw neither the haziness of mystery nor the cleverness of a riddle, but the beauty and precision of paradox: not the mirror or the window, but the mirror and the window, the material and the immaterial, the instant of passing sun and the endlessness of light itself. This world and that one. Capit quod non capit.

This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “How to Look at a Vermeer.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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