What We Look at When We Look at a Vermeer

The Frick’s three paintings by Vermeer return to the galleries at Frick Madison on June 15, 2023.

On the occasion of the return of The Frick Collection’s three paintings by Johannes Vermeer to their display at Frick Madison, the author reflects on the experience of viewing the canvases in the Rijksmuseum’s monumental Vermeer exhibition this year, which reunited a majority of the artist’s known surviving works.

It became apparent, after spending some time in the company of Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, that the artist’s famously still interiors are not perfectly still after all. Vermeer’s seemingly inert figures fidget and shift their weight when they think no one is looking. The mistress indicating surprise at the arrival of a letter (in the Frick’s Mistress and Maid) is in excruciating pain after maintaining her pose of befuddlement for three and a half centuries. Elsewhere, a woman guzzles wine, a girl giggles in the presence of a roguish officer, and another girl fiddles with pins and bobbins. Nowhere is the tension between stillness and movement more evident than in The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum), in which the illusion of stasis is punctured by milk streaming over the lip of a pitcher and into a ceramic vessel.

The twenty-eight paintings comprising Vermeer were organized thematically, beginning with limpid exterior views and concluding with pictures related to vanity and faith. The heart of the display was seven pictures from the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, supplemented by twenty-one pictures from twelve lenders outside the Netherlands. The Frick loaned all three of its Vermeers to the presentation at the Rijksmuseum—the most comprehensive exhibition on the artist ever staged.

Painting of a female servant handing a letter to a woman in a yellow fur-lined coat seating at a writing table
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675), Mistress and Maid, ca. 1666–67. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 31 in. (90.2 x 78.7 cm). The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

It was said by the art historian Hans Sedlmayr that light itself was Vermeer’s subject, and indeed his figures are preserved for eternity in Vermeer’s light—more often than not shining through a leaded window on the left of his compositions—like fossils embedded in limestone or specimens pickled in mason jars. His light is possessed of a will of its own, clarifying certain elements and muddying others, picking out the knuckles of the figure in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), illuminating the forehead of the scholar in The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), or blotting out three-quarters of the rakish visitor’s face in The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

Vermeer’s light is by turns clear and turbid, cool and warm, coarse and fine, rough and satiny. As often noted, his pictures seem to be activated by light emanating from within. Or, as described by Théophile Thoré, the nineteenth-century French critic who popularized the artist and begot the modern cult of Vermeer: “The light seems to come from the painting itself, and naïve viewers could well imagine daylight to be slipping through between canvas and frame.”

Vermeer achieves these effects through his handling of paint—the impasto gobs conveying the sheen of the drop pearl in Mistress and Maid, the scumbling of gauzy fabric that dribbles like curdled cream from the neck of the figure in Girl with the Red Hat (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). He sharpens objects at the focal point and blurs those at the margins. The crumbling loaves of bread in the foreground of The Milkmaid are stippled with dots that correspond not to loaves of bread as conceived in the mind but to the color values apprehended by a viewer’s eye when focused on the rear wall.

Painting of a Dutch soldier speaking to a woman seated at a table with a drink in front of a large wall map
Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, ca. 1657. Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 18 1/8 in. (50.5 x 46 cm). The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Of course, there is another kind of light emanating from the pictures—that is, the aura deriving from their authorship. Nothing better illustrates the link between aura and Vermeer’s hand than the curious case of the National Gallery of Art’s Girl with a Flute, which was reclassified as a work by the studio of Vermeer in 2022, only to be declared an autograph work by the Rijksmuseum in advance of its exhibition. In effect, the National Gallery had snuffed out the aura emitted by the panel, declaring that a supposed piece of the True Cross was a mere splinter of wood. By giving the panel back to the Delft master, the Rijksmuseum restored its status as a holy relic, placing it once again among the thirty-odd paintings that knew Vermeer’s touch and his alone.

In 1866, Thoré dubbed Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft,” a label that has adhered to him ever since, like a burr stuck to his Turkish trousers. The objective of the Rijksmuseum exhibition was to divest the artist of this label, to bring us “closer to Vermeer.” Our primary tool for demystifying him is a posthumous inventory of the contents of the house at Oude Langendijk 25, south of the main market square in Delft, that he shared with his wife, Catharina Bolnes, and his children (and, at various times, his mother-in-law, Maria Thins). Among the family’s possessions were objects precious and banal, from the iron armor of a pikeman and a stone table for grinding pigment to a copper pan for making small pancakes (poffertjes) and a willow nursing basket. The inventory includes objects that Vermeer used again and again in his paintings, such as the yellow satin mantle trimmed with spotted fur that appears in five paintings that were on view, including the Frick’s Mistress and Maid.

A man showing a paper to a woman in a headscarf seated at a table with a musical instrument and porcelain
Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, ca. 1658–59. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. (39.4 x 44.5 cm). The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Yet, while Vermeer is rightly said to have devised a proto-photographic method, he did not simply transcribe what he saw around him. He deployed the grammar of truth to render fictive scenes of his subjects in repose. In his paintings, we find earlobes stretched by fake pearls (likely made of glass) and women swathed in mantles trimmed with imitation ermine (possibly rabbit fur). Even the black-and-white marble tiles, which appear in no fewer than ten pictures, are an invention—such extravagant flooring would not have been found in a bourgeois home of the era.

Still, the longer one looks at pictures by the artist formerly known as the “Sphinx of Delft,” the less one understands them. Stare long enough at the beaver-fur hat atop the officer’s head in the Frick’s Officer and Laughing Girl and it comes to resemble a broad-hulled vessel with its prow pointed at his dual conquests: the simpering girl before him, and the ship-clogged waters depicted in the wall map. Look closely at the woman in a fit of ecstasy in Allegory of the Catholic Faith (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the wet sheen of her eyeball comes to resemble the shimmering pearl in the Frick’s Mistress and Maid. If one gets close enough to the glittering lion’s-head finials of the Spanish chair in our Girl Interrupted at Her Music, it is possible to make out their constituent brushstrokes. But as one moves away from the finials, the illusion is suddenly restored, with them ceasing to be two clusters of dots and dabs and becoming a pair of light-bedazzled lion’s heads once again.

Certain paintings will never give away their secrets.

The Vermeer Gallery at Frick Madison will be on view during the remainder of our temporary residency, through March 3, 2024.

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