Reading List: New Perspectives on Vermeer

Stack of eight books about Vermeer on a white shelf

In October, we celebrate the birthday of Johannes Vermeer, who was born in this month in 1632. The following reading list features books and a website—each published within the last two decades—with novel theories and interpretations of Vermeer’s work. These recent resources honor the Dutch artist’s continuing legacy and display how the “sphinx of Delft,” with an enigmatic oeuvre comprising only approximately thirty-four known paintings, continues to captivate art historians nearly four hundred years later.

You can find these books and more in the library’s reading room at Frick Madison, which is free and open to the public by appointment.

  1. Vermeer’s Maps

    By Rozemarijn Landsman (2022)

    In this insightful new publication by The Frick Collection—also available now in the Museum Shop—explore the intricately detailed wall maps and cartographic objects found in Vermeer’s works. Inspired by the background decor in the Frick’s Officer and Laughing Girl, Rozemarijn Landsman, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow from 2019–2021, guides the reader through a thorough history of cartography in the early modern period of Dutch art. A close observation of Vermeer’s paintings highlights his “mania for maps,” which led him to portray precise representations of cartographic paraphernalia and wall renderings in nine of his canvases.

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of two seated figures in front of a large wall map
  1. Essential Vermeer 3.0

    By Jonathan Janson (2001–present)

    Delve into Vermeer’s world with this online resource that compiles research and resources on the artist and his era. Essential Vermeer 3.0 serves as a comprehensive overview of the artist’s oeuvre and provides a wealth of content through which users can visualize and contextualize Vermeer’s works. Users can view Vermeer’s paintings in scale as well as learn about his painting technique and subjects. The website also allows visitors to explore Dutch culture in the seventeenth century through features including interactive maps of Delft and even musical scores, presenting immersive views of the world of Vermeer.

  1. Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

    By Marjorie E. Wieseman (2011)

    This catalog, produced for an exhibition of the same name at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, examines the visual trope of the home in Dutch art when populated by a solitary woman engaged in a domestic task. These seemingly introspective scenes of lacemaking, writing, and playing music are powerful in their invocation of reverie. This title explores how and why Vermeer—along with contemporaries Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes, and Jan Steen—captivated his audience with such quiet domestic subjects.

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of a woman making lace
  1. Traces of Vermeer

    By Jane Jelley (2017)

    After nearly four centuries, Vermeer remains a mysterious artist; there are no firsthand accounts of him working, extant journals, or correspondence attributed to him. His paintings show no trace of preliminary drawings and are unique in their combination of luminosity and uneven focus. In this book investigating Vermeer’s method of painting, artist Jane Jelley relays her search to understand how he captured the “unfocused impression of a moment in time.” With her own visual and aesthetic experiments, Jelley tests her theory that Vermeer combined the use of the camera obscura with that of a white board and oiled paper to transfer a tonal image onto canvas in preparation for painting.

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of an opulently dressed woman at a desk
  1. Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice

    By Benjamin Binstock (2009)

    The trajectory of Vermeer’s artistic career is outlined in this book, which chronologically traces Vermeer’s paintings from his street views to his mature work of women in domestic settings and more constructed scenes, such as Allegory of the Catholic Faith, supposedly influenced by his religious mother-in-law. After holistically reviewing Vermeer’s body of work, the author speculates that seven of his canvases may have been produced by his model and secret prodigy apprentice: his daughter, Maria Vermeer.

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of a woman in a large red hat
  1. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the Gift in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art

    By Michael Zell (2021)

    With a blend of anthropological and art historical studies, this publication analyzes the relationship between gift culture and art in the seventeenth century. The monetary and social values of the work of art are discussed in this incisive text, which covers diplomatic presents of art between European monarchies during the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt’s strategic gifting of his art and Vermeer’s selective choice of buyers offer further insight into the role of art in this era as a precious commodity of social and cultural capital.

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of a woman seated at a piano in front of a large framed wall painting
  1. Hound in the Hunt: Optical Aids in Art

    By Tim Jenison (2016)

    Author and filmmaker Tim Jenison contends with the hotly debated topic of Vermeer’s use of optical devices. In this catalog, which also serves as an ancillary resource to his documentary film, Tim’s Vermeer, and to an exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, Jenison makes the controversial claim that Vermeer may have used “comparators”—series of mirrors placed strategically to view the canvas and subject at the same time—to paint his famous scenes. The catalog details Jenison’s use of comparators to reproduce the painting A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (The Music Lesson), demonstrating how Vermeer may have employed such optical aids.

    Black book cover featuring the stylized words "Hound in the Hunt"
  1. The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

    By Walter A. Liedtke (2009)

    Centered on a painting of a single figure, this catalog—accompanying a past exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art—considers the advent of Vermeer’s mature aesthetic style. In The Milkmaid, Vermeer combines a sculptural rendering of the subject with optical effects such as the stippled representation of light on the bread and basket. Curator Walter Liedtke describes how Vermeer carefully composed this image in conversation with his predecessors to produce an illusionistic image with the stark simplicity and lighting effects that would inform his later works. The text also explains how background details may allude to the subject’s amorous thoughts.

  1. Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing

    By Bryan Jay Wolf (2001)

    Consider the broader historical and cultural context of Vermeer’s works with this publication, which explores the intersection of class, gender, and representation in seventeenth-century Holland. Starting with a look at Dutch genre painters Caspar Netscher and Pieter de Hooch, the text examines themes of femininity and domesticity in Dutch society. It proceeds to compare the precise, Cartesian illusion of perspective common in European art of the time with Vermeer’s blurred details and distinctive renderings of space and considers the significance of the viewer in early modern Dutch painting. The book concludes with a close look at the tropes Vermeer employed throughout his oeuvre.

    Book cover with a painting detail of a maid handing a seated woman a letter
  1. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

    By Timothy Brook (2008)

    You may have noticed the extravagant beaver-pelt hat in The Frick Collection’s Officer and Laughing Girl and the Chinese porcelain atop the table in Girl Interrupted at Her Music—but how did Vermeer have access to such objects when he never left his native Holland? Follow this book’s travels around the world as it explores how items like these, along with Turkish carpets and silver, came to make appearances in Vermeer’s paintings by way of Delft’s wharves, where returning ships from the Dutch East India Company enabled one to encounter a veritable “inventory of the world.”

    Book cover featuring a painting detail of a man and woman seated at a table in front of a large wall map

All photos by Joseph Coscia Jr., The Frick Collection

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