Johannes Vermeer is today one of the most popular seventeenth-century Dutch artists. He was active in Delft, but little is known about him and his artistic training and practice; for this reason, the mysterious artist has been called the “Sphinx of Delft.” Only thirty-four paintings known in the world today are unanimously attributed to Vermeer. Three are here in the Frick’s collection.
All three belong to the type for which Vermeer is best known: genre scenes of men and women staged in domestic interior spaces. He was a master of light, of creating the illusion in paint of light glinting off materials from glass to silk to pearls. These paintings invite close looking at subtle details that Vermeer infused with gravity: markings on a wall map; glass that just catches the light; a pen dropped in mid-sentence. Some of these objects bear witness to ways in which the wider world enriched these scenes of seeming everyday life in Vermeer’s Delft, to the global trade (and its attendant colonization and slavery) that fueled the affluence of Dutch merchant classes in Vermeer’s time. A blue-and-white ewer, for example, possibly Chinese porcelain or Chinese-inspired Delftware; a veneered writing box, probably made in Goa, then a Portuguese colony; a wide-brimmed hat made of beaver felt, imported through trade with Indigenous communities in North America—these subtle details in the three paintings are portrayed with Vermeer’s lightest touches and may have been studio props, or borrowed luxuries, or among his own personal belongings.
In each of these paintings the artist presents a pair of figures engaged in some exchange. Exactly what is taking place in each scene, however, remains elusive, and their narrative potential appealed to the wealthy seventeenth-century Dutch patrons who commissioned these pictures or bought them on the market.