Dutch Master from Delft

Article excerpt

There are only 35 extant paintings by Johannes Vermeer, but as biographer Anthony Bailey points out, the artist's reputation `continues to multiply, expand and intensify as time passes.'

After his death in 1675, painter Johannes Vermeer was forgotten except in his native Holland, and he didn't acquire major fame and widespread admiration until the mid-19th century. Today, Vermeer's The Art of Painting and A View of Delft are listed among the greatest paintings of all time. Portraits such as the exquisite The Girl with the Red Hat and The Geographer are familiar to art lovers worldwide, as alive and luminous today as they were more than 300 years ago.

Few particulars of Vermeer's life have survived the centuries. But Anthony Bailey has written on Vermeer's contemporary and fellow Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn. In Vermeer: A View of Delft (Henry Holt, $27.50,272 pp), the biographer dwells on Dutch society and brings Vermeer's town to life. The result is a very readable narrative.

Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, a Dutch city of 25,000 just north of Rotterdam. His father was an innkeeper and the young Vermeer grew up meeting a cross-section of society. Like other innkeepers, the elder Vermeer probably accepted artwork as payment for bills his painterly patrons accumulated at the tavern. Seventeenth-century Dutch burghers loved painting, and Dutch artists responded by working hard, on average producing 50 or more canvases a year. Vermeer would be a major exception, finishing only two or three works annually.

Vermeer, a Protestant, married a Catholic and most likely converted to that faith. He and Catharina Bones had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. He died young, at age 43, of causes that remain obscure. Bailey captures his greatness accurately when he describes a Vermeer painting as "an elegy for a moment which -- unless Vermeer had captured it -- would have slipped away forever."

Why did it take so long for Vermeer to be recognized? Bailey speculates that it was the advent of photography in the mid-19th century that "helped create the moment for Vermeer's recovered and enlarged reputation." Photography helped artists see and appreciate Vermeer's achievement in a new way. In addition, "Impressionism would soon adopt Vermeer, absorb Vermeer, as its ancestor."

Another fate awaited the painter from Delft. "From being half-forgotten, Vermeer would eventually be in an equally invidious situation, with fame so great it seemed almost to suffocate its subject. …