Johannes Vermeer is regarded as one of the great 17th century Dutch painters. No visit to Amsterdam’s Rijskmuseum, The Hague’s Mauritshuis or Paris’ Louvre, among others, is complete without an examination of his magnificent work in its permanent collection.
Many details about the Baroque master’s life remain mysterious, however. Only 34 paintings are currently attributed to him. Questions also remain about the technique he may — or may not — have used to create his lifelike images and visual scenes.
Karl Schutz, an art historian and former curator of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, obviously wasn’t able to remove the mysterious, centuries-old veil covering its talented subject. Nevertheless, his new book, “Vermeer: The Complete Works,” is a lavish, well-researched volume of what we know, and often assume, about this artistic genius.
Vermeer’s birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized on Oct. 31, 1632 in Delft, Holland. His parents were “petit bourgeois,” a social group that “chiefly comprised craftsmen” in his country. While it appears that he spent his formative years in Delft, his “childhood and youth are not recorded in any reports or documents that would allow us to draw any conclusions as to the reasons for his choice of profession,” Mr. Schutz writes.
His route to becoming a painter is completely shrouded in mystery. There’s no record of who he apprenticed with, whether it occurred in his hometown, and if he even paid the admission fee to the Delft Guild of Painters for training. (He did join the Guild of Saint Luke, as an independent master painter, in 1653.) As Mr. Schutz points out, there’s an analysis that “has on occasion been proposed in all seriousness — that he had received no formal training as a painter.”
It’s also worth noting that, unlike the world-renowned Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, “Vermeer’s fame … even within his own lifetime, barely extended beyond his native Delft and a small circle of patrons.” After he passed away at age 43, “his name was almost forgotten, except by a few Dutch art collectors and dealers.”
If it wasn’t for 19th century French writer/art critic Etienne-Joseph-Theophile Thore-Burger, whose research led him to identify more than 70 potential paintings (this number has significantly decreased over the years), we would know even less about Vermeer. Fortunately, what we know about his art today is rather remarkable.
His most famous painting is “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), largely due to the popular 2003 film of the same name. Yet, the brilliance of his entire body of work, including “The Glass of Wine” (1658-1660), “The Milkmaid” (1658-1661), “A View of Delft” (1660-1663), and “The Art of Painting” (1666-1668), is undeniable.
Every brushstroke, color, detail, angle and gesture contained in his paintings, along with several large foldouts, have been reproduced in “Vermeer: The Complete Works.” (Mr. Schutz included a disputed 35th painting, “Girl with a Flute,” in his book.) This gives readers the unique opportunity to examine both the grandeur and minutiae of his profound artistic style.
Few painters have ever captured the human form and the beauty of our world with such perfection. That’s why some art historians have suggested Vermeer used a camera obscura. This is an optical device in which light passes through a tiny hole, hits a surface like a lens, and produces an inverted image that could easily be reproduced on a canvas.
Mr. Schutz doesn’t agree. While he consents to the possibility that “Vermeer was familiar with the camera obscura,” there’s no evidence he ever used it. “For all the interiors he depicted,” he writes, “Vermeer chose a simple compositional arrangement: there is always one central vanishing point, the entire composition is built around a system of horizontal and vertical forms, the back wall of the depicted room always lies parallel to the picture plane, and the alignment of the side walls is always in keeping with the lines running towards the central vanishing point.”
Moreover, the author asserts, “Vermeer’s illusionistic rendering of surfaces convinces us absolutely that we are looking at the ‘real thing,’ be it the glinting of metal, reflections in glass, the soft sheen of certain textiles or the play of light and shade.”
Vermeer’s aim “was to achieve a perfect illusion of reality,” Mr. Schutz writes in his exquisite book. Yet, is it possible that each perfect painting is nothing more than an illusion? As is often the case with the engaging mystery surrounding this great painter, anything seems possible — but let’s hope they’re real.
• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.
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VERMEER: THE COMPLETE WORKS
By Karl Schutz
Taschen, $39.99, 258 pages
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.