A look at the mysterious master of sublime light

New Metropolitan show places Vermeer in the middle of the skilled, reserved Delft School.


March 18, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

A young woman in an elegant dress stands before a heavy, mullioned-glass window whose leaded panes admit a cool, pure light that bathes the room and its contents in limpid color.

In front of the woman, on a table draped with richly woven Oriental carpet, a silver pitcher and tray sit next to a carved jewelry box whose open lid reveals a knotted blue ribbon tied to a delicate string of pearls. Behind the woman, a golden-hued map hangs on the smoothly plastered wall.

Who is this young woman, and what action has our intrusion interrupted? It is impossible to say. We can only note that everything is balanced in a moment of perfect tranquility, a dreamlike stillness that seems destined to forever remain an enchanting mystery.

This is the magical world conjured up in "Young Woman With a Pitcher," painted around 1662 by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master whose luminous works are the occasion of a major exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Vermeer and the Delft School," only the second important exhibition of the artist's work ever to be seen in this country (the first was a National Gallery show in Washington in 1995), brings together 15 of the artist's paintings, nearly half Vermeer's total known output, plus some 145 other works -- paintings, drawings, tapestries, silver and ceramics -- by contemporary artists associated with his native city.

The result is an illuminating essay in historical connoisseurship that firmly situates Vermeer in his place and time while detracting nothing from the singular nature of his genius.

Artist of mystery

Hardly anything is known about Vermeer's life aside from the fact that he was born in 1632 in Delft, a bustling commercial and industrial center three miles from the Dutch capital at the Hague, and that he lived and worked there until his death in 1675.

He left no diaries, letters or other written statements about himself or his art. We don't know, for example, where he studied, who his teachers were or whether he ever traveled outside Holland. Nor can we identify any of the people in his paintings or their settings.

And although Vermeer apparently was well known among his fellow artists in Delft and the sophisticated clientele they served, the public records regarding his life and career are remarkably meager.

Compounding the mystery is the fact that the 34 surviving paintings by Vermeer have come down to us unaccompanied by any drawings, sketches or other intermediate works that would help us trace his artistic development in detail. Even the dates he completed his paintings are known only approximately.

So much uncertainty inevitably has given rise to reams of speculation about the sources of Vermeer's inspiration. Along with Rembrandt and Rubens, he is considered one of the three towering figures of 17th-century Netherlandish art. Yet in comparison with them, he remains a biographical cipher.

For many years, it was fashionable to regard Vermeer as a miraculous one-of-a-kind, a prodigious talent who inexplicably appeared in what was considered a provincial backwater and somehow managed to produce an unprecedented string of masterpieces that owed nothing to the political, cultural and artistic environment in which he found himself.

Modern scholarship increasingly has challenged this view. The Met show epitomizes the revised approach to Vermeer, which sees in his greatest paintings the pinnacle of a local tradition of illusionistic representation coupled with a metaphysical treatment of light that artists in Delft had been working toward since the beginning of the 17th century.

Far from being the isolated, solitary genius of legend, Vermeer was, in this view, actually the most representative artist of his place and time, a painter in whom the era's swirling currents of artistic development found their logical culmination.

The Delft School

Those currents define the characteristics that Vermeer shared with his contemporaries as members of what Met curator Walter Liedtke describes in the exhibition catalog as the Delft School.

"There was a tradition in Delft of exceptional craftsmanship, of refined and often conservative styles, and of sophisticated subject matter and expression," Liedtke writes, "all of which reveal a tendency toward understatement, a certain reserve."

It is that refinement and understated reserve that one finds in such marvelous works as "Woman With a Balance," which Vermeer painted around 1663 or 1664.

The picture shows a richly dressed young woman steadying herself against a table with her left hand as she regards a jeweler's balance suspended from her right hand that has settled into a state of perfect equilibrium.

Strings of pearls, a gold necklace and other precious objects lie on the table before her, while clear light streams into the sumptuously appointed room from a high, curtained window.

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