A good idea from ... Vermeer

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IT'S EASY TO feel a little depressed after reading the lifestyle sections of newspapers and magazines. Despite their finest intentions, they often leave us with a vague sense that our own lives are rather lacking in glamour and interest. They feature houses infinitely more stylish than our own, they interview people who are far wealthier than we are and who seem constantly to fall in love in thrilling ways and with thrilling people, or have a sensational time making films, or look grave and important jumping out of ministerial jets. The contrast with more ordinary lives can be painful.

The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) seemed to understand only too well how depressing it is to be surrounded only by beautiful images of fancy interiors and exotic people doing dramatic things, which is perhaps why he spent most of his short life painting very simple scenes from everyday life, the kind we all know from our own lives, but which rarely feature in works of art, let alone in glossy magazines. In one canvas, a woman is sitting by an open window reading a letter; in another, a woman is sleeping in her kitchen at a table beside a bowl of fruit. In a street in Delft, a woman is doing some sewing. Through the courtyard, we can see another woman with a broomstick (she's presumably been cleaning the patio), and on the pavement, a couple of kids are playing a game.

The simplicity is completely beguiling. We might explain the beauty of Vermeer's work by saying that there was probably something unusually pretty about Holland in the 17th century and about the kind of women he was painting. We might claim that The View of Delft was attractive principally because Dutch towns - without electricity pylons, skyscrapers or rotating signs saying "Mercedes" and "Holiday Inn" - were much more picturesque than they are now.

But that would be to miss out on Vermeer's whole message. It's true that Delft probably was a bit prettier than London or the Hague are today, and that Vermeer's women (for example, his lovely Girl with Pearl Earring) wouldn't have had difficulty finding a date. But what ultimately makes his paintings so special is not what they feature, but how they are painted. There was nothing remarkable about the famous milkmaid pouring milk, there was something remarkable about the way Vermeer looked at her. He knew how to find beauty in places we don't even look - because we are snobbishly trained to expect interest only in the lives of film stars and grave-looking politicians.

Vermeer's excellent idea was to remind us - through the example of some everyday scenes in Delft - that there may be profound beauty, interest, even glamour in the most everyday scenes, in cleaning the patio and irrigating the breakfast cereal.