View of Delft (1660) By Johannes Vermeer

There are works in which a single detail steals the show. Leonardo's Mona Lisa is famous for that smile. Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam is famous for those hands. And Vermeer's View of Delft – well, not quite so famous. But among readers of Proust, at least, the painting can't be recalled without a mention of one particular bit.

It's a picture you might not expect to break down into bits. It seems so seamlessly photographic. But on a closer look, Vermeer's paint surface separates out into a pattern of light-readings, into dots and dabs and patches of colour. It's one of those.

In volume five of A la recherche du temps perdu, the novelist Bergotte dies. He dies in a gallery, at an exhibition of Dutch paintings, in front of Vermeer's View of Delft. He fixes his last living look on that picture, homing in on a detail of it, which had been pointed out by a critic in a newspaper:

"At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. 'That's how I ought to have written,' he said. 'My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall...' He repeated to himself: 'Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall...'"

"Le petit pan de mur jaune..." Which patch is it, though?

The point is disputed. There are several possibilities in the cluster of buildings at the right end of the far shore. The most obvious is the glimpse of yellow roof (not wall) to the left of the turreted building. The next is the strip of bright wall (not especially yellow) to the right of the turreted building. When he wrote, Proust was probably working from memory – or a black- and-white reproduction.

But let's assume it's the oblong of roof. There's a question you can ask about any famous detail. Does it work by itself, or does it only work in the context of the whole picture? If you extracted the detail, would it be a strong picture in its own right, or would it be hard to see what the fuss was about?

The passage suggests that the little patch all by itself, the sheer precious substance of its painting, so dense and luminous, is what transfixes Bergotte. But the picture suggests otherwise. It's only within the whole view that this patch – suddenly brighter and purer than you'd expect, and with its yellow animated by the adjacent reds and blues (Vermeer always a great one for the primaries) – blazes out. It's not a self-sufficient and extractable gem. It's an integrated effect, a climactic note.

In other words, Bergotte dies under an illusion. His illusion is normal enough. With any climactic note, we tend to feel that it can be isolated and extracted – that its power and preciousness lie somehow within itself, rather than depending on that to which it is a climax.

But this is why it's such a good image of the man's fading consciousness and will to live. Bergotte wants to see this detail as a separately precious thing, something he can isolate and grasp in his hand. Yet he can't – any more than can hold on to this last precious moment of his life.

About the artist

Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) remains a mystery. The "Sphinx of Delft" was rediscovered in the 19th century; in the 20th, his work was seen as the epitome of artistic perfection. Its watchwords are stillness, silence, containment, privacy, meditation, illumination. About 35 pictures survive, mainly interiors. There's no certain self-portrait – in his painting of an artist at work, the painter's back is firmly turned.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot