ARTS: TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATIONS

Having conquered North America, the definitive Vermeer show has arrived in The Hague. Tim Hilton reviews it; plus, overleaf, a chance to see it for yourself
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE MAURITSHUIS in The Hague is an 18th-century building that houses the Dutch Royal Collection established by William V (1748-1806). It is not a large museum and its separate rooms are never grandiose. Sensitively maintained and restored, the gallery gives an intimate view of the "Golden Age" of culture in Holland. Here is the ideal place for a Vermeer exhibition, and the present retrospective is as good an account of the artist as will ever be seen.

To study this show is an enclosed and meditative experience. No more than 35 paintings are currently given to Vermeer, and of this number 23 are on display. The missing pictures are in general too fragile to travel. At the Mauritshuis there are no drawings or preparatory sketches for the paintings, for none are known. In fact our knowledge of Vermeer is scant in most ways. He was born in Delft in 1632, lived there for most, if not all of his life, worked as an artist and died in 1675 at the age of 43. He produced only about two paintings a year, no doubt the reason why he left a widow in desperate debt. Scholars have found many details, usually tantalising, about Vermeer's professional dealings, but his character and the large outlines of his career remain mysterious.

Though this is the definitive Vermeer exhibition it is still possible that other works from his hand will be rediscovered. It's not so long since the first painting in the show, the Saint Praxedis, was recognised as a Vermeer. Michael Kitson of the Courtauld Institute saw the true authorship of this canvas in 1969. His attribution was at first contested, but today it looks natural and justified. Furthermore, the picture helps us to understand the three allegorical or religious paintings of Vermeer's early years, so unlike the quiet interiors for which he was subsequently celebrated.

The paintings are the Saint Praxedis, then Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, and Diana and Her Companions. All were completed in 1655-56. Saint Praxedis, a copy after the Florentine Felice Ficherelli, has a striking motif. Praxedis, a Roman Christian, was sanctified because she collected the blood of martyrs. In this painting she is seen with a decapitated co-religionist. Praxedis has reverently sponged up his blood, which she expresses into an ewer. One might think the subject both violent and absurd, yet the painting has that radiance of calm we associate with Vermeer, and no doubt this quality first led Kitson to make his attribution.

Looking at this work and its Catholic subject is to ask oneself how Catholic Vermeer himself was. He was brought up within Dutch Calvinism but converted to Catholicism before his marriage in 1653. Probably he did so at the wish of his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins. This Maria had an effect on Vermeer that is difficult to calculate. He and her daughter lived in Maria's house after their marriage. Maria had a picture collection which Vermeer knew well. One of her paintings was coarse: Dirk van Buren's The Procuress. A drunken prostitute bares her breasts to a lascivious man while an elderly woman holds out her hand for money. Is it not odd that the (presumably) devout Catholic Maria should have had such a canvas in her home? Even odder, perhaps, that her son-in-law should have been so engaged by The Procuress that he included it in two of his own paintings. It's plainly visible in A Lady Seated at a Virginal and The Concert, both of them domestic scenes of great refinement.

An obsessed saint with her bloodied sponge, a whore at her trade: these things came within Vermeer's purview of the world, but they neither exemplify nor explain his art. He must have known about the passions, war, conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism, creativity, life and death. Old Masters do think of these things and on occasion represent them. But no other painter of the highest rank is so temperate as Vermeer. Here is the clue to his character. One feels that he had considered the extremities of life and emotion but was not troubled to report such things. We don't find tragedy, or wisdom, in Vermeer: just an endless series of hints that he was possessed by his own equanimity.

He was neither an intellectual nor a moralist. Some Vermeer scholars may not agree. The catalogue is the joint work of Frederic Duparc of the Mauritshuis and Arthur Wheelock of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I suspect that Wheelock's views predominate, since they are often repeated in his book Vermeer and the Art of Painting (Yale, pounds 30). He's always keen to extract lessons. A Lady Seated at a Virginal, for instance, has got to be about a conflict between profane and divine love. A pearl earring has got to be a symbol of virginity. Whenever a girl smiles, or there's a glass on the table, or a gentleman is descried in the corner, Wheelock comes bustling in with a cautionary homily. Of course Dutch painting as a whole was full of religious allegory, and also replete with jolly boors and their ladyfriends. Vermeer's point, though, is that these subjects can be purged. Their theatrical nature is replaced by quite pure aesthetic contemplation.

The sententious Wheelock is better with technical description. His book and the catalogue contain much detail about the scientific examination of Vermeer's paintings. Should you wish to know about the chemical constitution of his pigments, or the work of X-radiography, here is your source. Wheelock also discusses Vermeer's perspective and his possible use of the camera obscura. For most of us, however, the technical interest of this retrospective lies elsewhere. No fewer than eight of the pictures have been cleaned in the last four years. We're interested in the way the pictures nowadays look after the removal of old varnishes.

Some people find the cleaning and restoration too radical, and they may be disturbed by the bright, almost abrupt appearance of The Milkmaid. Cleaning has none the less brought many benefits. We discover more about Vermeer's handling, use of light and palette. Vermeer's individual colour was recognised at the end of the 19th century. An 1888 letter from Van Gogh to Emile Bernard is interesting. Praising his countryman to the young French intellectual, Vincent wrote: "The palette of this strange painter is blue, citron yellow, pearl grey, black, white. There are certainly, on close examination, all the riches of a complete palette in his rare picture; but the combination of citron yellow, pale blue, pearl grey is a characteristic of him as black, white, grey and pink are of Velasquez."

This is good, though inevitably partial. Van Gogh (an art critic of true instinct) was thinking of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. The Hague exhibition shows that Vermeer's palette was wider than that described by Van Gogh. Especially we notice the range of russets, deep oranges and unusual turquoise that describe houses in Delft, the texture of earthenware pitchers, patterns in carpets and tapestries. Then we note occasions when pictorial messages make colours paler or less pronounced: when, for instance, a part of a room is reflected in the mirror of A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman; or we see pictures hung on the wall, summarily described and as it were vaguely representing their original hues; or, to take Vermeer's other characteristic wall decoration, maps are represented in a tawny greyish-buff or chamois colour.

Perhaps surprisingly, we do not find flowers within Vermeer's oeuvre, though he came from a nation of flower lovers and flower painters. Their absence is explained both by his palette and the general tenor of his art. Vermeer did not want colour that simulated the vivid freshness of the natural world. Rather, he felt comfortable, indeed inspired, by objects of use and artifice: tapestries, lutes, astrolabes, virginals, jewellery, lace and paintings other than his own. This repertoire was obviously gained not from adventure but by staying at home; so it's proper to consider Vermeer's symbols for the outside world, which are letters and maps.

There are six paintings in which women write, read or receive letters. These women are on the whole young. At least one of them, as has often been remarked in modern times (by Van Gogh first of all) appears to be pregnant. But this was not the 17th-century view, and the women may be wearing the costume we know as a "farthingale", a big petticoat hooped out with wood. I think we should accept this view. None the less a feeling of pregnancy is in the pictures. We observe a delighted expectancy, bloom in the features, heaviness in the body, slowness of movement, a liking for other women, be they maids or mothers. Surely these suggestions form part of the meaning of the latter paintings, whether or not we occasionally guess, as in The Love Letter, that the envelope's message is illicit.

As we know from many (often indelicate) examples, it was easy for the modern European mind to connect letters and pregnancy. I mention this quickly since it is obvious that, so far as human relations are concerned, Vermeer was delicacy itself. That is why we surmise that his girls, though they may be sewing, writing or playing music, seem to be at the brink of something. One of them is happily tremulous with the thought of her own immediate future. This is the subject of Girl With a Pearl Earring, for me the most moving of Vermeer's paintings. It's not an elaborate work, but see how Vermeer moves from tenderness in the mouth and eyes to a rather adult bravura in the handling of the girl's stylish turban. This portrait (though it is a construct rather than a painting from life) was once known as "the Dutch Mona Lisa". I prefer the modern to the Renaissance work. It's more frank. Leonardo hid, slyly, behind his illusionism. Vermeer's emotion has nothing to conceal.

Leonardo's Mona Lisa did not become the most famous painting in the world until the 1890s. Obviously its mood was suited to the Symbolist age. Vermeer's modern fame (of course he had a local reputation in his lifetime) dates from around the same period. Proust was being rather up-to-date when he included his unforgettable description of the View of Delft in A la Recherche du temps perdu. A number of artists of the late Impressionist generation thought that Vermeer's manner anticipated their own plein air techniques. It wasn't quite true, but clearly the new painters wanted Vermeer as one of their own. It was in his only extensive open-air landscape that they saw the affinity.

The View of Delft belongs to a tradition of civic pride in topographical views of Dutch cities. But it does not feel like other pictures of the sort, especially since Vermeer minimises the commercial activities that most artists tended to stress. It's deliberately a silent painting. Seemingly, the city floats on water. The vast cloudscape indicates that the morning light may come from a magical source. As many people know, the picture contains the church in which William the Silent is buried. The painting's atmosphere is, however, more important than its descriptions. Landscapes very rarely hang in churches. That is not the point of the genre. Yet one can imagine the View of Delft within the Nieuwe Kerk that it portrays, so still, almost holy, is its aura.

One other painting records aspects of Vermeer's home town. The Little Street is as enclosed as the larger painting is expansive. It looks as though Vermeer cut his canvas down to its present dimensions after completing a slightly wider and taller picture. The tight result is composed in frontal rectangles. They have been compared with Mondrian, who of course began his career in the Hague school of the 1870s. More interesting, though, is the way that Vermeer painted cobblestones in little rivulets of brown pigment. He's constantly praised for his realism. Yet this substantial passage, fully an eighth of the painting's total size, is obviously heedless of the duties of verisimilitude. It's the opposite of trompe l'oeil. One of the puzzling thrills of this exhibition is to see the unorthodoxies of Vermeer's brush.

He was not, like his Dutch predecessors Rembrandt and Hals, an extravagant or original stylist. He just felt that he could do as he wished within the confines of the painting he had created. There are many places in which Vermeer proceeds with unconcern - adding sand to the pigment, dragging the brush, dabbing against the logic of his description - and these are passages where a more normal technique could quite easily have managed the painting's work. Such quirks are often noticeable when he represents drapery or curtains, or simulates the texture of wood and brick. There's some very peculiar paintwork on the musical instrument in A Lady Seated at the Virginal. It looks like the flung paint of a bad modern abstraction. A number of Vermeer's contemporaries reported on his artfulness. At The Hague today, one can appreciate what an unusual technician he was; and also, somehow, how self-absorbed he was.

It's possible that he painted so slowly, and sold so little, because he regarded each picture as a little world that he had made for his own pleasure and satisfaction. A liking for smaller formats emphasises that the paintings are Vermeer's personal property. Apart from the View of Delft, all his paintings look inwards. When Vermeer considers the world at large he does so through the medium of maps. They are wall decorations in The Art of Painting (not in the exhibition, alas), in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and of course in The Geographer, which also contains a globe. The usual explanation for the phenomenon of the maps is that the 17th century was a time of exploration and discovery. There's nothing wrong with this view, except that it's a bit boring. Also, given the character of Vermeer's art, there's nothing at all to suggest that he was excited by the thought of distant seas and shores.

He may have simply liked the aesthetic nature of maps, their transformation of vistas into two dimensions, their curious drawing and continental shapes that cannot have been devised by God. We have the impression that he pored over maps as he pored over many things, including his own canvases. He makes the general informativeness of maps into a private concern. The Astronomer (in the Louvre, not in the Hague show) is like an alchemist with secret knowledge. The Geographer looks like a mystic. And indeed there is much mysticism to be found in these paintings. Vermeer must have inherited some of the other-worldly nature of earlier Netherlandish Christian art. But when he reached his maturity - which he did very young - he wasn't suited to religious subjects. His one late religious work, the Allegory of Faith, is uneasy. The mysticism went into subjects he found at home.

And thus he beatified middle-class Delft women, showed them in light that he invented for himself (all the more heavenly because in every picture it comes from uncertain sources), delighted in their dress and revered their daily activities. Music-making, his most recurrent theme, links the bourgeois parlour with the empyrean. Human love is not unknown, but no one suffers from it. In fact love (one picture-within-a-picture is of Cupid) is part of the benign blessings of art. Nothing is hurried, everything awaits reflection. The subject of Woman Holding a Balance reflects this theme. She's beautiful. How nearly Vermeer came to portraiture, while always letting us know that his women are not actual portrayals. Here's another aspect of the transcendent dignity he gives to real life.

A note about Vermeer pictures that have and have not travelled to The Hague. A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (The Music Lesson) belongs to the Queen. It's lovely to see it, especially since the painting has been lent for exhibition only eight times since it entered the Royal Collection in 1762. We are also fortunate to see the National Gallery of Ireland's Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, since this painting was stolen in both 1974 and 1986. Also stolen, and still missing, is The Concert. It belongs to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. There's one Vermeer still in England. It belongs to the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House in north London. They don't lend their pictures abroad. This is the delightful Guitarist. But don't go to Kenwood just yet, for the house is closed for repairs from today until 22 March.

! Continues at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands, to 2 June. Pre-booking is essential; call 0891 200277 for details.

Comments