Vermeer's reputation is based on fewer than 40 paintings. His first 20 years, between his baptism and betrothal, are document-free. No diaries, no extensive legacy of letters, survive. Vermeer was not an uncommon surname: in Delft alone, where he was born in 1632, it belonged to an apothecary, a physician and a schoolmaster. Other artists in the United Provinces shared the name, which was often misspelt by public officials as "van der Meer" ("from the lake").
The first 70 years of the 17th century were, for the Dutch, their Golden Age. Holland was a work of engineering science, a land rescued by man's ingenuity from the sea. A surge of patriotic self-esteem led to a flowering of Dutch art that satisfied what the historian Johan Huizinga called the Hollanders' "intense enjoyment of shapes and objects" and "unshakeable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things". The Dutch were essentially a bourgeois people, down-to-earth Protestants with anti-Latin tendencies. Painters were guild members and their work was to be seen in shops, inns, and markets; sometimes it was even bartered for provisions.
Vermeer, the son of an art dealer who was also a pub landlord, grew up against a rising tide of Protestantism. The 17 Catholic provinces had been part of the Habsburg Empire, ruled by Spain, but dissenting sects of Lutherans, Anabaptists and Mennonites were spreading. In 1572, William, Prince of Orange, took the Spanish fleet at Brielle and began a decade of military tumult. By the early 1600s, the country was largely at peace, though wary still of Spanish Catholicism and British economic competition.
In his biography, Anthony Bailey uses scholarly research to construct a vivid portrait of the city in which Vermeer worked and lived. In lieu of hard biographical detail, he creates a painterly picture of Delft, with its "long box of streets and canals surrounded by a defensive wall and a watery girdle of canal and river", where "the skyline of orangey-red pan-tiled roofs was dominated by three towers".
Bailey begins dramatically by describing an explosion in a munitions factory that destroyed much of Delft, including the work of the talented Carl Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt's, and left the way clear for Vermeer to rise to become the city's leading artist. He grew up as something of an only child, with a much older sister, and married the older, prosperous Catholic Catharina Bolnes, with whom he had 15 children (11 of whom survived).
Everyone with any money bought pictures, and the most prized were history paintings. Yet, influenced by the vernacular scenes of Pieter de Hooch and by the desire, no doubt, of finding some peace in a household of bawling infants, Vermeer became attracted to small-scale pictures. Paintings such as The Lacemaker or Woman in Blue reading a Letter are imbued with a sense of withdrawal into domestic tranquillity. His preferred subjects are women, whether the Girl with the Pearl Earring or Martha and Mary.
This work speaks eloquently to a modern audience, through the appeal of his subject directly to the viewer rather like the intimate first-person narrator in a modern novel. In soft Dutch light, Vermeer places his sitters in quiet, ordered interiors. Their presence is ambiguous; nothing is explicit, questions are implied, but never answered. It is this innate sense of hesitation and doubt that makes his work seem so relevant. Despite their 17th-century clothes, these are modern people with whom we can identify.
While Bailey manages heroically with the limited facts, and discusses many of the paintings in detail, the book is, by definition, short on psychological insight. Much of the end is padding and a listing of modern novelists who have appropriated Vermeer as their subject. Unlike the great biographies (say, Richard Ellmann on Wilde or Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf), where characters and voices come through from their diaries and letters, Vermeer remains a shadowy figure. So we are left to turn back into the dark corners of his interiors, to the riddles posed by his quietly miraculous, yet enigmatic, paintings.
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