The Sphinx of Delft — Part One


The retrospective of Johannes Vermeer’s work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. during the winter of 1995-96, was one of those blockbuster shows that defined the Yuppie go-go 90s and its omnivorous ambitions; it had lines of visitors snaking down Constitution Avenue, their feet stomping against the damp, frigid air. I know this because I was one of those supplicants who thought this was small price to pay to give witness, even veneration, at the temple that briefly housed so much of this Dutch master’s work. An Amtrak ride down from NYC’s Penn Station and a snow-crunching walk from D.C.’s Union Station seemed fair payment for the honor of spending a few hours engrossed in work that has inspired generations of painters, photographers and cinematographers.

But until the end of November this year, more than ten years after what was then labeled a “once in a lifetime event,” you can see about a third of Vermeer’s complete oeuvre at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum (which has five), and at the Frick (which has three), a few blocks uptown. “Vermeer’s Masterpiece, The Milkmaid,” headlines a show that includes all five of the Met Vermeer’s plus “The Milkmaid” from the Rijksmuseum in Holland. They are placed into context in an exhibition that features other Dutch painters from the same period.

The Met show is placed just off the main arcade of the spacious and open skylight Greek and Roman galleries. As you follow the signs off to the right for the Vermeer show, you enter a darkened orientation gallery. On the wall is a grid of Vermeer reproductions, 9 paintings across, 4 rows down, all rendered at the same scale. It suddenly hits you—just how small was the 20-year output of this artist—a total of only 36 paintings still extant. And once you exclude a half dozen early ones that clearly show Vermeer exploring his stylistic potential, as well as an anomalous late work (done by this Catholic artist, on commission, in a stalwart Protestant society) called “ Allegory of the Faith,” you are left with what we normally think of as “Vermeers”—about 30 works. At one time his friend and patron, Pieter van Ruijven, owned more than 20 of them.

Here is a video that shows 21 of these paintings, all of them canonic images and presented mercifully free of zooms and pans:

There are several things that become clear when you see the work as “thumbnails” positioned side by side in the show’s orientation gallery. Except for two cityscape scenes of Delft, they are all intimate interiors. And with one exception there are no communal celebrations or the drinking and wenching scenes so beloved by many of Vermeer's contemporaries. In fact, the characters depicted, men as well as women, are modest, even upright, in demeanor. Many paintings are solitary portraits, mostly of young women, who are engrossed in simple tasks or pleasures.

--photo one
"Woman with a Lute" ca. 1674 Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Often they are oblivious to the viewer and make us feel like a voyeur.

Other times, when they see us, their look is so direct and open as to make you question the reason for your very presence.

"Portrait of a Young Woman" ca.1672 Metropolitan Museum, NYC Photo five
"Portrait of a Young Woman" ca.1672 Metropolitan Museum, NYC

On a purely visual level there are other distinguishing qualities. More than half of the signature works (15 of them) have a window light source in the frame. Another 7 have an implied strong source just off-frame. It is this soft, yet strongly defined light with its nearby source, that is one of the qualities that has made Vermeer’s work a referent for visual artists for almost 350 years.


The painting that is the star of this small but intensely observed show demands close examination:

It is surpassingly small, only 18 inches high, so it allows access to only a few viewers at a time. If you drag the photo above to your desktop to study while you read on, or better yet, access a high quality art book or poster reproduction, it may be useful.

This great painting, “The Milkmaid,” said by some to be second only to the Mona Lisa of Leonardo in popular recognition, was sent by the Dutch government in 1939 to the NY World’s Fair. During that exhibition, Holland was attacked and overrun by the Third Reich. The painting remained in the protective custody of the US (principally at the Met) until the war’s end. Its current visit to this country is a belated thanks by the Dutch government to the Met, as well as its recognition of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up New York’s great river.

The show’s curator, Walter Liedtke, posits an unusual reading of this painting and he backs his thesis up with genre examples from Vermeer’s contemporaries. For him, this is not just a literal rendering of a servant at work, pouring milk over shredded bread for a kind of porridge, but a quietly coded erotic invitation to the male viewer. The milk, poured with a barely-there stream, carefully measuring the amount of flowing liquid, is symbolic of the milkmaid’s own mammary gifts. Other critics aver that the dark mouth of the jug itself, with its milky lip, evokes the maid’s vaginal passage.

Obviously, there are many who will take issue with this reading. But Liedtke calls attention to two small details in the lower right corner of the painting to reinforce his thesis. The tiles at the bottom of the wall behind the maid feature images of Cupid, and we know that such placement of decorative figures in paintings of this period is usually highly specific in its symbolism. He also says that the wooden box on the floor behind the maid, with a vent hole on the lid, is a small heater used by women. It is placed between their feet, petticoats and outer garments covering it, to warm the legs and lower body on cold days.

Moreover, the great English diarist, Samuel Pepys, writes that it was well known that Dutch milkmaids were often readily available for sexual indulgences by the more privileged male class, and the voluptuousness of this maid’s body is to be read as, well, a “turn-on.”  You can listen to Met curator Walter Liedtke in conversation with Leonard Lopate about this and other aspects of the exhibition at: link


So much for the socio/cultural read. I’d much rather go on to explore the quality of light in this painting, clearly the real object of Vermeer’s concentration; he spent from four to six months executing each of his paintings.

Daytime window light is the dominant source of illumination in Vermeer’s interiors. There are no night scenes; there are no bravura fire or candle or lamplight effects. In this, he is an exception to most of the other painters who occupy such a revered place in the pantheon of “painters of light.” Additionally, the light source in all but a handful of his paintings emanates from frame left. Some critics have thought that the actual windows of Vermeer’s home attic studio (with up to 11 of his children scrambling about in the rooms below) were placed on the left (street) side of the house. Others have posited that he painted in several rooms. They also point out that when these paintings are reversed, as in a mirror image, with the light coming from the right, the effect is not as dramatic. This, they say, is because the Western tradition of writing and reading text is from left to right; moreover, the light of some 90% of Baroque paintings is sourced from the left (a statistic that I for one am not eager to verify).

This does make sense to me. I recognize that from the beginning of my own work as a cinematographer, I often set a daytime key light from the left. This is partly because daylight sources tend to come more from eye or ground level rather than from an elevation; consequently, this source has a singular, dynamic and lateral thrust. At night, lamps and ceiling fixtures create unpredictable, even multiple light sources; the scan of your eye from a source at eye level just seems more stable, more calming, when from left to right. If a source light comes from the right and at eye level in a day scene, it may create more tension. And Vermeer’s paintings are about comfort, calm, leisure --- not tension.

I actually tested this idea once when I was doing makeup and costume tests for a film. The background we shot against was neutral grey with no distracting compositional or tonal elements, a backing much like one often used by Irving Penn. I positioned the actors dead center within the anamorphic frame. I then made some shots that were key lit from the left and some keyed from the right. I never said anything to the crew or producers about my purpose for varying the side. But when the dailies were projected in the screening room, most everyone liked the look of the actors and the costumes when lit from frame left. In fact, I had done nothing different. The light was identical, but from both sides.


In “The Milkmaid” there is a broken glass pane at the painting’s top left that allows a harder beam of sunlight to come directly into the room. You can see it slice across the maid’s left arm just below the elbow. It also rakes across the bread on the table and the folded blue cloth adjacent.

What we call in photography “specular highlights” is evident in many of Vermeer’s paintings. Critics and historians refer to them as pointillé and they stand out especially in the darkly luminous paintings such as “Girl with Pearl Earring,” as a signature of Vermeer’s style. The highlight on the ornament on her left ear is not a single dollop of white paint but several overlapping ones that give it great depth and presence. It is one of the most famous “dabs” in all of painting.

It is this same effect in “The Milkmaid” that outlines the handles of the breadbasket, the closed pitcher behind the basket, and on the bread crust itself as it nestles inside the basket. These are lighting effects that do not read very clearly in even the best reproductions. Only an in-person visit to the actual canvas can bring us the rewards of these small accents. But more than with any other painter, it is these very details as well as the intimate size of the paintings themselves that have made Vermeer’s work the subject of such close study. Such a small corpus tightly focused in theme and setting, lends itself to an almost forensic probing.

Combined with the mystery of just how he achieved his effects in light and perspective, scholars have sought for the last 150 years to unravel the sphinx-like persona and domestic life of this most stay-at-home painter. I will continue this look into Vermeer in the next posting. It will cast a closer look to explore a bit the ongoing argument about Vermeer’s use of viewing devices such as the camera obscura, his personal debts, along with his seeming utter financial dependence on his mother-in-law, as well as this newest debate: were at least a half dozen of his key works painted wholly or in part . . . by one of his teenaged daughters?

This essay continues in Part Two.



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