The Sphinx of Delft—Part Two


In May 1921, aesthete, agoraphobe, and author Marcel Proust in a rare sojourn into the world outside his famous cork-lined study, went to the galleries of the Jeu de Paume to see an exhibition of Dutch master paintings. Included were two by Johannes Vermeer: “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” and the “View of Delft.”

Proust’s encounter with this townscape found its way into a key scene in the Captive section of his novel, In Search of Lost Time. Here, the aging writer, Bergotte, becomes fixated on a detail in the painting, a small patch of yellow paint on a distant wall, le petit pan de mur jaune.

Already ill, Bergotte sits on a circular settee, has an attack, and falls to the floor, dead. (Some testimony to the redemptive power of art). A study of “View of Delft,” the scholarly debate about just which patch of yellow may have caused Bergotte’s demise, and an excerpt from this scene of the novel can be found here: link

It is part of a compendium site called Essential Vermeer. The extremely close reading of Vermeer illustrated on this site-- of the life and work of a painter whose output is meager by the standards of his contemporaries, as well as the little information we have about his painting style and background -- is what caused mid 19th century French critic Théophile Thoré Bürger to label him, “The Sphinx of Delft.”

What we know of Vermeer is mostly through church, town, and court documents. Though registered in the painter’s Guild of St. Luke as of December 29, 1653 (and having served on its board and as its dean several times), he seems to have painted as a solitary artist in his own home studio. He had no registered students; he had no confirmed teachers; he had no assistants; he left behind no “school.”

Here are a few of the things we do know: he was baptized on October 31, 1632; he died about December 15, 1675; he wed Catherina Bolnes in 1653 and had up to 14 children by her, 11 surviving at his death; his work was done on commission, mainly for patron Pieter van Ruijven who collected and hoarded most of his work; he lived with his family in a house owned by his mother-in law, Maria Thins, who was sometimes a model for, and commissioner of, his work; when he died he owed the local baker, Hendrik van Buyten, 617 guilders, which was paid by Catarina’s giving him two of her husband’s paintings; his estate, which had incurred huge debts, was dispersed through auctions and sales, which included many paintings by Vermeer’s contemporaries (he had been a sometimes art dealer). And in 1654, an enormous cache of gunpowder exploded in the heart of the city; known as the Delft Thunderclap, it destroyed nearly half of the structures and killed the painter Carel Fabritius who may have been Vermeer's teacher—but we have no record of that or of how the explosion affected Vermeer, his family or neighbors.

None of this tells us anything about his work. There are no contemporary critiques or evaluations, no revelation of stylistic approaches or intentions. What we have learned has been due to close examination of the work itself. Opinions about his artistry have evolved alongside the evolution of technical, forensic investigation techniques. It is this very paucity of knowledge that has fostered both revelatory insights and wild theories. Confusion about the work was also spawned by a near two centuries’ neglect of the paintings. From the time of his death, until his mid 19th century artistic exhumation, Vermeer’s painting corpus lay a-moldering. Late 20th century chemical analysis of the canvasses, abetted by radiographic and chromo-spectographic scrutiny, has unearthed many secrets--- but has also fueled newer and highly speculative theories.


There are videos from the National Gallery that give you a sense of what this analysis can reveal. The first video looks at “The Music Lesson” and demonstrates how composition, light, and adroit placement of set pieces, arranged in a meticulous and highly ordered manner, builds the painting.  Then, the discovery of a pinhole in the canvas identifies the “vanishing point.” This is an important observation when discussion about viewing devices emerges:

National Gallery of Art—Vermeer's “The Music Lesson” video link

Another video, “Girl with a Red Hat,” examines how under-painting gives depth and structure, and how highlights and complementary colors create complex pleasures for the eye:

National Gallery of Art—Vermeer’s “Girl with a Red Hat” video link

“Woman Holding a Balance” is a delicate work that uses light from a window to suffuse the scene, creating shadows that lead into the vanishing point perspective, much of this revealed only by a recent cleaning. Its construction is discussed by the Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock:

National Gallery of Art—Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” video link

What we see in these three videos is compelling testimony why these small, seemingly, innocent genre paintings have so captured the attention of generations of viewers, especially as they have come together within the past century in several of the world’s pre-eminent institutions.

Along with this, there have emerged conflicting theories about Vermeer’s use of a viewing device, most likely the camera obscura; it was known and used by his contemporaries, but has never been established as having been in his possession.

Portable Camera Obscura
Portable Camera Obscura

Here is short video that shows such a portable device:

National Gallery of Art—Vermeer Camera Obscura video link

In fact, most of the viewing devices of Vermeer’s times were unwieldy large boxes which you sat inside of and which could have actually contained a small canvas for image tracing. The one illustrated in the video can be employed only as a viewing guide. But the question of whether, and to what degree, Vermeer may have used such a device is still hotly contested. One of the most complete and compelling investigations I have read is from Philip Steadman on this BBC site: — Empire and sea Power "Vermeer and the Camera Obscura” article link

Steadman is the author of Vermeer’s Camera, a small tome that is the result of his 20-year examination of Vermeer’s paintings: Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces link

Steadman went so far as to build a re-creation of Vermeer’s studio, dressing it with equivalent furnishings, in order to prove his theories. There are reviews and a CGI tour of his reconstructed studio at these sites: reviews link studio reconstruction images link

English painter David Hockney, in a parallel book, but one with a wider ken on optical aids in painting, explored the many possible techniques Vermeer and his contemporaries employed. This controversial book is titled Secret Knowledge: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters link

I read the Hockney book when it was first published and found the ideas especially compelling because Hockey is an artist, not a critic or scientist; his perspective comes from the vision of a fellow worker, a true spiritual brother of Vermeer. Hockney is also a great draftsman; he has never been dependent on any projection device for his drawing, in the way Warhol or many of the contemporary photo-realist painters were; but Hockney utilized several of these devices in his research.


About a year after the publication of the book, Hockney, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, made a documentary for British TV. He had set up a small studio on a stage at Panavision, Woodland Hills. I met him there, toured the set, and observed the filming as he worked inside a large camera obscura. He pointed out that he deployed only simple lenses that were readily available to Vermeer.  The rather primitive lens elements of that time account for the exaggerated specular highlights and soft focus you see in parts of Vermeer’s paintings, especially where a dark planar object such as a finial meets a hard sunlight reflection. Likewise, the shifting depth of field, with parts of foreground objects appearing in varying degrees as out of focus, is faithfully rendered by the artist. It is clear that Vermeer is painting what he actually sees projected onto the screen of these new scientific devices. He is not hiding anything nor is it likely that he traces anything. The camera obscura is for him simply a new kind of viewing tool.

This is the basis for ideas explored in yet another scientific study of Vermeer’s vision, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing by Bryan Jay Wolf: Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing link

Wolf theorizes that Vermeer used optical devices as an aid toward an incipient abstraction, to create a different way to look at the world, one rendered through the tools of new science, one which embraced (he feels) the very concept of the ambiguities of the emerging modern world. Perhaps it is the strictly visual irresolution of elements within the paintings that has made Vermeer seem so attractive to modern scholars, academics intent on parsing reality through a prism of moral relativity. I suppose that this quasi-metaphysics seems remote from the paintings themselves—but it is indicative of how Vermeer has become the locus for a myriad of critical conjectures.

What has become evident to me in this examination by so many writers is that Vermeer’s paintings are, in fact, a point of departure for intersecting and conflicting ideas about how painters perceived the world in an era before photography. It becomes even more self-evident that the invention of photography in 1839 began to free the painter from the burden of creating a simulacrum of the real world; it set him off, in the path toward abstraction. This Promethean effort became the heroic journey of early 20th century art. In another piece, I will look at this journey through the lens of the great Kandinsky exhibition currently at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

There does seem to be a Vermeer for Every Man. So, it will come as no surprise that a very recent book titled, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, embraces an idea far afield from that of any of the recognized scholars, such as Wheelock, Gowing, Steadman or Liedtke. Writer Benjamin Binstock is convinced that on the basis of what he sees as internal technical anomalies in Vermeer’s paintings, especially some of the late ones, that Vermeer indeed did have a student. Riffing on the lacunae of what occurred in the privacy of his studio, and using speculation loosely taken from Tracy Chevalier’s novel, made to movie, Girl with the Pearl Earring, Binstock sets out to prove that as many as seven of Vermeer’s paintings were made in part or in total by an apprentice—his older daughter and frequent model, Maria.  He argues that Maria was Vermeer’s sole student: that she observed and studied him closely while she posed; that she learned to mix pigments, even including the precious lapis lazuli; that she cut, prepped and eventually painted on the same canvas rolls as her father; that she worked with him as a secret doppelgänger; that he trained her as a painter in his own style at a time when it was not easy for a woman to become a recognized painter.

Binstock believes that after the artist’s death his widow conspired to sell Maria’s paintings as Vermeer’s work in order to lighten the oppressive financial burden on the household; then Maria abruptly abandoned painting when she married and left Delft: Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice link

I have not seen any scholarly refutation of Binstock, but I am certain they are coming. Some of these paintings are sacred cows of the Vermeer canon, especially the “Girl with the Red Hat,” the painterly subtlety of which we already have seen in a video. Still, Binstock’s askew theory makes a compelling read, and he serves notice that the “Vermeer Paradox” is alive and well. Short of finding a diary by the master himself, there will likely be no definitive answers to many of the mysteries surrounding his work.

There is a slideshow of over 100 images of Vermeer’s work—the full-scale paintings and numerous with multiple details—at this site:

Vermeer Foundation slideshow link

You can pause, then proceed at your own pace and dig into any of the paintings to explore your own musings: Vermeer theory is a wide open field.

Because there is so much that is disputed or unknown about Vermeer’s life and work, as well as an intense level of scholarly debate and conjecture, I can’t help but be reminded of that parallel question that even today roils through the English-speaking literary world: Who was Shakespeare? Who wrote those masterful plays? Does genius coming from an unlikely quarter always inspire such a spectrum of opinion when accreditation or attribution may be murky?   I think it’s way too easy to get lost inside this conundrum.

I’d like to return to the discussion of Vermeer’s involvement in emerging optical science in a future blog—with a look at the so-called Hockney-Falco thesis. In the meantime, let’s just consider Salvador’s Dali’s profound ruminations on Vermeer’s “Lacemaker.”



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