Johannes Vermeer is Dutch painting's Yasujiro Ozu.
Okay gross oversimplification but think about it: both were reasonably successful practitioners in a small and specific genre, depicting women (as protagonist, as subject) immersed in domestic issues (money, marriage, death; missives, music, love), both set their work in select locations (Ozu around Tokyo and Kamakura, Vermeer in two rooms in his in-law's house in Delft), both made repeated use of similar if not same props (cups, teapots, sake bottles; wall maps, virginals, pearls). Both confined themselves within a set boundary, employing near-microscopic focus on details to evoke and meditate on a surprisingly wide range of human experience.
The Rijksmuseum's Vermeer exhibit opens with Vermeer's two exterior paintings-- his View of Delft (1660 - 1663, see above) and his The Little Street (1657 - 1661), and right away you're reminded of Ozu's pillow shots: those restful images of landscape or neighborhood that preface his films before diving into the story proper. One wonders about those pillow shots: page breaks? Palate cleansers? A way of pulling back to take in the wider view? A reminder that no matter how intimate we've become or invested we feel, the stories of these characters take place in a wider world? Did Vermeer also feel the need for pillow shots at some point in his career?
Staring at View of Delft one can accuse Vermeer of using a camera obscura to capture the scattered highlights of building and water and-- what of it? Like the new phenomenon of artificial intelligence, the camera obscura in the 17th century was one more tool to streamline the process, allowing Vermeer to trace a drawing straight into canvas (Vermeer was a notoriously slow worker, putting out an average two paintings a year; if he had refused to employ the camera we'd likely have less of him to track down). The camera would not have helped with composition, with framing the town as a narrow band against reaches of river and sky, the two city gates in shadow, the rooftops of Kethel Street and the (curiously empty) belltower of Nieuwe Kerk lit like a distant promise. Where most paintings of Delft showcase the town's architectural highlights Vermeer hid said highlights behind the gates and in the distance, using only sunlight to indicate where to look.
The two outdoor masterpieces are followed by early works: Diana and her Companions (1653 - 1656), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654 - 1656, see above), and Saint Praxedis (1655, possibly not Vermeer). Of the three I thought Christ the most interesting: Martha's face half-lit as she complains about Mary, Christ leaning back as he addresses Martha's protests. Mary is subordinate in the composition with her shadowed face, upturned head, cheek propped up by palm; Christ's hand stretches out in Mary's direction, holding her up (so to speak) as an example ("Martha, Martha...there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away form her." The eye travels from Martha to Christ, down arm and hand to Mary, to come right back to Christ by way of Mary's gaze. Vermeer's colors and perspectives aren't quite there (he has trouble reconciling the floor to the room's left wall), but his gift for presenting an ostensible center of attention (Christ) while hinting at the real point elsewhere (Mary)-- of that he's already a master.
That hand, pinned to the painting's center-- you wonder if maybe Robert Bresson saw this and got to thinking about hands.
In The Procuress (1656) again the focus is on a hand, only this time cupping a breast-- easily the most frankly erotic (perhaps only erotic) gesture in all of Vermeer (Imagine Ozu including such a moment in his pictures!). As far as Vermeers go this is early days; one assumes he was still exploring. Can also be argued that as far as paintings in the bordeeltje genre go this is tame: cleavage of modest size and covered, eyes downcast, smile slight and dreamy; her demeanor either made her more acceptable or more shocking-- wouldn't know. Interestingly Vermeer's Catholic mother-in-law owned one-- the genre is popular, depicting (in thorough detail) the debauchery one is meant to shun; that or the work is an interpretation of the biblical parable "The Prodigal Son," with emphasis on the son's prodigality.
Vermeer's The Glass of Wine (1658 - 1661) has a young girl finishing her wine while a suitor-- lover?-- stands ready to pour another glass. Unlike in Officer and Laughing Girl she doesn't offer a welcoming smile; you wonder what's her story. Is it, as most art critics suppose, a belle resisting an insistent suitor? Would a suitor try get an unwilling girl drunk-- or is it because she's unwilling that he's trying to get her drunk? The darkened room (this isn't Vermeer's usual sunlit studio), that shadowed corner, the suitor's olive cloak flung across his shoulders Dick Dastardly style suggest malevolent intent, with only the girl's puckered lips round that glass signaling defiance.
Or is it possible they're already lovers, he's come to tell her they're through (or that he's seeing someone else); she's thrown a fit, he's offered a glass to calm her down, is waiting to pour another? Overthinking much? But where's the fun in doing otherwise?
A word on the rendering: the glittery stitching on that red satin dress, the royal blue and deep wine red of the Turkish carpet on the table (too beautiful to lay on the floor), the exquisitely wrought stained-glass with girl and coat-of-arms, all the more difficult for being both translucent and in half-shadow. Robert Altman in Vincent and Theo theorized that a field of sunflowers would overwhelm Van Gogh-- too much riotous color; Van Gogh had to uproot a few blossoms and stick them in a vase in his room to get them under some kind of control. Likewise a cathedral window would be too much for Vermeer's precision approach-- he'd rather suggest the larger pane with this smaller.
Vermeer's earlier Mistress and Maid (1666 - 1668) covers the same territory as The Love Letter only without the comic tone: dramatic dark background surrounds two starkly lit figures. The maid's slightly open mouth suggests she's just announced the letter's arrival; the mistress is clearly concerned, even if her head is mostly turned away from us (the frozen pose as if interrupted in the act of writing, the fingers tentatively touching the chin, the aura of worry radiating from her smudge of a brow (clearly raised) and fetchingly sketched lashes). Opposing her alarm is the maid's honest reassuring face: she may not be educated or especially cunning, but her mistress can count on her loyalty.
Note the yellow jacket with its sharp creases and luxuriously feathered ermine trim-- the fur is likely cat or squirrel with painted black dots, but Vermeer's realization is such that the coat looks and feels priceless.
One of his latest works, Vermeer's A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670 - 1671) with its intensely focused mistress and serenely distracted maid clearly tells a story, only what story isn't all that clear. The painting behind may or may not provide a clue: Peter Lely's Finding of Moses, where the Pharaoh's daughter plucks Moses from a basket of reeds floating down the river, and unknowingly hires Moses' mother (who has been following the basket) to act as nursemaid. Going out on a limb here, but the mistress (childless) might be informing her husband (a Dutch merchant out on a trading mission) by letter that she's decided to adopt a baby, who happens to be the maid's; the maid, reassured of her child's future, gazes contentedly out the window.
Clever clever, only the radiance from one of Vermeer's inimitable windows adds gravity and grace to the scene, elevates the apparently sordid melodrama to Ibsen tragedy: the maid is happy, her worries allayed, her dearest desires granted. But what did Aesop have to say about wishes that come true?
Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662 - 1665) which I met for the first time because of the generosity of the Staatlitche Museen zu Berlin (thank you Berlin!) is a surprisingly moving piece. The popular interpretation: she's admiring the beauty of her pearls and how they enhance her not so extraordinary beauty, and this vanity throws shade on her character. I read the picture thusly: she's so close to salvation-- the heavenly radiance from yet another of Vermeer's divinely rendered windows falling O so gently on her-- but insists on focusing on her pearls. The difference between a plain face and a beauty, to paraphrase Ian Fleming, is a matter of millimeters; here the difference between fallen and redeemed is a matter of inches, to the right. Far away, so close.
My favorite of Vermeer's letter writers, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1662 - 1665) has Vermeer applying his trademark ultramarine-- a pigment made from ground lapus lazuli more expensive than gold-- in prodigious amounts, from the deep dark ball at the end of the map rod to the woman's ballooning azure satin dress to the wall's own whitewash (lending the room a bit of the window's cerulean radiance).
But more striking than all that blue is the simplicity and compact power of Vermeer's composition: the woman stands at painting's midpoint, the letter firmly but carefully held near the canvas' exact center (just a few inches to the left). The woman's eyes look down to focus, with a faint smile tucked into the corner of each cheek; the lips are parted as if to mouth the words, the teeth teasingly glimpsed.
Is the news so good she's ready to burst out laughing or so bad she's about to go into hysterics? Maybe both? A moment of breathless suspension, just a fraction of a second before all hell (or heaven) breaks loose.
Vienna for whatever reason would not lend Vermeer's known masterpiece The Art of Painting (1662 -1668) so I hadn't the chance to see Vermeer at his most allegorical up close. Not a fan of his Allegory of Faith (1670 - 1674)-- the painting is an intricate visualization of Cesar Ripa's Iconologia, its glass orb is an amazing rendering of the entire room (complete with windows and highlighted tiles) as a translucent sphere, but emotionally it has all the impact of a dictionary.
Much prefer this, one of Vermeer's domestic scenes: Woman Holding a Balance (1662 - 1665)-- and can I take a moment to note how Vermeer using the same basic image (a woman standing in a room facing a window) recalls Ozu directing films largely made up of one shot, positioned at the eye level of a man crosslegged on a tatami mat? I've mentioned miniaturists; must mention how Ozu and Vermeer anticipate the Minimalists in their attempt to pare away non-essentials, arrive at some kind of essence.
Further note that Vermeer early on hit on a powerful image (the girl alone, reading a letter) that he repeated to lesser or greater effect throughout his career, the way Ozu made Late Spring (girl prodded into marriage by her father) and kept remaking it for the rest of his career (Late Autumn, only with a mother instead of father; An Autumn Afternoon, his last feature; as subplot in Summer Equinox). Why? Who knows-- was Ozu so dissatisfied he kept trying to improve on his first effort? Did he find the tale so fascinating he introduced additions, extensions, variations? Likewise with Vermeer-- did he find the image of a girl in a room reading a letter so compelling he had to revisit it again and again and again?
The woman waits for the scales to balance out, standing in a room diagonally divided between light and shadow, with a painting of the Last Judgement glaring balefully from her upper right, a tableful of jewels gleaming seductively from her lower left. Caught between these opposing forces she's not asked to choose, exactly-- her face remains calm and thoughtful-- but does hold a scale in her hand, ready to weigh alternatives. All this-- the woman, the painting, the jewels, the shadows, the scale, the images, the allegory-- poised O so effortlessly on the palm of Vermeer's hand.