The Delft Sphinx


A View of Delft

By Anthony Bailey

Henry Holt -- 272pp -- $27.50

Everybody loves Vermeer these days. In the 140 years since he was rescued from obscurity by a French art scholar, the Dutch painter's star has risen to the point that he has become--well, a megastar. Reproductions of his crystalline, ethereal work hang everywhere. More than 300,000 people crowded into the retrospective at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995-96. "Vermeer and the Delft School" is currently packing them in at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Various books of fiction modeled on his life have recently appeared, including a best-seller, Girl With a Pearl Earring.

But Vermeer poses problems as a star in an age insatiable for details about stars' lives--mainly because we know almost nothing about him. Anthony Bailey is the first to admit this in Vermeer: A View of Delft. The artist was born in 1632 and died at the age of 43. He married into a landed family and had 15 children. He joined the Guild of St. Luke--painters, tilemakers, and other craftsmen--in 1653 and later served on its board. His output was tiny: Only 35 paintings widely accepted as Vermeers exist today. He was respected in his time but not famous, and at his death he left his family deeply in debt.

And that's about it. Bailey points out that we know nothing of Vermeer's youth or apprenticeship. We have no letters by him or his family, nor any drawings or self-portraits. Only the paintings give us any clue to his personality, and such clues are tough indeed to read.

Facing this void, Bailey, who has written books on Rembrandt and J.M.W. Turner, does a dandy job of sneaking up on Vermeer by portraying the society he inhabited. Delft was a lively, broad-minded city in what was briefly the most prosperous nation on earth. Bailey shows that Vermeer, far from being a solitary genius who rose out of nowhere--as he was viewed for much of the 20th century--was in fact a commercial genre painter working in the tradition of many others in Holland.

Bailey is also good on the paintings, analyzing how they were made, their ambiguous meanings, and their luminous and tactile qualities. He describes the "evasive measures" Vermeer repeatedly took to make sure the moral lesson of a work was not too obvious.

Something bad happened to Vermeer toward the end of his life. His already thin production dropped off. His wife testified in her bankruptcy proceeding that an economic slump and the burdens of his large family caused him to "lapse into decay and decadence," and that "in a day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."

Like everything else about Vermeer, this is tantalizing. Bailey speculates that he may have been depressed or alcoholic, or both. Had Prozac arrived three centuries earlier, would we possess dozens more Vermeers? We'll never know, but given the elusiveness he cultivated in his art, the mystery of his life seems just right. In this information-glutted time, there is something pleasing about a man who stubbornly remains, as Marcel Proust called him, "this artist who keeps his back to us."

By Harry Maurer

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