Reflections of a Master

January 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: In the art world, perhaps the show of the century. Until mid February, with limited seating, actually standing, the paintings of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, who did no more than five dozen pictures of which only thirty-five are known to still exist. This show boasts almost two thirds of all known Vermeers, by far the most ever assembled.

On the other hand, that’s only 21 paintings, most of them small, and yet, the crowds have thronged to Washington’s National Gallery as if Vermeer were a rock star. Why do they love him?

MAN: I think the physical beauty first, the fact that it’s so quiet, oh, his very realistic style.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vermeer’s seems to be an art that just about everyone can connect with, even those who, like this woman, are legally blind.

WOMAN: I’m very impressed with both his use of light and the very distinctive lines and the detail that he uses, I think, they’re very amazing, and some of the ones I saw previously were so clear they almost looked like, you know, they looked like a photograph.

PAUL SOLMAN: We asked the show’s curator, Arthur Wheelock, a distinguished Vermeer scholar, if he thought Vermeer’s primary appeal was his realism, and whether fellow academics might consider that unsophisticated.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK, Curator, National Gallery: There’s nothing unsophisticated about loving a painting that looks very real. The joy that these paintings bring is on many levels, and the realism, the sense of realism, is, is, I think, fundamental. I mean, you’ve got to look at these and say, wow, it is incredible what we can do.

PAUL SOLMAN: “The Music Lesson” is a great example of what Vermeer could do. Acquired by King George III, back when America was still a bunch of colonies, and on loan from Buckingham Palace, it gives new meaning to the phrase “attention to detail.”

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: To look at the textures of, of the tablecloth, to look at the, the light coming through the windows, the way it floods in and the shadows that it creates and the way it illuminates her, her arm, which gives a kind of sparkle to her jacket, the sheen on that wonderful white pitcher and the reflections of the platter underneath it as it comes up and the light flickers off the bottom of it, these things he captures, a sense of light, of color, of textures, and these are very, very important in making his paintings seem so real.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how real or realistic are they? At the harpsichord, the woman is looking down; in the mirror, she’s turned toward the man. It’s as if two moments were captured at once, one musical, the other romantic. And the shadows from the windows to the harpsichord fall at different angles, part of the composition, not reality. In fact, some scholars consider Vermeer abstract.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: We think of Vermeer as being very realistic and very precise, but if you look closely, occasionally you can see how incredibly bold and abstract he is. If you look at the marbling, the–on these tiles, this incredibly quick, fluid brush strokes that he is, he is giving the sense of, of that floor.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vermeer, who died at 43, was a small part of the world’s first middle class art market, pictures for folks who lived like this. The map in the background of many of his pictures, like this woman with a pitcher, speaks to Holland’s global trade and widespread wealth in the 1600’s. His subjects frequently wear the finest clothing. On occasion, their wealth, itself, is in evidence. But behind the mundane, admirers have long found mystery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But there’s just something when you see a Vermeer, you want to stop and spend a few minutes, and you can find of ask yourself, why am I spending time looking at this woman in the silly hat? I think after thinking about it a long time, he was able to capture the sort of sense of ambiguity. You really don’t know what they’re thinking.

PAUL SOLMAN: The mystery of Vermeer; it’s been written about since at least 1866 by a French critic who called Vermeer “my sphinx.” In 1921, another French critic wrote about the mysterious Vermeer and tried to figure out “by what witchcraft did he, representing the most daily and commonplace sights, manage to give the viewer so mysterious, so grand, so exceptional emotion?”. Arthur Wheelock has studied Vermeer for 20 years. He says the man is as mysterious as his work.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: The guy’s name is Johannes Vermeer, but it’s amazing how little we know about him.

PAUL SOLMAN: We know he was married and had 13 children, so his wife was mostly pregnant. But we don’t know if any of his models were his wife, and there are no kids in any of his work. We know he was an art dealer and innkeeper living here in Delft. We don’t know how actively he sold his own work. We know he died fairly young and broke. We don’t know why.

We do know some things about how he worked. For example, he seems to have used a camera obscura 200 years before film was invented to see projected images, which then inspired him to blur details in the foreground, as old-fashioned box cameras did.

These lion-chair finials are often pointed to as an example. And then there’s what he does with the painted self. In the famed “View of Delft,” for instance, you can actually see how he manipulated his pigments.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: There’s even sand. I mean, he has over there in the red roofs on the left, I mean, you feel the various textures all the way across, the ones in shadow, the ones in light, the tower of the Nuva Kirk, which is really three-dimensional, and here’s this little spot of yellow that Proust writes about.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wheelock’s referring to French novelist Marcel Proust, who immortalized this picture in the words of one of his characters, a dying author. “That is how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry. I ought to have gone over them with several coats of paint, made my language exquisite in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”

Now if Marcel Proust was excited by Vermeer, imagine how Arthur Wheelock must feel. It took him eight years to put this show together, coaxing from some of the world’s greatest collections priceless treasures–“The Geographer,” for example.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: It’s from a museum in Frankfurt that traditionally does not lend paintings, and so we worked about four years, and the process was complicated because the chairman of the board died during the process, during all of our negotiations. The director was fired; a new director was hired; his first decision as the new director was to lend Vermeer.

PAUL SOLMAN: Getting “The Geographer” was the coup, so too “Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid”–twice stolen from the same private collection, once for ransom to fund the IRA, and only recently recovered by authorities for its new owner, the National Gallery of Ireland, it came to Washington before ever yet hanging in the Irish museum.

The exhibition has had its share of crises–the budget stand-offs that have twice shut down the government have twice darkened the Vermeer Show. But thanks to private money and a couple of continuing resolutions, the lights are back on and the people back in for reasons that connoisseurs and the rest of us all seem to agree on.

WOMAN: Well, my husband is getting ready to paint a portrait of our daughter, and I was saying that he had to study this painting more than any other in the show, because if he could capture that glow and that luminescence that she has, then he would capture the essence of a young girl.

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: But what’s wonderful about this painting is how he creates an image that really represents I think a universal type, and, in fact, he generalizes. He’s a classicist in many ways. He purifies and idealizes forms, and you feel the sense of beauty emanating from this woman in large part in the way he does this in this painting.

PAUL SOLMAN: What do you take away from this event?

ARTHUR WHEELOCK: Well, I think all of us feel this incredible sense of quietude and peaceful harmony from these paintings, and it’s something you feel when you walk through the crowds here on the most crowded of days, that it’s a really reverential attitude of people looking at these paintings.

It feels–it comes–it emanates from them, and it really comes in to all of us. It’s a really extraordinary thing, and it’s nothing you can explain. There’s a certain mystery about Vermeer that will always remain, but it has this peacefulness that I think overwhelms all of us.