by Georg Rode
Johannes (Jan) Vermeer van Delft was a 17th century painter. He is classified as belonging to the Dutch Baroque. There are still 35 paintings by him today. In total he is said to have painted about 45. He usually worked directly on commission, so that his works hardly ever appeared at auctions. Until the beginning of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672 he was able to make a good living from it, but because of the war his clients withdrew and he became impoverished.
Despite the small number of works he is one of the most famous painters. His paintings often have one or more people in interiors as their subject, often enriched with the symbolic content typical of the time.
Jan Vermeer, Young Lady with a Pearl Necklace (1663 – 1665); © Photo: Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz; Photographer: Christoph Schmidt; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 EN; Link: To licence
Johannes Vermeer, The Letter Writer, 1655; Open Access; National Gallery of Art Washington; Link: To licence
A lady in a silk jacket with ermine trim, for example, with precious-looking earrings and with a pearl necklace that she aligns at the neck so that she is clearly visible in the picture. She appears to be standing in front of a mirror. This image is generally seen as representing the conflict between vice and virtue. The jewellery and the splendid clothes stand for this, as does the perhaps self-absorbed look in the mirror, itself a symbol of pride.
I see in the woman a great resemblance to the letter writer, dressed in the same way, the necklace lying on the table, the hair tied ornately. Since the foreground and background are in darkness and the light illuminates the centre with the writer and the table, the effect of depth is enhanced on the one hand and the actual subject is emphasised on the other. The young woman, supposedly Vermeer’s wife, is not writing, but smiling with her head tilted towards the painter and thus the viewer.
I also see this turning towards the viewer in the famous painting of the girl with the pearl earring. There is also a certain resemblance to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. In fact, she is also called the “Mona Lisa of the North”.
Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1655; Mauritshuis, The Hague; Link: to the picture
Leonardo da Vinci, La Jaconde (Mona Lisa), 1503-1506; acquired via Depositphotos, © biggereye; Link: to the licence
Both are depicted in half-profile, facing the viewer. The Mona Lisa’s strange smile comes about because the right side of the mouth is smiling, but the left is not. Nevertheless, the smile can be interpreted as a tentative flirtation. Because of the two mouth shapes, the expression seems seductive and rejecting at the same time. In the Vermeer painting, the mouth is slightly open with glossy lips, which is also interpreted as a signal of turning towards a male observer. The head could turn towards but also away at this moment, thus showing a similar ambivalence as the mouth of the Mona Lisa. The dark background is an exception for Vermeer. The picture is called a “tronie”, a genre of picture that is not concerned with concrete persons and backgrounds, but with an exemplary character study, here a young girl in exotic clothing. The placement of the figure to the right lends the picture a slight tension that gives room for a forward movement.
Vermeer’s paintings otherwise mainly show a contemplative ambience, with one or a few people, in scenes where, in the words of the KHM from Vienna, “nothing really happens”. There is a work in Vienna that also fits this description, although it is considered one of his most outstanding works, “The Art of Painting” (one of several titles for the work). Vermeer worked exactly in perspective, in the vanishing point under the knob of the map a small hole was discovered, in which a needle with a thread was probably stuck in order to place the vanishing lines exactly. Vermeer, by the way, was self-taught. The colouring is within his typical harmonic framework, here, as on several other occasions, with the contrast between beige and light blue, which, like all complementary contrasts, creates tension and harmony at the same time. The use of symbols, which was common for the period, occurs somewhat more frequently here than in other paintings. Thus the woman is shown as Clio, the goddess of history, whose attributes of book and trumpet leave no doubt about this. The painter, elegantly dressed, represents the art of painting itself. The map shows an earlier state of the Dutch borders, so that a reference to history may also be inferred from this.
Johannes Vermeer van Delft, The Art of Painting, 1664 – 1668, © KHM-Museumsverband; Link: to the picture
The curtain on the left is a clear allusion to an anecdote about the competition between the painters Zeuxis, who depicted grapes so accurately that birds pecked at them, and Parrhasios. The latter painted a curtain so lifelike that Zeuxis wanted to push it aside so that he could see the painting behind it better.
The “View of Delft” is no less outstanding a masterpiece, one of only two paintings that do not show interiors. During the pandemic, the Mauritshuis set up a corona-compliant access to the painting, where this work is the only one hanging in a hall and viewers are allowed a period of 10 minutes during which they can look at the painting alone. This sufficiently expresses the appreciation of this painting. The picture shows a city view of Delft. Dark clouds in the foreground over the bank of a watercourse, while the city further back is bathed in bright sunlight, a division of light and dark like that of the letter writer. The arrangement is parallel to the edges of the picture; Vermeer has dispensed with the usual streets leading into the depths of such depictions, which gives the picture a calm aura.
Another artist whose involvement in the reception of the work is worth mentioning is the writer Marcel Proust, author of the monumental work In Search of Lost Time. Proust, already physically ailing, visited a Vermeer exhibition in Paris in 1921. He suffered a fainting spell on the stairs. He processed this incident by subsequently inserting an episode into his work in which the novel’s character Bergotte, a writer, says in the face of a Vermeer painting:
“…I should have used more colour on it, made my language as precious in itself as this little yellow corner of the wall is.”
A moment later, Bergotte suffers a fainting spell, in the course of which he later dies. A quintessence of artistic work, then, this little yellow corner of the wall, at the end of a life, both for Bergotte and for Proust. He died in 1922.
The painting in question could only be the “View of Delft”, in which one then looked for the praised little yellow corner of the wall. In vain, however, because it does not exist.
Dieter E. Zimmer from the “Zeit” solved the contradiction in the Christmas edition of the newspaper in a brilliant way:
“I like to think he [Proust] invented it. I imagine how he considered what detail there might well be in the picture but isn’t, how he approached the picture to convince himself that it did not in fact contain any little yellow piece of wall with a canopy – and how he now knew what he had to do.”
“At most, you can see it inside. Outside, such perfect places can only be sought, not found.” (Both quotes: Dieter E. Zimmer, SZ, 24.12.1996)
Proust pays homage to the perfection of the image by imputing to it an equally perfect detail that serves as an uncatchable symbol of perfection, without the image ever lacking such an element.