Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 1999
Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, eds. Vermeer Studies Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 1998. 372 pp.; 48 color ills.; 272 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300075219)

This long-awaited volume contains a large selection of the papers that were delivered at a symposia in Washington, D.C., in 1995 and The Hague in 1996 in connection with the Vermeer exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art and the Mauritshuis respectively. The monumental exhibition was itself a spectacular success, drawing immense crowds at each of its venues. In some respects the very occasion of the exhibition as the first one dedicated exclusively to the work of Vermeer could be construed as a culmination of decades of intense scholarly interest in the painter. Indeed, rarely in the discipline of art history has so much scholarly attention been devoted to an artist whose oeuvre is so limited. Therefore, the speakers at the aforementioned symposia faced the daunting task of making fresh contributions to our understanding of the life and work of an artist who has been endlessly studied. Did they succeed? Judging from the papers that appear in Vermeer Studies, their efforts were largely successful.

Twenty-three papers have been collected in this handsome volume and are arranged in three sections: “Constructing Vermeer,” “The Construction of Vermeer’s Paintings,” and “The Construction of Interpretation.” This organization and terminology is established by Ivan Gaskell in his introduction to the book, entitled “Valuing Vermeer.” Gaskell’s postmodern overview of the book’s contents is somewhat curious given the fact that nineteen of the twenty-three essays are actually traditional art-historical studies. Moreover, two of them constitute eloquent pleas on the part of their authors for the value of traditional interpretive methods! Doubtless, many contributors, particularly those who are Dutch, will become uneasy on discovering their essays arranged and introduced in accordance with postmodern theory.

The essays in the first section, “Constructing Vermeer,” address, among other things, the rise of Vermeer’s reputation in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Broos and Jowell); the potential confusion of the artist’s work with other contemporary masters who shared his last name (Bok); Vermeer and Caravaggism (Slatkes); and recent archival research on the artist (Montias). Broos’s and Jowell’s essays examine the already well known phenomena of the “rediscovery” of Vermeer in the 19th century, for which the French critic Thoré-Bürger is traditionally assigned principal credit. Of the two, Jowell makes a more sustained effort to resurrect Thoré-Bürger’s reputation as an art historian and critic, a reputation that she believes has been damaged by the dismissive attitudes of Broos and others. It is unfortunate that neither contributor had access to Hertel’s recent, erudite study of the reception of Vermeer in this crucial time period. Slatkes contributes a host of valuable insights in his discussion of Vermeer’s relationship to Caravaggism, observing, for example, that scholars are too often anxious to connect the artist to the center for Dutch Caravaggism, Utrecht, and in doing so, ignore the two Caravaggist artists of some significance who resided in Delft. Moreover, he points out that Vermeer’s interest in Caravaggism at a rather late date (the 1650s) belies current hypotheses about the wholesale decline of this stylistic phenomenon.

The second part of Vermeer Studies is devoted to the “Construction of Vermeer’s Paintings.” This title can be taken quite literally, since the section contains seven uniformly excellent studies of the genesis of Vermeer’s paintings from various technical standpoints. Especially noteworthy are the essays by Delsaute, Costaras, Gifford, and Wadum. Delsaute’s contribution investigates the camera obscura and painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. The extent to which Vermeer employed this optical device in the creation of his paintings has been the subject of debate for over thirty years. Delsaute’s essay should finally put an end to these deliberations; his careful reading of contemporary art theory books and treatises on the camera obscura strongly suggests that artists did not use the device as a tool in the actual production of paintings until the 18th century. It is likely that Vermeer was familiar with the camera obscura, but, as other scholars have already argued, his paintings principally evidence his attempt to replicate the optical phenomena associated with the device as opposed to its direct use in the creative process.

Costarus, Gifford, and Wadum have contributed essays that complement one another as all three investigate Vermeer’s technique. This is an aspect of Vermeer studies to which Wheelock has already made many significant contributions. Nevertheless, their essays are informative, particularly Costarus’s and Gifford’s, who discuss Vermeer’s habitual employment of underpainting to achieve the diffuse edges of his forms and the overall, spectacular luminosity of his pictures. Costarus arrives at the surprising conclusion that contrary to conventional wisdom, Vermeer’s style of paintingas opposed to that of say, the fijnschildersdoes not appear to have been especially time consuming. Wadum’s contribution is particularly valuable as he links the ostensibly unique visual features of Vermeer’s art to 16th- and 17th-century art theory, which, in the end, serves to place his work more squarely within a contemporary context. Wadum also addresses several questions of chronology and attribution. Not every reader will concur with his hypothesis that the Frick Mistress and Maid should be placed earlier in Vermeer’s oeuvre, but his reasons for rejecting the controversial St. Praxedis are compelling.

The final and largest section of the volume is devoted to “The Construction of Interpretation.” Vermeer’s works are arresting for their general lack of narrative, for their eternalization of seemingly inconsequential moments. On those infrequent occasions when there is a motif with an ostensibly unequivocal meaning, the ambiguity of the overall context in which it appears invariably gives rise to contradictory interpretations. Therefore, scholars have addressed the question of meaning in Vermeer’s art with only limited successa reflection no doubt of the enigmatic nature of his imagery but perhaps equally a reflection of the limitations of the iconological method. Four of the ten essays that comprise this section can be said to adopt methodologies that transcend iconology. Two of these, by Vergara and Salomon, are noteworthy for their bold attempt to expand the parameters of interpretation. Vergara’s contribution focuses on the Dublin Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. She analyzes this painting with acute visual sensitivity (even if she overstates the degree of “self-referentiality” within it), refusing to subordinate its pictorial elements as potential bearers of meaning to the study of contemporary textual sources as interpretive aids. Vergara comments, for example, on Vermeer’s formal manipulation of motifs and setting as he structures the representation to define expressively the relationship between the two figures contained therein. Vergara’s hypothesis that Vermeer was fully cognizant of the nature and implications of the concept of “modern painting” for his own work, as it was later codified by De Lairesse, is intriguing. However, readers of this essay should also consult the recent study by Kemmer in Simiolus on De Lairesse’s Groot schilderboek and 17th-century Dutch genre painting.

Salomon’s essay likewise touches on aspects of “modernity” in the art of Vermeer, in terms of the impact of emerging notions of civility on his representation of women, particularly as they are articulated in the Brunswick Girl with the Wineglass. According to Salomon, this painting can be construed in comic terms as one in which an instructor attempts to inculcate civility into a reluctant ingenue. Salomon’s innovative reading of the Brunswick picture provides a pretext for a wide-ranging discussion of the shifting construction of gender in Dutch paintings. pecifically, she perceives a change in how the ideological construct of women is formulated in Dutch art, from earlier 17th-century paintings that emphasize sexuality to ones by Vermeer (and presumably, his contemporaries) that image them in a more respectable and decorous manner. The author associates these changesto my mind somewhat problematicallywith contemporary notions of minne and liefde.

Sluijter’s and De Jongh’s essays, on the other hand, skillfully utilize the traditional iconological method. Sluijter’s article offers an entirely persuasive interpretation of the renowned Art of Painting. He subtly corrects long-standing misconceptions concerning the significance of Clio, the muse of history, who is being painted by the artist in this picture. Far from extolling history painting as the most important genre for artists to practice, Vermeer’s picture expresses through Clio the fame, glory, and honor that artists accrue through their work. Moreover, Sluijter argues that female beauty was a paradigm for Vermeer and the inspiration for his art.

De Jongh surveys the state of interpretive studies in Dutch art with respect to Vermeer. It is clear that he deplores most postmodern scholarship, judging at least from his lengthy quotation of Serres, whose recondite analysis of the Washington, D.C., Woman with a Balance is presented as a straw dog for all the ills that have supposedly beset the field in recent years. And yet despite his laments, voiced with his typical combination of eloquence and humor, De Jongh advances our understanding of the Woman with a Balance by pointing out its relationship to contemporary depictions of Conscience.

In sum, Vermeer Studies manages to say much that is new about an artist who has already been exhaustively studied. This volume will therefore occupy an important place in the Vermeer historiography as several of its thought-provoking essays amend longstanding misconceptions and misinterpretations of the artist’s work. Lastly, the book is beautifully produced and given its size and number of illustrations, is something of a bargain at fifty dollars.

Wayne Franits
Distinguished Professor, Department of Art and Music Histories, Syracuse University