“The Dutch have no imagination,” Van Gogh told his brother, “but they have extraordinary taste and an infallible sense of composition.”
Vermeer was certainly no good at inventing mythological or religious pictures. Nor at the swirling, heroic paintings other Baroque artists did. He liked home. He liked his quiet little world.
Or perhaps he didn’t like it and it wasn’t so quiet. He could never leave Delft because he never had enough money; and he could rarely paint quietly because the house was full of kids. His wife gave birth to fourteen of them.
Every morning he closed himself in the empty room on the second floor of his house and tried to forget about the world.
He took the things he had around the house, the fine, expensive things, the curious things that came from abroad, and arranged them to make a picture. If there weren’t enough he pulled the curtain or even the carpet into the picture for interest and color. He called his daughter. “Put on that pearl-colored dress of your mother’s,” he told her. “And stand here by the virginal.” Then he went back to his camera scura like a photographer and gave her instructions from there. “A little to the left, chin higher.”
Was that good enough? Is that all a great painter has to do?
There are many paintings of the inside of Dutch houses and they are realistic too.
Woman Reading a Letter (55 x 55cm) by Pieter de Hooch (c. 1665) (public domain photo)
But Vermeer’s are better. There is something about them. “Realism?” asks the historian J. Huizinga. No. “[Vermeer] takes us far from gross reality.”
The rooms in his pictures are enchanted. The soft light comes in from the window like an angel. His chairs and tables and tapestries have the twinkle of fairy creations or of Plato’s Ideas rather than the things themselves. Even his people look a little like phantoms—real and yet unreal; natural and yet contrived.
Vermeer stops time. The strange stillness of his room shows you a moment, like a photograph—but what a moment!
His is the world not that you see but that you remember, that you want to remember, the way it looked if you could examine it again with love. Memory. Memory of the time you lived. Seeing his pictures is like returning from the dead to examine the life you led and the articles and people of your world then. But now they are all heightened, sublimated, beautified.
How does Vermeer do that? What is his secret? Colors, for one. They are brighter than ever colors were as you lived. Everything is better than it was then. Examine any of the objects of his world and find them curious, soft, beautiful, enchanted.
Marcel Proust, the great French writer, believed that memories are locked inside the trivial things of our lives and sometimes we free them and are able to re-live the sensations of long before, re-live them exactly. While we do that time stops and the lapse of time between the two sensations disappears. This is a little immortality. “Once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime flowers which my aunt used to give me…immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.” –from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
(See other great Proust quotes here)
Vermeer ‘s room is a wondrous moment and the objects in it are like Proust’s madaleine that took him back to his childhood. We might walk to each of them to investigate, the way the entranced Marcel approached the flowers that called to him. We pick up each one—the vase, the tapestry, the parchment, the map—and hold it to our ear or to our breast. What was this? What does it conceal?