An ably wrought biography of the Dutch master.
Though a fixture in art-history texts, the painter Johannes Vermeer has long been something of a puzzle; his life from baptism to betrothal is, as New Yorker staff writer Bailey notes, “document-free,” and his total output numbers only some 35 works. The author makes educated guesses about those missing years, which appear to have been happy enough, and he paints a lively portrait of daily life in the waning years of Holland’s golden age—when a tiny nation at the edge of the sea controlled a vast mercantile empire, and when the ideas of the likes of Baruch Spinoza and Constantijn Huygens enlivened the intellectual discourse of an uncommonly easygoing Protestant society. Bailey is a knowing commentator who makes subtle observations on the body of Vermeer’s work; he notes, for instance, that Vermeer slyly avoided several conventions, shunning formulaic portraiture in favor of psychological studies, mostly of women, whose self-regard he rendered with keen insight. (He also, Bailey notes, kept his work largely free of the dogs that figure so prominently in the paintings of his contemporaries; only one dog figures in his oeuvre, this one a docile Springer spaniel that incongruously accompanies the hunting goddess Diana.) “Vermeer went out of his way not to be seen drawing moral lessons. It seems to me that he removed the speech from his characters’ lips and froze their actions in perpetual ambiguity.” The painter’s singular skills have made him a favorite of collectors—and of thieves, although only one Vermeer (The Concert, stolen from a Boston museum in 1990) is still missing.
Fine reading for art buffs and students of early-modern European history alike.