No wonder a novelist fantasized what kind of person posed for such a glance out of the frame towards the viewer! Far more compelling than the imaginary reconstruction of Vermeer’s world in Delft by Chevalier, the accounts by essayists, particularly Gowing and Snow (see references below), show the haunting power of this work to arrest the attention and hold it fixed (and to serve as the basis of countless reproductions for souvenir mementos from posters to Delftware). Snow rhapsodizes about that face, in its details—eyes and lips; face and head; turban; pearl--and in its contradictions, almost the way Walter Pater apostrophized the Mona Lisa during the heart of Victorian purple prose. Many of Vermeer’s figures, usually alone, remain fully absorbed in their activities; most notably those women who are working: pouring milk, making lace, reading or writing. We as viewers often peer at them unnoticed, gallery Peeping Toms, sometimes marked in our space by the artist, who establishes barriers between our stance and her space in the form of chairs, tables, tapestries, even unplayed instruments. Our eyes stray where our bodies cannot, penetrating the frame but quietly and unobtrusively encountering this dignified, solemn moment of privacy (even the courtship scenes or household dialogues have dignity and decorum). From this shared intimacy we cannot help feeling that we are privy to an inner life, as isolated as the single chamber, as softly illuminated as the gentle glow through flanking, sometimes unseen, windows at the left. We remember what truly is a fleeting impression, our glance becomes a prolonged gaze, and the momentary becomes fixed as an archetype. It is even possible to construct a prototypical Vermeer out of the several remembered principal works.
So when those women face out of the frame towards us as viewers, like the Girl with a Pearl Earring or the women at their keyboards, we feel all the more strongly that erotic linkage of the glance, that very eye contact mother once warned us about. Snow senses “reproach and regret” in this icon of desire, unsually close-up for a Vermeer figure. In the artist’s presentation, such a female glance (toward an implied male viewer?) is always oblique, over the shoulder or turned sidelong. Women viewers seem to love Vermeer with equal fervor, if not more, than men; after all, women and the domestic private world of women’s interior thoughts are his ultimate subject (are those love letters?). But Vermeer never truly shows the household; his images never show the husband figure, but only the suitor, who is clearly just visiting a sitting room.
By contrast, the ultimate objectification of a woman in Vermeer is the posed model, dressed as the muse of History, Clio. She stands before an anonymous painter, dressed in archaic clothing (no reality here) and seen from behind at his easel, in the Vienna Artist in his Studio, sometimes read as an Allegory of Painting. But in that work her eyes are downcast, and in what seems to be an uncharacteristically ambitious effort at history painting, both figures are fully absorbed in their tasks. The Vermeer that we never choose to remember is his related but maladroit Allegory of the Catholic Church, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (the artist was not a Protestant like most of his contemporaries, but converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, when he married—here the social history of his documentation by Montias is crucial).
What makes us all so possessive about Vermeer is that very privacy and intimacy. We see his women not as personifications but as sentient, thoughtful, personal beings. And the paintings are not large—they are always smaller in person than we remember or imagined from reproductions. Their bodies are shadowed by soft lighting, at once convincing as volumes yet dissolved into patterns of surface color, even brushwork. If the writings on Vermeer by Gowing, Snow, and others is any indication, scholars too can participate deeply with their own “beholder’s share,” engaged and empathetic with these absorbed and dignified figures.Steadman was right about the camera obscura but wrong about its significance for Johannes Vermeer. No mere transcription of reality, but rather a launching-pad for reverie and absorption for both viewer and viewed. Lawrence Gowing probably captured the effect best when he expressed his least scholarly response to Vermeer, crediting his tonal method and vocabulary of light as the means by which the artist “entered the world of ideal, undemanding relationships. There he could spend the hours watching the silent women move to and fro.”
Per Contra Spring 2007