SUBLIME POET OF THE BANAL
Vermeer: The Golden Century of Dutch Art
Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, until January 20
TOWARDS the end of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and before the final revelation experienced by the narrator, which turns out to be the fulfilment of the truth glimpsed in the famous episode of the madeleine, there is another passage of emblematic significance for the vocation of the artist. It concerns the death of the novelist Bergotte, one of the many characters in the immensely long book and inevitably a partial alter ego of the author.
Although ill, Bergotte has insisted on visiting an exhibition of Dutch painting to see Vermeer’s View of Delft, intrigued by a critic’s reference to a beautiful passage that he did not recall: a little bit of yellow wall, painted as finely as a precious Chinese work of art. As he contemplates the petit pan de mur jaune, its humble but mysterious beauty leads him to a profound question: what is it that compels the artist to take such care, to pay such attention a detail that might seem insignificant to the casual observer?
It is as though the painter were acting under the compulsion of a higher order of values, for there is no reason in this world, Bergotte reflects, to dedicate oneself in such a way to the pursuit of beauty, of goodness, or even of simple courtesy. There must be another realm in which these things exist and matter, and to which we are connected whenever we dedicate ourselves to something beyond the self. It is in the midst of these reflections that Bergotte suffers a fatal stroke, so that epiphany coincides with extinction of consciousness.
These few but intensely memorable pages, which, as Jacques Derrida observed, in some sense reflect or contain the whole of Proust’s novel in the same way that the little patch of wall contains the whole of the View of Delft, also represent a central moment in the modern critical fortune of Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). We know tantalisingly little of his life and career, and we are not even sure for whom he painted the very small number of works he produced — probably fewer than 50, of which between 30 and 40 survive today, depending on whether one accepts certain attributions or not.
Although we know Vermeer inherited his father’s business as an art dealer, we are not sure whether he painted his pictures to sell on the open market or on commission from a wealthy collector. The extraordinary care and refinement with which they are executed has been taken as supporting the latter hypothesis, but the evidence is scant and inconclusive.
In any case, while Vermeer was held in high regard in his lifetime, appreciation of his few pictures was confined to Dutch connoisseurs for almost two centuries after his death. As far as the wider world was concerned, he was rediscovered by Theophile Thore-Burger, a French critic, in the middle of the 19th century. By the time Proust was writing, in the first two decades of the 20th, his work was familiar to a cultivated audience. In the 1930s, Salvador Dali based pictures on Vermeer, and during the 30s and 40s he became the object of the most notorious case of painting forgery in modern history, when Han van Meegeren produced a series of fakes that were initially taken seriously; indeed the van Meegeren affair is an intriguing story in its own right.
The aesthetic qualities represented by Vermeer’s work seem completely at odds with the consumer culture of noise and distraction that evolved in the post-war years, and yet by the end of the century, thanks in particular to the novel (1999) and then film (2003) of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer became a household name to rival Rembrandt in the minds of the public. Such fame has made it harder for museums to lend his works, which are often among the main attractions for visitors, but in spite of these difficulties, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge held Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence in 2011-12, and the National Gallery in London will open Vermeer and Music in late June next year.
The present Vermeer exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale is not only a substantial survey of the artist and his contemporaries, but also probably the most important exhibition in Rome for readers visiting the city in the next few months. It is accompanied by a fine catalogue including essays by several curators, to whose summary of recent scholarship some of the comments above are indebted.
Even to speak of Vermeer and Rome in the same breath is to evoke a collision of worlds: 17th-century Holland, bourgeois, prosperous and predominantly Protestant (though Vermeer was part of the Catholic minority), was a society of respectable married households; Rome, dramatic and glorious, was polarised between the celibacy of the innumerable clergy and the undomesticated carnal relations of soldiers, bravi and whores.
But the contrast is a telling one, not merely adventitious. Both societies were in love with painting in their different ways: Dutch houses, as we see from records of contemporary interiors, were full of pictures, but they were mostly modest in size and either landscapes or still lifes. In Rome, although private collecting was also important, painting was most conspicuously public, on a larger scale and in the more ambitious genres of history painting and allegory.
Artists, accordingly, were taken more seriously and their lives and works were recorded in biographies. Had Vermeer lived in Rome, we would almost certainly have a written record of his life, he would undoubtedly have been supported by one or more important patrons, but his artistic trajectory might have been very different. The particular and reticent mystery that we admire in his works could perhaps only