Jan Vermeer of Delft
Dutch tradition has it that Jan Vermeer, sometimes called Van der Meer of Delft (the city of Delft was his birth town), was a pupil of Fabritius, and, at one time, under the influence of Rembrandt. The same tradition is handed down to us about his contemporary Pieter de Hooch.
Undoubtedly there is something in the common style of these men that substantiates, in measure, such a tale. There is an affinity between them which would naturally lead one to infer that their teachincrs were the same, though whether the teacher was Fabritius or not can only be conjectured.
In subject both De Hooch and Vermeer occasionally painted townscapes; but they were chiefly devoted to the interior, with light coming in at the windows and illuminatinons a few fieures. It was a subject common to the Dutch genre-painters; and yet De Hooch and Vermeer handled it quite differently from the others. They were more elevated in feeling, more select in types, architecture, surroundings, more brilliant in color, more transparent in light.
But Vermeer was not so extensive or elaborate in composition as De Hooch, and possibly could not handle a complicated scene so well. He seldom painted a large interior with groups. A single figure in a corner of a room, with a window and sunlight, was his usual theme. The arrangement was simpler, but the mental point of view was not essentially different from that of De Hooch. His concern was for the material spirit more than for the psychological and the intellectual; and his conception was usually summed up in sunshine, shadow, and color. He saw beautiful harmonies in such things, and he told of them with great vivacity and spirit.
In the disposition and adjustment of objects in his pictures he made some use of one, and usually opposed straight lines to curved ones, as was the practice of De Hooch and others. Deep shadow as a means of composition he did not frequently use. He laid a veil of light and shadow like his contemporaries; but it was thinner, less apparent to the eye, than with, say, Adriaan van Ostade or Gabriel Metzu.
His light was clear, and seemed to have the intensity of real sunlight; and, as a result, his color was bright, with a colorful surface quality about it. De Hooch was fond of golden sunlight, and warm, rich notes of red and yellow; Vermeer's tones, if not opposed, were different. He was fond of all colors, reds and Naples yellow included, and he used them knowingly; but he, at first, preferred a silvery tone, and employed that most unmanageable of all cool colors,
blue. A number of his pictures, indeed, have something like a blue enveloppe about them, but he used it purely for the sake of blue as a color.
In Vermeer's pictures one is inclined to think it was used for another purpose. It heightened the effect of light. Vermeer evidently had an inkling of what the impressionists have discovered, namely, that there is less luminosity in white than in blue. White is dead, flat, opaque; while blue, thinly laid,
is transparent, vibrant, scintillating. Claude Monet has abundantly demonstrated this in his landscapes, but Vermeer first hinted at it in his interiors. There was certainly no painter of the time, not even Rembrandt with his sharp contrasts, who gained greater height of light than Vermeer; and something of it was due to his use of blue.
There is nothing peculiar or personal about either his drawing or his modeling. His line is clear, concise, well-understood, at times beautiful in its simplicity, and his modeling has solidity, strength, and character; but this may be as truly said of any trained painter of the school. In brush-work he might be thought a follower of Frans Hals, wide apart as their handlings seem at first blush.
He was Hals in little. The same staccato quality, the same quick touch, the same flat modeling, appear in the only life-sized work by Vermeer now in existence a somewhat repainted group of figures at Dresden. In the small panels he usually painted, this handling is materially modified by the regard for size, and yet a study of the picture will disclose the crisp stroke so characteristic of Hals. This kind of brushwork is peculiar only to the pictures of his first period. Later on he seems to have changed his manner (and something of his blue tone) in accordance with fashionable dictation, and painted a smooth surface with pale, varied colors, as in the little "Lace Maker".
There are very few of Vermeer's pictures left to us, and some of them are not altogether good; but at his best he is a very charming painter. He is a poet, but, again, like almost all of the Dutchmen, he is so only in the poetry of materials, such as light, color, atmosphere, and values. It is difficult to make people believe that there can be any fine sentiment about sunlight and color, much less about the composition and atmospheric setting of objects in a room.