Much of the mystery surrounding the life of Johannes Vermeer begins with the Arnold Bon poem written in eulogy after the death of Carel Fabritius, who was killed as a result of the explosion of the gunpowder magazine in Delft on 12 October 1654.
All of the stanzas of Arnold Bon’s poem recall the life and accomplishments of Fabritius, who at the time was the most eminent painter in Delft. However, the last stanza mentions a younger artist, a Vermeer, who rises like a phoenix following this tragedy.
“Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midstand at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
VERMEER, who masterfully trod in his path.”[i]
Aside from this single mention, very little had been written about Vermeer for many of the decades that followed. Almost two hundred years later the art historian, critic, and connoisseur Théophile Thoré-Bürger was carrying out a survey of European museums and private collections. In several cases, he recognized a different hand and eye amongst these paintings. None of them, he felt, could still be attributed to artists such as Carel Fabritius or Pieter de Hooch. Nor could they have come from the school of Rembrandt. In an essay from 1866, not knowing at that time who this artist might be, Thoré-Bürger referred to Vermeer as the Sphinx of Delft. As Thoré-Bürger continued his research this artist’s identity became clearer, and many artists and authors started taking notice.
“…like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.”[ii]
Vermeer’s paintings have often played an important role in historic pieces of literature, recent fiction and popular novels. During the summer of 1921 the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris collected and arranged several examples of Dutch painting for a loan exhibition from The Hague that included two Vermeer paintings: “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and “A View of Delft.
It was in a setting at this exhibition that Proust situated his character, the novelist Bergotte, directly in front of the View of Delft: “He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’ Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee; whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: ‘It’s nothing, merely a touch of indigestion….’ A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants come hurrying to his assistance. He was dead.”[iii]
In more recent times, the author Jane Jelley traces many ideas covering Vermeer paintings, producing a series of art historical essays written as if they were prose poems. They bring a refreshing vision and description to these works.
“No reproduction of the View of Delft does justice to this masterpiece. If you are lucky enough ever to stand in front of this painting in the Mauritshuits in The Hague, you are likely to find its effects as compelling as do many other visitors. They have also turned their backs on one of the most famous pictures in the world, to follow the gaze of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. She is actually not looking at us after all, but at the town in which she was born, the town in which she was painted. Together we see straight into a tranquil, newly-washed, early summer morning in Delft 1663; as if through a window in the wall.”[iv]
Jane Jelley’s writing also recognizes the pure plastic qualities of painting; those elements that are especially important when viewing a painting close up, with very little distance between the eye of the viewer and the surface of the painting. These are qualities that apply equally to Vermeer as well as to de Kooning.
“Like flies in amber, stray brush-hairs have been caught in the paint in some of Vermeer’s paintings. There are some on the surface of the View of Delft ‘used to finish the painted reflections of the buildings in the water’. . . . and conservators wondered whether Vermeer had used old or poor quality brushes; or whether these had shed hair because of the way they were made.”[v]
“Whatever its thickness, a good brush should balance in the hand like a violin bow. An experienced painter will feel the weight of the handle; and judge where he should hold it, and how he should move his arm. He can use the force from a turn of a wrist, or the pressure of a finger, to change the direction, depth, and speed of the stroke, as he feels the response of the thicknesses and texture of the paint against the canvas. The brush movement is as much a part of the painting as the colour, tone, or composition; and in some canvases, especially from the twentieth century onwards, becomes the subject of the picture itself.”[vi]
The ultimate example with regards to this writing is in volume five of A la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. The novelist Bergotte dies in a gallery, at an exhibition of Dutch paintings, in front of the “View of Delft.” He fixes his last living look on that picture, homing in on several details that had been pointed out by a critic in the newspaper:
“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall….”
“…His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall….’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’”[vii]
It was not, however, the character Bergotte, but Proust himself who managed the final word on the View of Delft. Vermeer was a special favorite of Proust, and in an interview late in his life, Marcel Proust made this observation: “Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world.”[viii]
[i] Bon, Arnold; Last Stanza of the Eulogy Poem for Carel Fabritius; Published by Dirck van Bleyswijck; Delft, The Netherlands; 1667; p. 854.
[ii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.
[iii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.
[iv][iv] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 142-143.
[v] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 87-88.
[vi] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; p. 87.
[vii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, pp. 664-665.
[viii] West, Adam, ed.; Proust in Context; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, United Kingdom; 2013; p. 84.