Art In History Art Blog
Having written about the "Little Dutch Masters", it is a natural step to move on to Vermeer. He was certainly one of their number - in fact, if you were to judge by the dimensions of his works he could be the littlest of them all - but he is also too great to be lumped among them. He also had a primary specialty - light filled interiors with figures - but also produced exquisite works in other genres, like the "Street in Delft" above. All with a sensitivity to ambient light never equalled before or since.
He is, of course, the center of a huge controversy, because of the strong evidence that he used a camera obscura to view his subjects and perhaps to project them on the surface. I think this is fascinating, and probably true, but not really relevant to the judgement of his greatness. Others were experimenting with this device, without comparable results.
Much of Vermeer's genius is in selecting and composing his subjects; they have that sense of serene perfection which Mondriaan sought after centuries later. It reminds me of the best still life masters, like Heda and Chardin, and in fact Vermeer's works are essentially still lives, even with the inclusion of figures. The figures add an emotive and narrative element certainly, but are completely integrated into the composition as fixed elements.
The other element of genius in his work is the describing of space through the fall of light on the objects and backdrop. His light is fantastic! It is so convincing that it describes the character and location of the window which is its source, even when that window is not shown.
Lastly, among my favorite vermeer works are the small heads, not so much portraits as studies, yet as carefully realized and resolved as the interiors. They are tiny, well under a foot in the longest dimension, and can only be fully appreciated in the flesh. Marvellous!