The Mysterious, Intimate World of Vermeer

The Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, bequeathed only 35 paintings to posterity, though some are undoubtedly lost, and others have been judged spurious. Still, in an age where painters needed to flatter the nobility to obtain a constant stream of commissions, Vermeer seems to have painted slowly and somewhat grudgingly. He remained in debt his entire life and left his family—including eleven children—harried with misfortune, his wife forced to peddle off his remaining canvases for paltry sums. We know almost nothing about his personal life or ideas except what trickles down to us from his paintings. What they seem to tell us is that Vermeer cared little for politics or history, much less current events; he painted a world untouched by turmoil or intrigue, where only love letters intruded on the shadows and solitude of domestic life. 

What is also surprising about Vermeer is how doggedly he pursued the same themes in his work. Again, this was an age where artists had to paint to order, and most patrons preferred a steady stream of portraits (to flatter themselves) and religious scenes (to flatter the Maker). We only have two bona fide portraits by Vermeer (two others remain contested), and only one Biblical scene painted at the beginning of his career. Quite early he established his preference for interior scenes, usually depicting a woman in meditation, either at work or lost in her own amusements. Within this narrow scope, Vermeer discovered an entire universe of possibility, much as Jane Austen claimed to work on “two inches of ivory.” After all, what you write or paint is less important than how you paint or write it. Vermeer took conventional scenes that had been painted a thousand times and figured out why they became cliches in the first place. And as his relatively small output attests, he spent a long time getting it just right. But not too long...he died at the young age of 43, joining a long list of short-lived geniuses (Mozart, Keats, Shelley, etc,).

We see Vermeer transforming a conventional scene into something miraculous in the painting “Lady with Two Gentlemen,” painted sometime around 1662 (he only dated two of his paintings). Dutch painters loved scenes of courtship and seduction, usually sprinkling hidden references to sin and depravity among the still life of objects in the painting. Vermeer indulges in this slightly, but more often chooses to mystify us. We never quite know the story in his paintings, and this can prove both fascinating and somewhat disturbing. So it is here, where we have two men—both suitors, we imagine—in a room with a young woman. One man, sitting further away, sulks at a table, not even watching the events unfold. The other man lifts up the woman’s hand, who is holding a glass of wine, and bows with obsequious servility before her. The woman is sitting bolt upright in a chair (as if being watched by someone just out of eyeshot), allowing herself to be manipulated by the suitor. Yet her face proves the most mysterious element of the painting: she is staring straight at the viewer (rare in Vermeer), giving a smile that is more a grimace, yet with wide-open eyes. Some have interpreted this smile as malicious, as if seeking revenge in the eyes of the viewer; I, however, see this as an innocent, awkward smile, as if to say, “look at me, I’m a woman now; see how I flirt with my suitors!”

Vermeer creates an almost unbearable tension in this painting, which is otherwise quite ordinary. A few elements create this experience: the open window, which lets in a warm glow of light, makes the room seem stale and almost if someone has lifted a rock to discover the foul deeds and creatures squirming around in the darkness. The table, too, has the feeling of an operating table, with a cloth hastily draped and bunched in a corner, with a plate of fruit and cheese neglected or abandoned. Then we have the two darkly dressed men leering over and near her, the successful one seeming to manipulate her like a waxwork. The young woman seems both full of life and lifeless—her body placid and poseable, yet her face full of life and character.

Another austere aspect is the painting behind the three figures: a stark portrait, only faintly emerging from shadow. The sober gentleman in the portrait looks down with a commanding posture, though his former rank seems forgotten now. I imagine that he is the grandfather of the family, through whom they gained power and prestige...and now this is about to be frittered away through a faulty alliance with one of the gentlemen in the room. The girl, too, cares nothing for her great ancestor, basking in the sunshine of attention—and perhaps a little tipsy as well. Her cheeks are prominently displayed, and flushed cheeks in Vermeer (and Dutch painting in general) usually denotes intoxication. Is she about to make a foolish match? Where are the parents who are supposed to be looking after her? Or did they already give their blessing, perhaps watching with approval from across the hall? Who exactly is she staring at? Them? A younger or older sister who failed to make a similar match? Or her own reflection in a nearby mirror, marveling at how “adult” she has become?

Indeed, a few of Vermeer’s paintings have women examining themselves in mirrors, and this one might imply a mirror in the viewer’s gaze. Perhaps the gentleman suitor is arranging her for her own inspection, showing her what a great lady she’s become under his supervision? However we read it, the muted sense of tragedy and unsavory deeds lingers. This is not a woman who will have a happy ending, nor will the family retain its former glory. So drink up, my might be your last drop of happiness for many years to come!

A counterpoint to this painting, though one on a similar subject, is “The Music Lesson” painted sometime around 1664. The theme of courtship and seduction in darkened rooms surfaces once again, yet the feeling is worlds away from the previous painting. For one, we find ourselves tucked back in a vast room—a sense of space created by thrusting half of a large table into the foreground. A clever visual trick, but one that makes the subjects seem further away—and more hidden—than if they were as close as the Lady and her Two Gentlemen. Several windows let in light to the otherwise dismal room, falling gently on the woman and her guest. However, the effect this time is less of exposing them as putting them in a spotlight, like two lovers in a Shakespearean comedy. Even the floor, with its distinct chessboard pattern, creates a theatrical illusion, as if the pair are being moved across the board by invisible factions.

The woman is playing on a virginal, an early keyboard instrument imported from England, with a gentleman close at hand, no doubt giving instruction. Yet this is a rather listless music lesson, as the woman isn’t reading her music or even paying attention to the keyboard; her gaze, as the mirror reveals, rests on the tutor himself. Notice that he, too, has laid aside his instrument (the viol, on the floor just behind her) and leans against the virginal with one hand...a hand mere inches away from her own. His gaze is fixed on her , though hers seems to fall a bit short of his eyes, landing on his hand, perhaps contemplating a higher note to come within range of his fingers?

The woman is perfectly framed by the squares of the virginal and the mirror: a metaphorical boxing in, intensified by the squares of the room and the floor. As a woman of this time she had no room of her own, no time of her own, and little freedom to boast of. What if she was in love? How could she pursue it? Encourage it? Declare herself? Only through such conventionally sanctioned activities such as music lessons, where a strange man could enter the house and speak of love and desire through the highly charged language of music. Imagine: a woman whose life consisted of chores and church suddenly being allowed to sing amorous Italian arias with a handsome young man—possibly a foreigner? The light of the room suggests the light of music into her dark world, where she could briefly taste of freedom and happiness before drawing the curtains and snuffing the candles. Not coincidentally, the words on the virginal cover read “musica laetitiae comes medicina dolorum,” which translates as “music is a companion in joy and a balm in sorrow.”

As in the other painting, wine is present: the white jug, probably the same prop used in the earlier painting, suggests another accompaniment to their lesson. The glasses are hidden, suggesting they were already consumed, which accounts for the increasing boldness of the gentleman. Is he about to declare his love? Would a music tutor—even one as well dressed as he is—make a legitimate match for a woman of her class and standing? Or will this remain an unrequited passion spilled over songs and wine and then forgotten? If the previous painting created tension and dread, this one creates longing and suspense. Yet both are full of mystery and we can never quite know who the characters are or what they relationship consists of. That, of course, is a testament to Vermeer’s genius and the careful staging of his art where every tile, vase, glance, smile, and beam of light tells a story. But what story is left to our imagination, which is why Vermeer’s paintings have survived while a hundred others are forgotten or merely provide footnotes to set his genius in greater relief.