Vermeer’s Magic Rooms

“The Dutch have no imagination,” Van Gogh told his brother, “but they have extraordinary taste and an infallible sense of composition.”

Vermeer was certainly no good at inventing mythological or religious pictures. Nor at the swirling, heroic paintings other Baroque artists did. He liked home. He liked his quiet little world.
Or perhaps he didn’t like it and it wasn’t so quiet. He could never leave Delft because he never had enough money; and he could rarely paint quietly because the house was full of kids. His wife gave birth to fourteen of them.

Every morning he closed himself in the empty room on the second floor of his house and tried to forget about the world.
He took the things he had around the house, the fine, expensive things, the curious things that came from abroad, and arranged them to make a picture. If there weren’t enough he pulled the curtain or even the carpet into the picture for interest and color. He called his daughter. “Put on that pearl-colored dress of your mother’s,” he told her. “And stand here by the virginal.” Then he went back to his camera scura like a photographer and gave her instructions from there. “A little to the left, chin higher.”

Vermeer in His Studio (100cm.) Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum (public domain photo)

Was that good enough? Is that all a great painter has to do?

There are many paintings of the inside of Dutch houses and they are realistic too.


Woman Reading a Letter (55 x 55cm) by Pieter de Hooch (c. 1665)  (public domain photo)

But Vermeer’s are better. There is something about them. “Realism?” asks the historian J. Huizinga. No. “[Vermeer] takes us far from gross reality.”
The rooms in his pictures are enchanted. The soft light comes in from the window like an angel. His chairs and tables and tapestries have the twinkle of fairy creations or of Plato’s Ideas rather than the things themselves. Even his people look a little like phantoms—real and yet unreal; natural and yet contrived.

Lady at the Virginal and Cavalier (64.1cm.) Buckingham Palace, London   (public domain photo)

Vermeer stops time. The strange stillness of his room shows you a moment, like a photograph—but what a moment!

His is the world not that you see but that you remember, that you want to remember, the way it looked if you could examine it again with love. Memory. Memory of the time you lived. Seeing his pictures is like returning from the dead to examine the life you led and the articles and people of your world then. But now they are all heightened, sublimated, beautified.
How does Vermeer do that? What is his secret? Colors, for one. They are brighter than ever colors were as you lived. Everything is better than it was then. Examine any of the objects of his world and find them curious, soft, beautiful, enchanted.

Marcel Proust, the great French writer, believed that memories are locked inside the trivial things of our lives and sometimes we free them and are able to re-live the sensations of long before, re-live them exactly. While we do that time stops and the lapse of time between the two sensations disappears. This is a little immortality. “Once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime flowers which my aunt used to give me…immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.” –from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

(See other great Proust quotes here)

Vermeer ‘s room is a wondrous moment and the objects in it are like Proust’s madaleine that took him back to his childhood. We might walk to each of them to investigate, the way the entranced Marcel approached the flowers that called to him. We pick up each one—the vase, the tapestry, the parchment, the map—and hold it to our ear or to our breast. What was this? What does it conceal?

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15 Responses to Vermeer’s Magic Rooms

  1. ivdanu says:

    This is one of the greatest’s post you’ve written, swallows! (or, at least, that I’ve read…)

    Vermeer is, no doubt, in my mind, a genius. Only a genius is able to give that magical touch, that perfection…

    Did you see the movie they made – indirectly about him – with Scarlet Johansen and Colin Firth? Great movie! gets you right in the world of Vermeer, subtle, true and superbly cinematography! (It’s called The Girl with the pearl earing, I think).

    Reading you post I’ve remebered (not difficult because it’s pinned right under my nose!) W.H. Auden’s words (you could use them definitely as motto!):

    ” Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” (One of the best poetical definition of art I know!)

  2. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Danu. I’m really glad you liked it. Isn’t it funny that for so long people overlooked Vermeer’s excellence? And no,I missed that movie but I will try to see it. Vermeer’s painting of the Girl with the Pearl Earring was here in the Prado a few years ago and that I did see.
    That’s a great quote by Auden.

  3. GM says:

    There is, as you wrote, a stillness and a quiet in Vermeer’s paintings. But with all those children you can hardly believe his home was anything but a noisy place.

    Also, I have to say that the bright yellow book against the blue of the girl’s overcoat is one the most astonishing things I have seen in a painting.

  4. 100swallows says:

    GM: It is hard to imagine how Vermeer and other great men, like Bach, Karl Marx, Luigi Boccherini, were able to concentrate and do any work at all with a bunch of kids in the house, isn’t it?

  5. Peggi Habets says:

    Posts like this are the reason I nominated your blog for the Brillante Weblog Award. See today’s post on my blog for details (http://habets-studio.blogspot.com/2008/09/brillante-weblog-award.html) No obligation to participate, I just really wanted others to discover what you’ve been doing here. Thanks for all the wonderful stories.

  6. wrjones says:

    You tell it so well you give it life. I would say I’d like to travel back in time to visit, but 14 kids? Maybe not.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Bill. The kids would love you and Vermeer and his wife would be very grateful to you for entertaining them while she did the laundry and he painted another quiet room.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    That’s a fascinating quote from Van Gogh and one I’ll need to think about to see if it really holds water. Rembrandt immediately springs to mind as a Dutch artist full of imagination.

    But the real topic is Vermeer isn’t it? I haven’t thought about him in years but your post has forced me to. I’ve always loved Vermeer, or at least for last 30 years or so. Looking quickly at just the two illustrations that you include here my first reaction to what is so striking in his paintings is: tonal clarity. I think it’s not just soft light or twinkling light. It’s more clear demarcations of a variety of lights and darks. He is a master of tonal composition. And in being so he creates a fresh, almost breathing atmosphere, one that seems to almost come off the canvas and pull you in. I’m not sure how similar Holland and San Francisco might be but it reminds me of the special type of light I used to see when I lived near the bay in San Francisco many years ago, the same type of ‘California’ light that many of Richard Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park’ series seemed to have. Maybe it’s not so much ‘Californian’ as it is ‘Salt Waterian’, or ‘Oceanian’? In any case Vermeer seems to both capture that type of light and also a carefully orchestrated range of tonal values that is a pleasure to behold.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about his great paintings…………

  9. 100swallows says:

    Ken: That’s good about his tonal clarity. But as to the special light, heck, it reminds me of the light in my old aunt’s parlor in Ohio, far from the sea. Maybe it’s everyone’s madeleine.
    I just had a look at some of your work. The abstract drawings and paintings in particular are very original. Their colors are very pretty.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks a lot for the nomination, Peggi. Having you as a reader and hearing that you enjoy my posts is already a great award/reward. I am going to check up on the Brillante Award now at your blog. Whether I participate or not, I want you to know that I am honored that you chose me.

  11. Ken Januski says:

    Hi, 100swallows, thanks both for the response and for looking at my own artwork. I still think the light is reminiscent of light coming off of salt water but I can’t begin to think of a way to ever test that! So for now I’ll agree with it being everyone’s madeleine, but with the reservation that I’d still like to pursue the light off saltwater theory………..

    This really is a great site this is for anyone who loves art, and also like to talk/write about it. I stumbled upon it while at the DrawingTheMotMot site. Now I know why it is listed as a favorite there!

  12. 100swallows says:

    Ken: I’m glad you stumbled over here from Debby’s Blog. I can understand why you go there!
    I’ll work on the saltwater theory too. Would fresh water do maybe? Lake Erie was just an hour away from my aunt’s. Seriously–I’ve never lived near the sea but I do know about characteristic lights; and since Vermeer was able to get everything so precisely, maybe he did catch the peculiar light of Delft and the sea.

  13. Chris says:

    Have enjoyed your post on Vermeer Magic Rooms.
    One observation I notice in these paintings is the floor. it kind of gives a sense of perspective and the position of the people are usally in line withe the square9 though not always. in one of the paintings the squares lead yoou directly to the person standing, perhaps i am talking rubish but the floors pplay a part as well I feel perhaps we are talking perspective here?

  14. 100swallows says:

    Chris: Yes, those floors are very important for giving the feeling of space, of distance, and also of leading the eye to the people and the light. The heyday of that use of floor tiles to show how a room or a public square recedes was almost two hundred years earlier in Italy. Linear perspective had just been invented and artists like Uccello loved to experiment with it. You’ll see it in Leonardo and Rafael too.

  15. Fredric says:

    Looking for Experts on Dutch Masters to identify painting

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