An Interview with Albert Blankert

Albert Blankert is among the most authoritative contemporary Vermeer scholars and has written extensively both on Vermeer's art and Dutch painting. His volume Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675 contained a critical catalogue and an important chapter on Vermeer and His Public in which for the first time attention was drawn to a group of collectors of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries who viewed Vermeer not as much as a "sphinx" but a s a "first class painter." His essay, "Vermeer's Modern Themes and Their Traditions" in the catalogue of the 1995/1996 Washington D. C./ The Hague Vermeer exhibition, remains one of the most comprehensive and lucid iconographical studies of Vermeer's painting.

April 11, 2005

Essential Vermeer: Your book "Vermeer of Delft"(1975) made a fundamental step towards understanding Vermeer's painting within a historical context. In this volume, you carefully examined the artist's stylistic evolution, the complexities of iconographical meaning in Dutch mid-17th century genre painting as well as Vermeer's fame among collectors and connoisseurs during his lifetime and in the period following his death. Since then, a vast number of publications have explored the artist's life and work. With which results of modern scholarship do you feel most comfortable?

Albert Blankert: The idea that there would be a lot of "symbolic meaning" in Vermeer's paintings seems to have completely lost all of its erstwhile paramount attraction. In how far have I in the past been an adherent of that idea? Just sufficiently or maybe too much? I would like that my own ideas have been consistent and here the changed consensus offers interesting food for thought.

E. V. Vermeer's works have given rise to an enormous variety of interpretations. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.'s concept of Vermeer's Neo-Platonic classicism contrasts with Walter Liedtke's belief that the underlying sense of calm and order in the artist's works are consequences of the local artistic traditions of Delft. For Bryan Wolf, Vermeer's studio represents "a place where Vermeer monitors the deep inner rumblings of the psychic and aesthetic landscape…" while Mariët Westermann finds Vermeer's interiors "expressions of the value of introspection. Lawrence Gowing asked himself if the artist was "almost an idiot… a walking retina drilled like a machine" or rather a man of "god-like detachment, more balanced, more civilized…than any other painter before or since." Why do you think Vermeer's paintings, seemingly so straightforward, create such diverse interpretations? And, in your opinion, are there ways to reconcile them?

Do not we all agree on the "underlying sense of calm?" Apparently we are unable to refrain from further commenting on it, which we all do according to our own idiosyncrasies.

In your finely articulated study of Vermeer's pictorial themes ("Vermeer's Modern Themes and Their Tradition" in Johannes Vermeer, 1995) you have pointed out some of the difficulties of interpreting iconographic significance in Vermeer's painting. Some recent scholars have advanced the idea that Vermeer, as well as other Dutch genre artists may have been intentionally ambiguous in regards. What are your current feelings about Vermeer's use of iconography?

Vermeer most often aimed at presenting us with a straightforward "happening" but could not avoid that these have or imply connotations and ambiguities, that he subsequently put to excellent use. You find all on that in the article "Vermeer's Modern Themes" that you mention.

You have stated on more than one occasion that you doubt the authenticity of the "Girl with a Red Hat" based on technical comparisons with other Vermeer works and the seemingly illogical positioning of the chair's lion head finials. Many modern scholars however, believe that the painting is authentic. Walter Liedtke has argued that "it is pointless to complain that a chair finial is improperly aligned or that a hand is out of scale: the artist did whatever worked best in that particular passage. He would have had larger issues in mind, like the legacy of Titian, the reputation of Rembrandt or the two examples of Carel Fabritius." Have you altered your opinion about this painting and, if not, how do you respond to the arguments favorable to the acceptance of this work?

The picture remains a puzzle because of its outstanding quality. I do not think that Vermeer would sacrifice his aim of rendering the real world as we see it around us truthfully to other considerations.

What is your opinion regarding the contested Baron Rolin "Lady at a Virginal" and the "Saint Praxedis"?

Not changed.

What are your feelings regarding John Michael Montias' supposition of a close patron/artist relationship between Vermeer and Pieter van Ruijven?

Vermeer could not work without customers who were eager to buy his paintings. Maybe he also needed or liked their genuine appreciation. Do you read in Montias that there was more to it?

Some scholars have recently begun to view Vermeer's work in close association with the scientific and philosophic inquiry of his time. In particular, Robert Huerta in a recent publication * perceives this kinship, as did John Constable, who saw painters as natural philosophers attempting to discover the laws of nature and used their paintings as experiments toward this end. What do you think of this development?

It is most intriguing that Spinoza was Vermeer's exact contemporary and belonged (broadly defined) to the same milieu. The possible link between Vermeer's work and the revolution in science that took place during his lifetime also is a puzzling issue. These considerations are not new and I doubt that recent speculations would offer truly new insights.

In the Dissius auction of 1696 in which 21 painting by Vermeer were sold, one lost painting was described as " In which a gentleman is washing his hands in a see-through room with sculptures, artful and rare." While it is only obvious we can in no way deduce the painting's appearance, both the "washing" theme and composition (suggested by the "see-through room") might be related to other works by contemporaries (De Hooch, Ter Borch and Van Hoogenstraten) and to a few of his own works ("A Maid Asleep," "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher" and "The Love Letter". Does the "speculative side" of Albert Blankert wish to offer any thoughts in regards, however tentative?

Most of what I arrived at is summarized in a short paragraph in my article "Vermeer's Modern Themes ". I often encouraged students with a talent for drawing to use it for devising a tentative reconstruction of the painting. I got images that differed a great deal from one another. None of them was in the least convincing.

Even though modern scholarship has made great strides in defining the artist's life and his artistic role within his contemporary cultural milieu, Thorè's definition of the artist as "the Sphinx" still seems valid. Terms like mysterious, sublime, elevated, enigmatic are still regularly employed to describe the quality of his work. But what do these terms really mean? Why do you think otherwise reasonable commentators resort to this kind of description which has almost religious overtones?

We appreciate, like, admire, love Vermeer's work a very great deal. We want to express all this in words and find them insufficient, so we sing, jubilate, dance, scream, paint, drum, yes, similar to what we do for a loved one or for a god, what is the difference? Personally I find that we should observe utter restraint, but in how far is that a rational stance?

Do you have plans for further publications about Vermeer? If so, would you be so kind as to indicate the direction your work will take?

Yes and no.

Which single piece of music best puts to music Vermeer's painting?

Mozart and Vermeer have a lot to do with each other.

  1. Giants of Delft. Johannes Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers: The Parallel Search for Knowledge during the Age of Discovery
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam