Of the few surviving archival documents that regard Vermeer's civic and professional life, only one refers directly to what might be considered Vermeer "the man." Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, after the premature death of her husband, describes the death of her husband as follows: "...as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead."
Thus, it would seem that Vermeer was at least a caring father whose difficulty in providing for his family's welfare (due to the disastrous war with France), had become so painful that he fell into a state of depression from which he would never recover. Every other consideration upon Vermeer's character is speculative. Even a presumed self-portrait in the background of The Procuress cannot be supported by any objective evidence.
If we wish to imagine Vermeer the man, we must rely uniquely on the interpretation his 35 (?) paintings. But can we really know something of a man from his painting? The belief that an artist makes himself know through his work has ancient roots. In seventeenth-century Netherlands, the notion that one's art was a reflection of one's character is neatly summed up in the popular saying, "zoo de man was, was zyn werk" (so the man, so the work). However, at times a painter's work reflects fairly accurately what we know of his character, as in the cases of Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dalì; in others there seems to be no relation whatsoever. The capability of an artist to reach into the depths of his being seems in many cases to exist independently from his outward character.
Various factors that may condition our point of view should be considered. First of all, the paramount notion in our culture of artistic "self-expression" had no true correspondence in the time of Vermeer. Then, it would have been unthought of for a mother to encourage her son to take up the painter's trade simply because the youngster wished to express himself artistically. The idea about the relationship between an artist and his work stem from the Romanticist belief that truth could be sought and found in the feeling and emotion of private experience more so than in political or religious doctrine or rules of reason. Romanticists held that reality is defined within the self and not in the external man-made environment. The vast majority of Dutch painters, instead, were content to think of themselves as little more than artisans.
The dramatic end of Vermeer's life was told by his widow a year and a half after his death, when she applied to the States of Holland and West Friesland far permission to use the rest of the capital still tied up in the Diewertje van Hensbeeck trust to help bring up her children. She stated in her petition that her late husband Johannes Vermeer:
"during the long and ruinous war with France not only had been unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."
A plausible interpretation of this story is that Vermeer, frantic over his inability to earn money to support his large family and to repay his debts, had a stroke or a heart attack from which he had died in a day or two.
*John Michael Montias, Vermeer and the Web of Social History, 1989, p. 21
A significant part of modern art-writing is guided by the tacit assumption that a painter's work is intimately related to his inner self, his psyche. Sigmund Freud was the first to have made a systematic correlation between artistic creation and psychoanalysis: "The poets and the philosophers have discovered the unconscious before me, all that I have discovered it is the scientific method that allows the study of the unconscious." The artist, therefore, would express in intuitive form the unconscious processes studied by psychoanalysis in a scientific way. Psychoanalysis not only became a major interpretive tool for the art historian, but it also inspired Surrealism, one of the most bizarre art movements of the twentieth century.
One of the earliest to integrate psychoanalysis with art history was Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), a Swiss art critic and historian who attempted to show that architecture could be understood from a purely psychological (as opposed to a historical-progressivist) point of view. Another important figure in the development of art psychology was Wilhelm Worringer, who provided some of the earliest theoretical justifications for expressionist art. Numerous artists in the twentieth century were influenced by the psychological argument, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers.
Some art historians who apply psychoanalysis to art have come to the point where a higher value is placed on the unconscious over the intentional in the creation of art. Psychoanalysis sees the work of art as a compromise solution between impulses and defense, in most cases, ignoring the context in which the artwork is produced. But it can be argued that since no artist is able to exert anything near close to a complete control over his medium, the result of his labor can hardly be interpreted as an unadulterated expression of the self. Rather than a mold of an artist's psyche, a painting may be a compromise of the maker's innate character, certain abilities, certain intelligence, the difficulties of the stubborn paint medium and a myriad of external forces including chance and the pressing dictates of commerce, for which painters are never truly immune—on the contrary. Nonetheless, some art historians who apply psychoanalysis to art accord greater value to the unconscious than the intentional in the creation of art.
In any case, the great danger of adopting psychoanalysis as the principal tool for understanding a work of art is that there exist no verifiable criteria whereby psychoanalytic concepts can be judicially used to analyze works of art.1 And obviously, one of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, projection, warns that the interpreter may be governed by his own subconscious drives, as well as his personal understanding of psychoanalysis.
Willing or not, by the mid-twentieth century, a discreet number of the great artists of the past had spent time on physiologists' virtual couches, obviously without consent. Initially, Vermeer managed to escape scrutiny, perhaps, because it seemed logical for most observers to imagine the creator of such perfect images as a man unscathed by the passions and sensuality which instead, clearly mark the works of great artists such as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. Certainly, Vermeer's interior settings did not at the time seem unusual, even though it was later discovered later that they are not at all snapshots of daily life but carefully contrived mise-en-scène, skilfull weaves of visual fact and painterly fiction. Moreover, aside from the shady characters of his early bordello scene (The Procuress), the artist's protagonists stand among the most well-behaved in Dutch painting.
In 1950, the art critic and painter Lawrence Gowing published a monograph of Vermeer which had both a long-lasting impact on the collective image of both Vermeer's art and of Vermeer the man.2 Despite the quietude of his scenes and the levigated surfaces of his canvases, for Gowing something was amiss. He assumed that the invisible movements of the painter's psyche were crucial in determining the outer form of Vermeer's art and that it is the art historian's duty to recover them. The psychoanalytical tone set in Gowing's text can be sensed even reading these few citations.
In short, Gowing reveals a hitherto unknown Vermeer; an artist who rejects descriptive facility and the quintessential warmth of the Dutch, both defining characteristics of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. We find ourselves confronted no longer with a supreme naturalist but an out-of-the-ordinary painter whose approach to art excludes directness. He takes refuge in an impersonal optical transcription of natural phenomena subtracting himself from the obligations of dealing with the real world. He constructs pictorial barriers between himself his motifs, one of the most threatening being the "bell-shaped" woman. Gowing's most cited revelations are Vermeer's distaste for personal disclosure and what he describes as "reticence" in dealing with human issues.3
Even though the author's suggestive 55-page introduction is written so eloquently and contains such a wealth of insights that few readers can resist being mesmerized, questions regarding his interpretive mode have been raised. Among those who saw cracks in Gowing's poetic/psychoanalytical approach was the influential art historian Ernst Gombrich, who wrote:
Gowing's main concern was not the psychology of vision so much as the psychology of the artist. It is his ambition to penetrate the "impeccable armour" of Vermeer's style and explore the depth of his elusive personality. To him "it seems as if the very efficacy of his still-life method were a symptom in itself, as if the quality of surface observation sought to compensate for some deep impediment." The perils of this type of interpretation are obvious. For whether we accept the popular prejudice that a "detached" style must reflect a "detached" personality or prefer the more sophisticated view that a show of detachment must hide a deep involvement, we are always assuming a rather trivial connection between art and life.4
Some years later, Ivan Gaskell would write:
Gowing would take us into innermost intimacies of Vermeer's character by means of his art. I contend this is not rationally possible because of the very nature of the material being used. I would argue that…reliance on a general human understanding of represented gestures and facial expressions and the association of states of mind with technical or stylistic features of the artifact, results in a frail, ambiguous and uncertain deductions. In the case of Vermeer, certainly, I do not believe that such knowledge is reliable obtainable by means of scrutinizing art alone. In so far as I might claim to know Rubens as a person, it is through his letters, not his painting and drawings…5
As to Gowing's assertion of Vermeer's "lack of facility" in dealing with "humanity" corresponds to "his depth of feeling,"; Gaskell responds that "inferring a quality from an absence is perilous reasoning" although it can produce "good fiction…"
Notwithstanding Gombrich's and Gaskell's doubts on Gowing's methodological approach, his point of view gained considerable traction in art history circles and is readily brandied even by the most no-nonsense art writers, such as Walter Liedtke. Liedtke wrote that even though the reader must be "prepared to give [Gowing's] book ten or more minutes per page" or risk missing what has been expressed, he nonetheless maintains that aside from some "fine words" by Thoré and Proust, serious writing on Vermeer began with...Gowing's monograph." 6
However refined Gowing's intuitions may be, he, like various art historians who employ psychoanalytical concepts, generally do not directly address the question of how conscious content can be distinguished from unconscious content. Why, for example, should the tables and chairs which Vermeer habitually places in front of his female figures be interpreted as physiological "barriers" or "fortresses," as Gowing saw them, rather than straightforward repoussoir devices employed ubiquitously by Dutch interior painters to enhance the sense of spatial depth, an obsessive concern of both Vermeer and many seventeenth-century Dutch artists? Must we assume that to one degree or another the endless number of Dutch repoussoir devices somehow double as physiological barriers or only those of Vermeer? If one holds that velvet chair on right-hand side of Frans van Mieris' Duet does not possess the same physiological content as the similarly placed blue chair in Vermeer's late A Lady Standing at a Virginal, why is this so?
Equally eloquent, but less successful in art history circles, was Edward Snow's (an American poet and translator), A Study of Vermeer, in which the author works from the conviction that viewing pictures is a reciprocal act between the artist and the viewer. For example, in the introductory paragraph, Snow describes the experience of the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
For to look at it is to be implicated in a relationship so urgent that to take an instinctive step backward into aesthetic appreciation would seem in this case a defensive measure, an act of betrayal and bad faith. It is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an erotic intensity that demands something just as real and human in return. The relationship may only be with an image, yet it involves all that art is supposed to keep at bay.6
The reader soon discovers that Snow makes no efforts to conceal what he believes gives the distinctive shape to the painter's work. After the prologue "Head of a Young Woman," the body of the book is entitled "Art and Sexuality Art" and its first chapter is "Painterly Inhibitions."
Snow writes that lion-head finials of the Spanish chair stare angrily at the man and the woman of the Berlin The Glass of Wine, while the two reflected gleams on the glass from which the woman drinks stab violently at her eyes. Regarding the same work, he states: "The flattening of the woman's bodice practically to the point of concavity similarly gives the impression of being an act of aggression, rooted in the painter's own sexual inhibitions, on woman and what she represents for man."8
The psychoanalytic vein opened by Gowing continued to be mined well into the last decades of the twentieth century even though the psychoanalytical approach began to lose some of its hold on the art-history writers. In Vermeer in Bosnia: Selected Writings, Lawrence Welscher hypothesized that Vermeer's quietist compositions constitute as sort of utopian peace, a pictorial bulwark, as it were, against the calamities of an era aboil with religious persecution, torture, mass rape, or, in the author's words, when "all of Europe was a Bosnia" (in reference to the atrocities of the Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s).9 Like Gowing and Snow, Welscher sought in the minor details of Vermeer's compositions signs of the painter's mental activity. Again, the "roaring lion heads carved into the chair posts" signal potential violence. The wall maps, instead, signify the incessant shifting of national boundaries achieved at the cost of many lives.
On the other hand, Bryan J. Wolf (Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing) links Vermeer's presumed psychological closure not to the broader violence of the continent, but to the violence that was rife in his immediate family circle.10 Based on archival documents, Wolf sums up the artist's unstable family situation as such:
Vermeer's private life was filled with violence. His maternal grandfather, who worked at one point as an engraver in a counterfeiting ring, later turned state's witness and provided testimony that led to the beheading of the scheme's two leaders, Vermeer's father, as a young man, had twice been involved in public brawls, bother times with knives, one leading to the death of a soldier garrisoned in Delft. Catharine's Bolnes, Vermeer's wife, came from a family traumatized by domestic abuse. Her father, Reynier Bolnes, once attacked his wife, Maria Thins, who was then pregnant, with a "Stick." Reynier Bolnes verbally assaulted Maria Thins and forced her to eat her meals alone. She in turn sent several petitions to the magistrates, at Gouda in an effort to secure a judicial separation. The sparring between husband and wife divided the Bolnes family into partisan camps: Maria received the support of her sister and brother (who was himself stabbed in a fight with one of Reynier Bolne's brothers), while Reynier enlisted the assistance not only of his son, Willem, who consistently sided with his father.
Years later, after the warring couple had separated, Willem came to live with his mother in Delft—at the same time that Vermeer and his wife shared her home in the catholic quarter of the city. Willem's violent behavior toword his mother so frightened he—he called her, among other things, an "old papist sow" and a "she-devil"—that she retreated to her room, where, in a sad repetition of history, she had her meals brought up to her. According to subsequent depositions, Willem also attacked his sister Catharina (Vermeer's wife), "threatening on a number of occasions to beat her with a stick, although she was in the last stages of pregnancy." Willem had previously beaten her with a "steel-tipped stick." Maria Thins eventually petitioned the Court of Delft to commit her son to a private house of corrections. She won her suit: Willem however, would later taunt the family with threats of marriage to a servant of questionable reputation who was employed by the house of correction.
According to Wolf, the "outcroppings of violence in Vermeer's life only reinforces our desire to interpret his paintings as zones of safety, aesthetic safe havens where...peace exists."
Did, then, Vermeer take refuge in his painting from the turbulence of social or daily life? Or did he transmute his "inner rumblings" into perfectly balanced compositions by means of a "reaction formation"—a psychological defense mechanism whereby an unconscious and unacceptable impulse or feeling is converted into its opposite so it can become conscious and be expressed? The late economist and Vermeer biographer John Michael Montias believed not. He posits that the artist's "subjects and the way he handled them are rooted in much earlier experiences and were invariant to the things that happened to him in his adult life. His style and the contents of his paintings did evolve in the years of his maturity, but not necessarily in response to changes in his environment. With the exception of the money troubles and the difficulty he had bringing up his children in the 1670s, I cannot be persuaded that Vermeer had such a wretched life."11
Moreover, it should be remembered that Vermeer was hardly alone in his portrayals of domestic peace. Pieter de Hooch, Gerrit ter Borch—imitated by scores of Dutch painters of lesser talent—had specialized in the field just like Vermeer, presumably, with the intent of securing fame and making a good livelihood rather than building bastions against the atrocities of their times. And likewise, the number of lion-head finials and flat-chested damsels—it could easily be argued that they were flattened by current fashions rather than the painter's psyche—that appear in Dutch paintings cannot be counted. Whether Vermeer's paintings should be understood as conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious constructs meant to sublimate the pressures of internal or external violence rather than a response to the ever-growing demand for quietist pictures, or simply the painter's personal quest for painterly perfection, shall not easily be resolved.
In any case, in the 1960s and 1970s, the overall influence of psychology in art began to wane, although art historical writing that is clearly psychoanalytic without using Freudian lexicon or openly declaring allegiance to any psychoanalytical school remains widespread. Except for passing remarks, principally drawn from Gowing's monograph, the problem of Vermeer's mental furniture was by and large jettisoned and became fodder for popular literary speculation, principally in the form of "faction," a literary genre in which real historical figures and actual events are woven together with fictitious allegations. Two such novels, The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland became best sellers and very likely outstripped the combined sales of art historical Vermeer-related literature of the latter half of the twentieth century. The former furnishes a historicized psychodrama in which a poor but sensitive young maid comes to comprehend the painter more than his virago wife who, instead, was interested only in making children and making life hard for her maid.
According to James Elkins, one of the dangers of adopting psychoanalysis to understand works of art without clearly defined criteria is that it helps "art historians take away artists' control and awareness of their own work, replacing it with the model of artists as workers largely unaware of what they do."12 Another is that the unconscious is valued "over the intentional. In short, they propose...that what is important about artistic creation is precisely what is unconscious." Moreover, as Elkins pointed out, it simply may not be interesting to know about an artist's unconscious, even admitting that it is possible. Does the knowledge that Vermeer faced, "deep personal impediments" make The Music Lesson any less or any more appreciable or even understandable than it already is to the untrained eye?
In the last decades, Vermeer's forty-two women have received an extraordinary amount of critical attention. For many art historians today, the interest that he bestowed on them is near or equal to his interest in light and composition, both of which had been traditionally considered the artist's highest achievements. In short, nothing seems so antiquated as the formalist idea that the artist looked upon women as he looked upon a split peach of a still life or the luminous edge of a window sill. In 2011, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge staged an exhibition of Dutch painting with four Vermeer's entitled Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence.
In this new vein, Lisa Vergara wrote "Reviewing his cast of female characters, we can easily see how often Vermeer suggests through them the workings of the mind and the cultivation of the spirit that come together in the course of commonplace yet highly civilized activities. Not surprisingly, his women express habits of mind, hand and heart akin to those we imagine the artist himself exercising as he planned and painted his pictures."13 Vergara also points out that it was Pieter van Ruijven's wife, De Knuijt, rather than her husband, who bequeathed to Vermeer 500 florins. Made to a painter who was not a family member, it was possibly unique. Vergara surmises that although De Knuijt "might have been acting on behalf of her husband, her taste must have been taken into account [De Knuijt had brought considerable wealth their marriage]. Indeed, Dutch domestic scenes, as well as many other subjects, were designed to appeal to a woman's gaze at least as much as to a man's."
For the Mariët Westermann, the link between Vermeer's "self-aware interiors,"14 inhabited predominantly by these only apparently coquettish creatures, and Descartes' philosophical thundering, "I think, therefore I am," is only one step away. According to Westermann, it is women's capacity to think, rather than to obey religious or social canons, that brought Vermeer to paint them so often and with such deferential regard.
It may not be coincidental that the increasing interest in and idealization of Vermeer's women coincided with the exponential rise of feminist art theory sprung up in the 1990s. Nonetheless, Vermeer's women have not escaped another type of attention.
In the exhibition catalogue of the Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid, curator Walter Liedtke dared to point out that for "at least two centuries before Vermeer's time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions. Netherlandish artists adopted this theme in works ranging in tone from coarsely erotic to slyly suggestive…" Presumably, Vermeer and male his viewers would have been aware of and enjoyed that something else was going on besides cooking bread pudding. In Liedtke's eyes, the maid's dubious social reputation, her "generous proportions," and her "warmth, softness and approachability are qualities not found in Vermeer's more refined young ladies." In addition, the maid's naked arm, the footwarmer (whose smoldering coals would have not only warmed the maid's feet but another part of her anatomy beneath her skirt) and a tiny Cupid floor tile are so many signposts that point to a direction most can imagine.
Despite Liedtke's warning to journalists to "not say that the curator says the painting is about sex," but about "attraction and restraint, and a subtle form of voyeurism," his hypothesis was greeted bitterly in some camps even though a reasonable amount of historical evidence backs up the veiled milkmaid-eroticism tie.
Whatever kind of man Vermeer might have been, it seems befitting to his indecipherable nature that his tomb marker, now in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, is no longer in the position where he is buried, but the barest facts: his name, date of birth and date of death. What remains of Vermeer is a handful of small unobtrusive paintings which are, in contrast to what we know of Vermeer the man, more than enough.
Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer's Wager (Essays in Art and Culture), London, 2000, pp. 39–42.
That mystique is such that it now seems uncontentious that Vermeer has overtaken Rembrandt as the supreme Dutch artist of the seventeenth century—the cynosure of that culture—in informed public opinion. Why should this be the case?
If Rembrandt, imagined as an intense emotionalist, appealed to the Romantic conception of an artist that prevailed popularly until recently and still has a certain currency, the Vermeer is the opposite. He was apparently self-effacing, and undemonstrative, a sensitive and methodical person, who today might have been a computer software designer. If we use the metaphor of sound so beloved of even scholarly commentators, while paintings by Rembrandt encompass the entire dynamic range, from raucous shouting to quiet whimpers, those of Vermeer 'exude silence', a frequently used critical trope. Many viewers understand Rembrandt to be always forcefully present in his works, whether in self-image or painterly touch. Vermeer seems to many to be either utterly aloof or so enwombed in his works as to be indecipherable in any realistic sense. Allied to this is, on the one hand, Rembrandt's forthrightness about his own image and, on the other, Vermeer's reticence.
If we know what anyone looked like from his self-portraits, we know what Rembrandt looked like. We see him contrive depictions of himself in innumerable moods and roles. Vermeer, however, remains unseen, as far as we know. Commentators have tried to identify him -with the painter seen from behind in The Art of Painting, and with the man on the left meeting our gaze in The Procuress—but doubt or disbelief are the prudent responses to both these suggestions. A self-portrait may have existed -at least a painting that was described in the seventeenth century in those terms—but if indeed this was the case, it is lost. We have no idea of Vermeer's physical appearance. His gaze never certainly nor unambiguously meets ours from canvas or panel. Rembrandt's is the mystique of the role player, the actor: a public mystique. Vermeer's is the mystique of a deity, extremely economical with his self-image: a mystique of simultaneous personal withdrawal and impersonal permeation. In an age in which the preservation of privacy on the part of figures in the public gaze is largely unattainable, Vermeer's apparent situation represents an ideal fantasy for those who would have renown, but not its concomitant inconveniences.
A further issue that separates Vermeer from Rembrandt to the relative advantage of the former's reputation concerns authorship. Ironically, the most sustained and concerted attempt to establish Rembrandt's painted oeuvre yet under-taken has had the effect, at least for now, of contributing to the diminution of his reputation. The Rembrandt Research Project and its critics have evoked more doubts and fears than reassurance. As we have seen, Vermeer's corpus, in contrast, is as secure as any.
Furthermore, that corpus comprises paintings alone, and in public estimation paintings—not drawings or prints—are important art. Unlike that of Rembrandt, Vermeer's oeuvre is undiluted by works on paper that seem merely to distract attention from what really matters to most viewers. The economy of the corpus—a maximum at present of 36 known works—recommends itself to those who would encompass a total career achievement. Furthermore in Vermeer's work, unlike that of Rembrandt, there is little classical mythology or overt religion. Domesticity is preponderant, and this has a complex ideological appeal. Women see themselves taken seriously; men see their surrogate wives and daughters treated respectfully in safe roles. Even Vermeer's treatment of lasciviousness is decorous to the point of prudishness, as can be seen in his handling of The Procuress in comparison with those of his Utrecht predecessors. Lastly, to appeal to intellectuals, we have work that lays itself open to convenient theorizing ..., and we have the ultimate dead author (in Roland Barthes's terms) who transcends his creations and evades our grasp.
The perceived homogeneity of Vermeer's oeuvre also contributes to the mystique with which he and his works are imbued. Although that perceived homogeneity dissipates when one begins to attend with care to the paintings, there is an important sense in which the total achievement seems, nonetheless, greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. expressed it thus: Although the individual paintings are well known, their cumulative impact is all the greater because the stylistic and thematic relationships among them reinforce and enhance each work. As we view each painting by Vermeer, our memory is at work, relating it to qualities perceived in other paintings by the artist. One result is the acquisition of a sense of the harmony of Vermeer's life's work, which is quite unlike that of any other artist. This, too, engenders mystique. This is a complex matter concerning the effective boundaries of objects, how we know objects and what viewers bring to objects....