Editorial Feature

Is Vermeer still the ‘Sphinx of Delft’?

Mauritshuis director Emilie Gordenker on the enduring appeal of the artist

As Director of the Mauritshuis, the home of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, I am often asked what makes this work so special. Many of Vermeer’s paintings, and the Girl in particular, seem to have captured the public imagination, and increasingly so over the past 25 years or so. During the period 2012–2014, when we were renovating and expanding the Mauritshuis, our Girl travelled the world, from Japan to the US to Italy, before landing back home in The Hague. What I witnessed in each of these places was an immediate connection with the painting, no matter what the setting or who the visitors were. And I’ve seen this same phenomenon elsewhere with his other works.

A Maid Asleep by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Somehow Vermeer’s paintings manage to transcend time and place. They may have been created several hundred years ago, but they are almost shockingly present. Oil paint on canvas is a deeply familiar medium to us today, but Vermeer’s technique continues to baffle us. We apply theories about the camera obscura on his compositions, harness the latest technical analysis and imaging techniques, but as the artist Stephen Farthing said recently in a documentary film about Vermeer: “We still can’t figure out how he did it”. Most of the compositions are set in 17th-century Dutch interiors, yet they seem to invite you in, to envelop you as if you were actually there, even if you are actually living in the far-away present. Vermeer creates a stillness in his works that brings us to a halt, and he lets us forget for a moment our busy lives, bombarded with fast-moving images and sound. In other words, Vermeer invites us into his world and slows us down, without ever revealing to us exactly how he did so.

The Little Street by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

Vermeer, who had been largely forgotten after his death was rediscovered in the 19th century by the French art historian, Théophile Thoré. Writing under the pseudonym Bürger, Thoré named Vermeer the ‘Sphinx of Delft’. Thoré could not have foreseen the huge popularity that Vermeer enjoys today. But his moniker, the ‘Sphinx’, still holds and offers a clue to the artist’s continued appeal. Even after years of research and speculation, Vermeer remains a sphinx, keeping his secrets to himself. It is the mystery around the man – we know little about him – and his technique, but above all the images themselves that continue to elude and to fascinate us.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Royal Collection Trust UK)

Take a closer look, and you will find mysteries in all of Vermeer’s works. The Girl with a Pearl Earring does not have eyebrows or a clearly delineated line where the bridge of her nose should be. The artist lets your mind fill in those details, encouraging you to look actively and wonder more about who she might have been. Vermeer once painted a young man in the doorway of A Maid Asleep, but then removed the figure. Why? Would it have made the storyline too obvious? Who is the man with his back to us in The Art of Painting? Is it the artist himself? Why did he paint that particular house in The Little Street? And why were there no vessels in what would normally be a busy waterway in the foreground of the View of Delft? What is actually going on in the so-called Music Lesson? Is it less innocent than what first meets the eye? Each of his paintings begs such questions.

The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

Contrary to what you might expect, the mysteries surrounding Vermeer are precisely what makes his work so compelling and alive to us today. Always giving us a little less than a complete picture, Vermeer’s work invites you to complete a narrative or come up with a theory that may or may not explain him and his art. I invite you to take a deep dive into Vermeer’s paintings and to find some mysteries for yourself.

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