on May 19, 2001
I'm certainly no expert on the non-fiction genre and definitely no expert on art history but I do know a well-researched and enjoyable piece of work when I come across it. I came in the backdoor on this one having become fascinated by Vermeer after reading Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring. I followed that one up with Susan Vreeland's Girl In Hyacinth Blue and then came across Anthony Bailey's book. What a wonderful way to continue my journey into this author's own portrait of this master painter and what a surprise to find that it contains black and white and some color pictures of Vermeer's paintings as well.
While very little is known about Vermeer's life, through the genius of Bailey, you come away from this book feeling you know the man. What we do know is that he lived in the mid 17th century, was a Reformed Protestant until he married the Catholic Catharina Bolnes and fathered 11 children as well as 35 masterpieces. At a time when painters were in abundance in Delft and industry was striving, the picture of Vermeer is still that of a struggling artist trying to feed and clothe a large family. It is a wonder, Bailey points out, that amidst all the noise and commotion that must have gone on in his house and the financial problems that must have weighed heavily on his shoulders, that he was still able to paint such masterpieces that put the beholder at ease merely by their stillness. Vermeer was never an "all-inclusive artist" notes Bailey and none of his paintings incorporate a single flower. He favored the use of the "local colours" of yellow, white and blue. Bailey also notes that he was "fond of rendering the effects of sunlight and sometimes succeeded to the point of complete illusion."
The author mentions the trademarks found in Vermeer's paintings -- the white wine jug, the map on the wall, the bowl of fruit on a carpeted table, finials in the form of a lion's head at the back of the chair and, my personal favorite, the black and white floor tiles that helped the artist establish perspective. He also explains Vermeer's possible use of the camera obscura to focus his view. There were so many interesting things presented by the author, one of which was the different way Vermeer signed his name. Bailey shows five different signatures all playing around with the V and M in Vermeer's name. Another thing I found engrossing was how Vermeer put things into his paintings and then painted them out. We can only see this now because of modern X-ray and infrared equipment.
I could go on and on about all I learned after reading this book but some of the more interesting parts occur after Vermeer's death and have to do with Hitler's possession of some of these masterpieces as well as Van Meegeren's forgeries of Vermeer's works in the 1900's. Of the 35 known Vermeer works, one painting, The Concert, is still missing, having been stolen in 1990.
I culminated my fascination of Vermeer with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week to see the Delft/Vermeer exhibit. Having just read Bailey's book, I felt quite knowledgeable not only concerning Vermeer but all things Delft in general. Upon exiting the exhibit, I walked directly into the gift shop where Anthony Bailey's book was not only on sale but being purchased by all those around me. So not only do I congratulate this author on a work well done, but also on the best timing possible for publication that one could imagine.
I'll end this review with my favorite lines from the book -- those that sum up Vermeer's life in the eyes of Anthony Bailey. "He remains in some respects, the missing man in some of his own paintings: the person who has just left the room, or who is expected at any moment. He is impatient to be found, to be seen, but while he waits, he paints stillness."
Anthony Bailey has made Johannes Vermeer come alive for me with interesting stories, things that might have been and a wonderfully descriptive Delft region by which Vermeer was obviously inspired. To me he is no longer lost, but found on the pages written by Bailey.
on April 7, 2001
Anthony Baily's biography of the elusive Vermeer is really a study of the Netherlands, or more specifically, the town of Delft, in the mid-seventeenth-century. I suppose there is no other way to write a biography of a man of whom so little is known, and Baily's efforts are resoundingly successful. His descriptions of city scenes, cultural events, churches, houses, markets, etc., are rendered with astonishing skill and verve. His thumbnail history sketches are always lively and never seem rushed. There are surely more detailed studies of Vermeer's work, but Baily is far more interested in placing the artist in his context than he is in producing the definitive read of the master's painting. And while readers interested in all of Dutch culture in the Golden Age might find Simon Schama's "Embarrassment of Riches" a more detailed and global work, I think Baily is by far the superior writer, and the reader comes away with a full and stimulating picture of Vermeer's world.
on May 29, 2001
Anthony Bailey is the ideal author to write about Vermeer: like his subject's paintings his prose is quiet, calm, introspective, and serene. He illuminates Vermeer and his work, but as in the paintings discussed the light is gentle, and golden, never harsh - like a good poet, Bailey leaves plenty of room for the reader to reflect on his/her reality as he describes his subject.
It's wonderful to think of Vermeer painting his silence-drenched, calm and mysterious images amid the noise and tumult of his house filled with eleven children. Perhaps his paintings were a world of perfect order and quiet that he could retreat to when his messy and noisy surroundings became overwhelming. I also liked Bailey's point that perhaps Vermeer painted so few images because almost all of his best work had sunlight streaming through a window, and the Dutch climate doesn't offer too many sunny days to paint from!
The book opened with a bit more 15th and 16th century Dutch history than I would have cared for, but hold tight, once he switches his focus to Vermeer's paintings the book takes flight, and you will never look at the paintings in the same way again. The black and white reproductions don't do the paintings justice however - I'd recommend having a book of color reproductions of the paintings (there are only 37 known Vermeers!) next to you as Bailey gently helps you see these familiar images in wonderfully new ways.
on October 16, 2002
Anthony Bailey's somewhat misleadingly titled Vermeer not-quite-biography is meticulously researched, lovingly detailed, and suffused with a powerful affection and appreciation for both Vermeer's painting and Dutch history. It is only ever less than fascinating when dealing with the old master himself.
So little is known of Vermeer as to leave his biographers only slightly better off than those of Shakespeare, imagining that this document indicated this mood, this painting signifies that political opinion...such supposition is not terribly interesting to the lay reader.
But in his detailed recreation of 17th century Delft and his lush and delicate descriptions of the major canvases, Bailey makes up for the limitations of his subject. This period of Dutch history is so rich it seems almost a shame to spend so much of the text on a figure about whom so little is known, and Bailey recounts it beautifully.
An excellent book, then, unless one really wants a biography of Vermeer.
on December 29, 2008
This book is the story of Johannes Vermeer, an ordinary family man, from the small but artistically vibrant Dutch town of Delft, who much after his death, and even with only 35 paintings surviving him, became recognized as one of the world's most brilliant painters.
It is as much a story about the rich and artistically vibrant environment of Delft, Netherlands, and how it ultimately enriched and contributed to Western civilization as it is a biography of this ordinary man, his family life, and his 35 paintings.
Written in a dense but cleanly, relaxed and even flowing rhythmic prose, the story is as engrossing as it is seemingly unlikely. The author's clear, precise and vivid writing brings fully to life both the paintings and the fertile artistic milieu and imagination extant in Vermeer's environment. It is a solitary work of prodigious research and effort, and thus is a rich and lasting contribution to a man, a culture and an era that brought so much cultural richness to Western civilization.
Vemeer's paintings have been described by one of his contemporaries as: "having the reality of dreams ... in settings where words have no sounds and thoughts no forms." Johannes Vermeer, a family man with eleven children, was fortunate enough to have arrived on the scene at a time of great artistic efflorescence in Europe: the great flowering of European art and literature; during a time when paintings were nothing less than the preferred medium of exchange, like ordinary currency. His "Still Lifes" and his anonymity still haunt the artistic world. How could his works have been overlooked for so long?
This is an immensely enjoyable, relaxed, unhurried ride back in time to the small town of Delft, so alive with artistic fervor and activity. Five Stars
When I first saw Vermeer's "View of Delft" at the Mauritshuis, I was so stunned that I had to sit down on a nearby bench and just stare at the image for twenty minutes. Notwithstanding Walter Benjamin's predictions in "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", none of the many reproductions I'd seen had prepared me for the overwhelming luminescence of the original.
Bailey's book is a biography of Vermeer and an examination of the town of Delft during Vermeer's lifetime. Since so little is known of Vermeer's life, much is the book is speculation drawn from the nature of life in a town like Delft and facts that are available about other artists and citizens of Delft. For example knowing the size of Vermeer's family and a typical home in the neighborhood, the author speculates that Vermeer's home life must have been hectic. Some readers will be happy with this approach to a mystery. Unfortunately, all of the suppositions make for rather a creaky biography, jumping back and forth as each supposition is developed. Similarly, because the revelations about Delft itself follow along with the biography, the book doesn't provide easy understanding of life in the seventeenth-century town. The book certainly is not as entertaining as a fictional account, like the book "Girl With a Pearl Earring: A Novel".
The book also includes follow-up on what happened to Vermeer's paintings after his death and a brief history of Vermeer research. There is even a section devoted to the infamous Vermeer forger, Henricus van Meegren.
The book does not purport to be an examination of the artistic elements of Vermeer's work and it is just as well. Many of the artist's works are represented by black and white illustrations that conceal Vermeer's skillful use of color and are useless when the author tries to explain parts of Vermeer's life from hints in the paintings. The color plates are only a little better, and to my horror, the reproduction of "View of Delft" is actually missing about ten percent of the original where there is a joint in the gutter. Furthermore, even though the author is an art historian, the discussions of the images are trivial. For example, with regard to "View of Delft" most of the discussion goes to the historical accuracy of the painting, and little to the amazing handling of light.
If you are interested in the life of Vermeer and want a précis of all of the research that has been done to come up with a small number of facts, this is probably as good a way as any to accomplish this. Just don't look for a critical examination of the oeuvre of the artist.
on October 20, 2014
This book is hard to review, because it was such a hard book to write. Although Vermeer's paintings are famous around the world, we know little about him. Anthony Bailey seems to have done a great job of researching the few documents concerning Vermeer that survive. He filled in the blank spaces with information about the history of Delft and Holland. He should be praised for not descending into wild speculation. Since this is a biography, there is not a lot of analysis of the paintings. Neither is there a detailed examination of Vermeer's use of optics. Even so, this is about as complete a biography of Vermeer as is possible, and I learned things about his life and times that I did not know. I may be biased in Mr. Bailey's favor, for I have long been convinced that "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" is a portrait of his daughter, not some servant girl as depicted in the movie.
on October 28, 2009
This book was really helpfull to me as I wrote a paper on Vermeer. And its a great read!
First I want to say please ignore the very supercilious and misguided review from Publisher's Weekly that dismisses this book as only suitable for the non-specialist. Well, duh. I don't know what volume of the Art Bulletin (the most prestigious of all the art history academic journals) this particular reviewer had stuck up his tush but this is precisely the sort of readable but still quite informative and knowledgeable book that the average reader SHOULD be reading before trying to tackle the more advanced books.
After reading this book, you should have a good enough background to tackle the more difficult and scholarly books. Apparently this reviewer has no idea what the intended audience for this book was. It was not the reviewing board for the Art Bulletin. What part of that did this reviewer not understand? It's like a physicist panning a first year algebra text because there's no calculus in it. One has to start somewhere and apparently this reviewer has no understanding of that fact.
As a matter of fact I have that sort of more advanced background myself but still found this book quite enjoyable and learned many things about Vermeer that I didn't know before. There are certainly longer, more scholarly tomes on Vermeer and his contemporaries but for the layman this book is as a good a place to start as any.
I realize I've spent more time criticizing the Publisher's Weekly review than discussing the book but since there are plenty of good reviews here that do I thought I make a point of taking that reviewer to task for his rather arrogant and misguided review. So don't let it put you off a very fine book about an important artist.
on June 3, 2015
This was the perfect book to prepare for a trip to Delft since I am a huge fan of Vermeer's paintings and of history. Well-written.