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 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.