Sometimes you get more attention by keeping your life and thoughts to yourself. J.D. Salinger managed it for years. In an era admittedly less rife with press and public relations, Johannes Vermeer managed it for a lifetime.

For him, it still works. Recent art exhibitions and authors from Proust onward have played on the few known facts of Vermeer's life and drawn on the haunting details of his 35 extant recognized paintings. Recent years have seen a vast increase in this attention, with a number of novels and vaguely historic treatments appearing in the last couple of years alone. It's only a matter of time, it seems, before a movie or TV program mines the same infertile but productive ground. (If Attila the Hun can make the USA channel, why not Vermeer?) The producers could do worse than base it on Anthony Bailey's Vermeer: A View of Delft, a book that is part history, part travelogue, part critique. Called by its author primarily a biography . . . of an extremely elusive man, it's an intelligent and engaging look at the world and paintings of Vermeer and at the scant personal fragments that have been gleaned (or assumed) about his personal life. In other words, the artist in his frame.

Because there is no documentary information about Vermeer between the dates of his baptism and his betrothal, and precious little after that, the reader has to put up with a great many speculative qualifications ( may have, perhaps and can't say for sure ). In spite of all this, the book sustains the reader's interest and offers further rewards in its coverage of such matters as the Thunderclap (a gunpowder explosion that leveled whole streets of Delft, the artist's hometown), the camera obscura, the tulip mania of the 1630s, the use of paintings in the Netherlands as legal tender, and the artist's way with perspective, light, reserve and melancholy.

Author of 21 books and a writer for The New Yorker for a quarter-century, Bailey provides thoughtful and beautifully written appraisals of Vermeer's work (many of the artist's paintings are included) and of his continuing contribution to art itself. Time passes, Bailey muses, finally, wheels around on itself, and then keeps moving. It will not be fettered, though we sometimes dream that we can halt it, and Vermeer did as well in that respect as anyone can. Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.

 

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