Vermeer (1632-1675) has made Delft famous. Did Delft make Vermeer? Vermeer and the Delft School, which opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a sweeping survey of Vermeer's hometown in the seventeenth century, undertaken with the intent of establishing the cultural context of a painter who often seems to transcend time and place. That's the scholarly pretext. But the main purpose of the show, of course, is to give the public an opportunity to see fifteen Vermeers. (There are fewer than 40 acknowledged works by the master in the world.) No painter today is more beloved; his retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1995-96 attracted huge crowds, and several of his finest pictures are now on view in this show, including loans from Europe of The Little Street, The Glass of Wine, The Procuress, and The Art of Painting.
Delft, in Vermeer's time, was not a backwater. Its artists were well aware of cultural developments in Amsterdam and The Hague. And Holland itself, a powerful trading nation with a great fleet, kept a wandering (and wondering) eye on developments in the rest of Europe. The organizer of the show, Walter Liedtke, working in consultation with Axel Ruger, has gathered together a vast array of material from this city, including tapestries, still lifes, portraits, history paintings, drawings, decorative objects, and musical instruments. The Vermeers themselves are not isolated as a group but placed where certain works can best be compared with the thematic and stylistic concerns of other artists from Delft. You can study, for example, the related ways in which Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch depicted the streets of Delft.
No doubt Vermeer owed a particular debt to Delft, but it is the great dichotomies of Dutch art generally that nourished his genius. Artists in Delft, like those elsewhere in Holland, were captivated by both the real and the ideal, the daily and the eternal, the sensual and the moral. The most interesting usually brought such conflicting points of view together. Presented in a certain light, for example, the passing features of a flower attained a jewel-like permanence. (The show contains a number of exquisite flower paintings, whose radiance may have touched Vermeer, even if he himself did not take up that form of art.) In this exhibition, the most beautiful "show within a show" is the collection of church interiors, notably those by Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte. Almost always, Dutch painters would juxtapose transcendent church spaces -- often including the great tomb of William the Silent -- with men, women, children, and dogs standing about. As God watches, men gossip.
A show like "Vermeer and the Delft School" reflects our culture's preoccupation with explaining art historically: Today, in scholarly discourse, no man is larger than his time. If Vermeer shared Delft's contemporary concerns, however, he also transcended his environment. Pieter de Hooch was a wonderful painter, but the differences between his work and Vermeer's are revelatory -- as telling, in their ways, as a comparison between the work of Mondrian and that of his acolytes. De Hooch's views of people on a Delft street contain many wonderful passages, yet the pictures cannot escape from the charmingly anecdotal content; there seems to be no particular reason to remember these lovely snapshots. But Vermeer's The Little Street, one of the greatest paintings in Western art, gives such vivid life to an overlooked byway that the image becomes a moment of miraculous recognition -- a recovery of all the small, forgotten, and unseen moments that make up our lives. Vermeer seamlessly unites the great Dutch dichotomies. He does not, like the painters of the church interiors, accept the space between the ordinary and the spiritual. His ideal is real, his moments eternal. That seamless measure offers a balm to our own time, with its failures of scale and frantic accumulation of the unnecessary.
Vermeer and the Delft School
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 5/27.