Perfectly still

Which single picture, encompassing silence, solitude, interiority, intimacy, is the perfect antidote to the frenzy and showmanship of this weekend’s Frieze Art Fair? The artist has to be Vermeer and, for monumental stillness, the Louvre’s tiny “The Lacemaker” – depicting a young worker bent over a table, absolutely absorbed, her forehead and fingers illuminated in crisp light to emphasise her clarity of vision and precision of touch – is unparalleled among his genre paintings. The passing moment here is held suspended, made to seem eternal; a casual domestic scene is imbued with mysterious gravitas.

In the foreground, liquid red and white marks dissolve into a pool of sumptuous paint, representing coloured threads spilling from a sewing cushion. They pull you into the picture and lead your eye on to the deep blue cushion fabric set against the girl’s yellow bodice, then to her finely brocaded hair, at once constricted and rhythmically flowing like her lacework. One soft ringlet is silhouetted against a rough plaster wall. Proust’s Bergotte died in order to see again such a patch of wall – the fragment of yellow in “View of Delft”. The dying Proust rewrote the passage after he ventured out for the final time to see a Vermeer exhibition in Paris.

“The Lacemaker”, one of the Louvre’s greatest paintings, rarely leaves Paris and visits the UK for the first time now as the highlight of a new show, Vermeer’s Women, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Although it contains only four Vermeers, supplemented by some two dozen interiors by the artist’s Dutch contemporaries, it is a deeply rewarding show: intelligently focused, elegantly hung, and also free – so, yes, there are crowds but, this being Cambridge, they are orderly and hushed.

The show’s subtitle is “Secrets and Silence”, which is fair enough for such saucy shockers as Godfried Schalcken’s nocturnal “Man Offering Gold and Coins to a Girl” or Jan Steen’s concentration on a flashy red stocking slipping off a leg in the boudoir scene “Woman at her Toilet”, lent here from the Rijksmuseum. But what singles Vermeer out from his peers is that he is never a narrative artist. His quartet of works here is rather a meditation on sound and silence in visual art – especially in the show’s second masterpiece, “The Music Lesson”, set in an expansive interior where a woman, seen from the back, plays the harpsichord to a man standing by her side.

The painting’s crystalline detail and barest frisson of erotic encounter encourage long, quiet looking, yet the work seems to reverberate to the strains of the harpsichord and its structure echoes baroque compositions. The cold black and white stone tiles on the floor contrast with the warmly coloured, thick rug draped over the table; stark outlines of mirror and picture frame emphasise the delicacy of the frieze of seahorses decorating the instrument. And Vermeer amplifies the woman’s importance by building around her a geometric pattern of rectangular shapes – harpsichord case, mirror, chair – as if repeating musical motifs. Then, suggests Arthur Wheelock, who curated Washington’s 1995 Vermeer blockbuster, the artist reconsiders her “in a minor key”, through the mirror. This is where we see her face – yet she turns aside, evading the gaze of the viewer, of her suitor, and also of Vermeer, whose easel reflected in the glass announces his controlling presence.

We love Vermeer, like all the 17th-century Dutch school, for his illusionism. But another of his characteristics is that his larger impetus in composing a picture is formal, not naturalistic. Light floods the recesses of the interior in “The Music Lesson” in ways that are not realistic, because Vermeer has eliminated the shadows that would have fallen there. A pure white ceramic pitcher, bathed in light, stands out because everything around it is shaded – a symbolic, dramatic illumination, not a representational one. There is a similarly illuminated wine pitcher, alongside a discarded cloak, gloves and sword, in Cornelis de Man’s “Interior with a Woman Sweeping”; the effect, by contrast, is cluttered, the storyline of seduction – suggested by a frisky cat and the parted curtains of a box-bed – teasing but unsubtle.

Towards the end of his short life – he died in 1675 at 43 – Vermeer’s pared-down style and simplification of forms became more extreme, with some passages of paint astonishingly impressionistic or abstract. “The Lacemaker” dates from this period and the two versions of “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” exhibited here intrigue for their similarities of late style. Flat patterns of colour make up the woman’s dress and broad sketchy marks merely outline the gold picture frame in the well-known version loaned from London’s National Gallery – an uneasy work, dimly lit, demanding that we approach the enigmatic, half-smiling player from an oblique angle.

Jan Steen’s ‘Woman at her Toilet’, c1661-65

The second version is more controversial. Its authenticity was disputed for decades until Sotheby’s sold it to the US businessman Steve Wynn for $30m in 2004; it now visits from a private New York collection. Here, the gown and instrument in the foreground are deliberately blurred while a background luminous wall, richly textured, becomes the principal focus. Against this, the young woman’s head glows; Vermeer concentrates attention on her corkscrew curls, tied with thin red ribbons interwoven with strands of gleaming pearls, indicated by scattered dots of white paint – abstractions recalling the coloured threads in “The Lacemaker”.

It seems to me that this radical handling of paint in late 17th-century Holland could only be the work of Vermeer – made clear by the excellent contrasting exploration here of other artists’ hallmarks. Elaborate structure and detailing, especially the texture of brick, stone, wood, for example, mark Pieter de Hooch’s courtyard scenes, such as “The Courtyard of a House in Delft”. Gerard ter Borch is a master painter of fabric; there are shimmering highlights, shadows and soft scattered reflections in the satin dresses in “Woman Washing Her Hands” and “Woman Reading a Letter”. Gerrit Dou’s theatrical tableaux unravel behind heavily woven curtains, as in Rotterdam’s “Woman at her Toilet”, a receding interior where luxurious renderings of silk, fur and jewels are prominent, while further off thin semi-transparent layers of ultra-marine mimic the effects of distance to mute our sense of colour.

All deliver enjoyment and bring alive the dawn of an optimistic epoch when bourgeois pleasures – largely the product of the newly powerful independent Dutch state, run by a middle class elite rather than monarchs or aristocrats – began to be celebrated. Vermeer would not have painted as he did without that culture but he transcends it, with an individual sensibility and intensity that is marvellously exposed in this restrained, rapturous show.

‘Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence’, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to January 15;

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