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Vermeer as veneer Add to ...

Ibow to no man -- nor woman either -- in my veneration of the great Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer. So it pains me to see him shanghaied by the book industry, where his work has lately been the subject, guiding spirit, or cover art of so many books that his subtle readings of the human condition are in danger of being turned into cliché, the intimate allegories of his camera obscura technique just another shorthand device to produce instant emotional response, like oldies soundtracks that warm us to otherwise bad movies.

Dominick LaCapra's History and Reading: Tocqueville, Foucault, French Studies not only offers Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, but the painting is the cover image on the University of Toronto Press spring-summer catalogue. And, even as I write, there lands on my desk with resounding thunk, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, by distinguished law professor-philosopher Ronald Dworkin. On its cover is Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance, a complex allegory about rather more than earthly justice.

For some of these books, I suspect lazy art direction; for others, Vermeer is part of the story. Last year, Deborah Moggach's winningly cinematic novel of love, betrayal and financial mania, Tulip Fever, featured on the cover a detail from Lady Writing a Letter (and a number of 17th-century Dutch paintings inside). That painting also graced the cover of Katherine Weber's The Music Lesson, a skillful blending of art and politics in Ireland, a kind of Vermeer meets the Troubles.

I've just read Tracy Chevalier's second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton, 233 pages, $30.99), which manages to get two sensational Vermeers on its jacket, the astounding painting of the book's title, and the dazzlingly gorgeous View of Delft, surely the Platonic form of landscape painting, almost inexhaustible in detail, poetry and implication.

The two paintings are cunningly bookended inside this well-wrought novel. It's the 1660s in Delft, and 16-year-old Griet, a Protestant, goes into service at the home of the Catholic Vermeers. There she is drawn into the painter's world, art and life intertwining in subtle and unexpected ways. Chevalier, an American resident in England, crafts a Vermeerian prose -- intimate, sensual, deceptively straightforward. She writes beautifully about the nature of servitude and about various forms of repression -- religious, sexual, artistic -- and the human effort to at once sustain and overcome them.

In the same way, it's the complexity of the quotidienin Vermeer's work -- aside from its technical brilliance -- that so beguiles us. His earringed girl is, Mona Lisa-like, profoundly enigmatic: sad, benign, knowing. Chevalier gives us an illuminating gloss on this amazing artist.

 

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