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Portrayals of Love

Johannes Vermeer’s treatment of love distinguished him from his peers.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Jan Vermeer
(Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Vermeer and the Art of Love, by Aneta Georgievska-Shine, Lund Humphries, 160 pages.

Johannes Vermeer, the seventeenth-century Dutch artist of the “fine painter” school, led a private life. He rarely left his hometown, Delft; exceedingly little is known about him apart from the fact that he married a Catholic woman, may have converted to her faith, and had eleven surviving children. He apparently produced only two paintings a year for two decades. After his death, Vermeer passed into near-oblivion for almost two centuries. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, Vermeer's star began to rise again, and it has not stopped rising since. In recent years, Vermeer’s popularity has only grown, thanks to the work of contemporary art historians and the sensibility of modern audiences.


Dr. Aneta Georgievska-Shine is an art historian of impressive scope. She studied with Arthur Wheelock, the leading American Vermeer scholar and curator of the landmark exhibition at the NGA, in 1995–96. She has previously brought her expertise to bear on two studies of Peter Paul Rubens’s mythological works; she has now produced an outstanding monograph on the art of Vermeer. While the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is exhibiting the most significant number of Vermeer paintings ever assembled this spring, Georgievska-Shine’s book is a perfect guide to the works in the exhibition or the next best thing for those who can't make the trip.

Georgievska-Shine’s book has two parts. In the first part, she gives us a tour of Dutch genre painting in the mid-seventeenth century, showing how this artistic culture shaped Vermeer's subject matter, characters, and situations. In the second, “Vermeer's Difference," she convincingly argues that "his visions of that Dutch reality seem a world apart from" those of his fellow painters. His marked superiority to most Dutch painters of his time was less in technical virtuosity than in form and meaning.

A quick first survey of his works can give the impression that Vermeer was primarily a genre painter whose main interest was women in domestic life—writing and reading letters, knitting, playing a musical instrument, and the like.

Like other contemporary scholars of seventeenth-century Dutch art, Georgievska-Shine shows that there is much more to Vermeer than that. Her objective in Vermeer and the Art of Love is to explore Vermeer's wide-ranging, deeply revealing artistic treatment of the subject of love—love between a man and a woman and between man and God—together with its connections to poetry, music, and perhaps above all the visual arts. 

The Vermeers she discusses depict women sometimes in moments of solitude—tuning or playing a musical instrument or reading or writing a letter, possibly from or to her lover—at other times in the presence of an actual or would-be lover, each time revealing some distinct aspect of the love relationship. The excited anticipation of the satisfaction of erotic desire to come, the wistful longing for her lover in his absence, the growing thrill of seduction by a music teacher or a soldier who comes calling, and above all, divine love—these are just a few of the emotions and ideas associated with love that are subtly but powerfully expressed through Vermeer's expert use of form and symbolism in his paintings.


In the seemingly quotidian Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, it is not made explicitly clear what the letter is about or who sent it. But the reproduced painting of Cupid by an unknown artist made to hang on the wall in the background gives us something to go on. As Georgievska-Shine explains, European artists, drawing upon an iconography rooted mainly in ancient Greco-Roman sources, particularly Ovid, had become accustomed to invoking Cupid as a conventional symbol of love. We may then reasonably conjecture that the letter is from a lover and perhaps even contains an avowal of love. Our conjecture is further supported by the look of total absorption mirrored in the girl’s posture and face: a look that is impossible to imagine in connection with any strictly mundane news. But beyond that, we are left tantalizingly in the dark.

According to Georgievska-Shine, one especially noteworthy aspect of Vermeer's treatment of love is his undogmatic, non-moralizing approach to the subject. In this respect, he is distinctly different from other prominent contemporary Dutch artists, among them Jan Steen, who is preoccupied with eros outside the bounds of morality, and Pieter de Hooch, who often portrays morally upright eros.

Take, for example, Officer and Laughing Girl. The foregrounded, largely silhouetted figure of the soldier, his back to the viewer, that dominates the painting's composition engenders, says Georgievska-Shine, “an air of mystery.” We are uncertain whether he is a hunter or conqueror attempting to seduce an unsuspecting young girl at the moment, so to speak, or a genuine Petrarchan courtier seeking but failing to bind himself for all time with his beloved. The redness of his coat bespeaks a robust erotic passion in him, which he may be seeking to satisfy immediately by charming her—successfully, judging by the apparent expression of delight on her face—with accounts of his adventures abroad possibly limned in the map hanging on the wall in the background (a leitmotif of Vermeer's paintings). 

Alternatively, the same map might be taken as a metaphor: a “map of love,” a source of guidance for the lover in his “journey to the heart of the beloved.” Instead of forcing the viewer to choose between these two interpretations of the soldier’s intentions and the moral implications of each, Vermeer, says Georgievska-Shine, has our attention focused on the pure joy in his company the girl clearly evinces, making us wonder what she is “listening to or … imagining” as he speaks. We are oblivious to the likelihood of her virtue being compromised in Vermeer’s painting, in stark contrast to Pieter de Hooch’s A Couple Playing Cards, with a Serving Woman, wherein, Georgievska-Shine argues, the signs all point unmistakably to a morally dubious outcome.

A pervasive theme of Georgievska-Shine’s discussion is Vermeer’s elusiveness and secretiveness. Consider his use in several paintings of such a seemingly innocuous object as a curtain. To return to the Girl Reading a Letter, the curtain on the right side of the picture frame conceals what Cupid is holding in his upraised left hand. Some visual images of Cupid in Vermeer’s time, such as a couple of engravings by Otto van Veen, depict him as “holding up a tablet inscribed with the number one, proclaiming the mutual devotion of lovers.” In others, by contrast, he holds up the ring of Gyges, reminding us of the lover's capacity for duplicity. Because Cupid’s left hand is hidden behind the curtain in the painting, we do not know whether it is holding “the magic ring of duplicity or the card of faithfulness.” The artist deliberately prevents us from ascertaining with certainty the nature and moral quality of the love relationship in question.

To be sure, Cupid is also shown with “two masks at his feet.” Since, as Georgievska-Shine argues, the masks are meant to symbolize deception, it is “as if the artist wanted to make sure the beholder will understand his message” as one of true devotional love. Yet we cannot be sure, if only because of the love god’s concealed left hand. (Although Georgievska-Shine then develops the further argument that the allusion to Gyges’ ring may signify “the deceptiveness of images,” such as Vermeer’s painting itself, and at the same time point to us beholders as “invisible,” “clandestine” Gyges-like figures gazing lovingly at the “beautiful illusion [of a woman] that the painter has created for us.”)

In Allegory of the Catholic Faith, the overarching theme of which is divine love, we see foregrounded on the left a tapestry curtain with all kinds of “largely illegible forms,” which Georgievska-Shine describes as a “woven ‘text’ that simultaneously uncovers and obscures the larger image.” One of those “forms” is an image, largely obscured by the curtain’s folds, of a “rider on horseback.” Owing to the allegorical nature of the painting, one can safely infer that the rider is St. Paul and that the curtain is thus “hinting at the Pauline obscurity of vision” spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”). 

Georgievska-Shine wonders whether the image is a “metaphor for a spiritual journey.” Upon further analysis of the painting’s symbolism, the spiritual journey proves, in her view, to be that of Catholics residing in a country where Calvinism is the established religion, who must gather together for prayer and worship in “secret” places. The presence of hidden meanings in Allegory symbolized by the curtain is confirmed by, among other things, the glass orb hanging from the ceiling, to which the gaze of the central figure—whom Georgievska-Shine describes as a fusion of Mary and Mary Magdalene and christens “Faith”—is directed: Barely visible on the orb is a reflection of a “partially open window, possibly another signal of the veiled nature of knowledge.” The “reflective surface” of the orb, Georgievska-Shine goes on to argue, can be understood to signify, in a veiled, metaphorical way, the painting in its entirety “as a Pauline mirror that guides us from the visible towards that which defies understanding: the metaphysics of love.”

One may again come away from a first encounter with Vermeer's paintings thinking that in them form ministers to a purely naturalistic artistic aim: Formal elements of art such as line, color, texture, and shading are used to make the contents of the painting resemble, with near-photographic accuracy, things as we experience them in everyday life. However, as Georgievska-Shine points out, attentive observation discloses a strong "classicizing" tendency continuous with that of the Renaissance. The near-geometrical organization of the contents of his paintings along clearly recognizable vertical and horizontal lines, one of those classicizing features, prefigure the geometrical abstractions of twentieth-century Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, for instance, his Broadway Boogie Woogie. But in Vermeer's case, classical form and order are made to serve the visual expression of higher human meanings, such as man's love of God, that cohere with a Christianity touched by neoplatonic philosophy. His artwork shows how the beauty of classical form and harmony can “affect our soul” in an edifying way.

From detailed discussions and analyses like these, the reader can begin to perceive how the paintings relate to each other to form a coherent whole. The clear implication of the book is that Vermeer’s “art of love” can be seen as a visually recreated cosmos of love that subtly reflects a cosmology with love as its ruling principle.

Some of Georgievska-Shine’s interpretations may strike the reader as doubtful, unclear, or far-fetched. But so erudite, detailed, and finely honed is her argument that intellectual integrity obliges us to carefully reread the entire book to ensure that such doubts do not stem from misunderstandings on our part.

Georgievska-Shine’s book brings to light love’s many-sidedness and complexity—with stress on its more uplifting aspects—in Vermeer’s rich visual portrayals. Mirroring Vermeer’s artistic intention, which coincides with a more traditional, common-sense perspective on the subject, and contrary to the contemporary taste for debunking, Georgievska-Shine stands firmly on the essential and irreducible distinction between spiritual (or noble) and corporeal (or base) eros.