Lance Esplund is a fine critic and a better writer. In case you missed his take on Vermeer in the Wall Street Journal, here’s the big thought:
One of the greatest pictorial virtues of Vermeer (1632-1675) is that he can imbue ordinary objects with sublime qualities. What makes this feat so astounding is that he never loses his grasp on his subjects’ origins. He paints things—bread, cloth, table and wall; flesh, light, space and air—without pretense. Yet, somewhere along the way, the forms become elevated—transfigured. While lesser painters attempt to give weight to objects and volume to form, to create light and space on the canvas, Vermeer explores extremes—balancing the humble with the mysterious. He raises us to ecstatic heights as he roots us firmly in the soil.
Any grouping of Vermeers will make clear the artist’s subtle control, his imaginative exploration of structure and metaphor, his range of touch. Vermeer can seem to have sculpted his forms out of light—and to have given light a full spectrum of qualities and temperatures. He colors light a wintery, velvety gray-blue in “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664), at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the Met’s “Woman With a Lute” (c. 1662-63)—in which her blurred head materializes like an apparition, vibrates like a plucked string—the soft-focus light is burnished sunset-bronze, as if warmed by touch, age and patina. Elsewhere, Vermeer’s light can be autumnal and arid or murky and veiled. In the Met’s “Study of a Young Woman” (c. 1665-67) it is glowing, protective and pearlescent. And light can change within a single painting. In “The Milkmaid,” Vermeer’s light is cool, silvery, tingling and crystalline, like that of the day winter transitions into spring. It has the charge of anticipation, the jolt of an Annunciation.
The Sublime in the Ordinary (Wall Street Journal)