A Review of Pascal Bonafoux’s Vermeer


Woman With a Water Jug

Woman With a Water Jug

So I went stateside a couple of months back to visit the Detroit Institute of Art, and whilst going through the Dutch section, I was saddened by the fact that they didn’t have any paintings by Vermeer.  To cheer myself up, I went and visited John King’s Used and Rare Books and picked myself up a book about Vermeer, complete with a number of high-gloss images.  The particular book I picked up was aptly titled Vermeer and was written by Pascal Bonafoux.  Though the book was well organized, and the reproductions of Vermeer’s work were beautiful and accompanied by detailed images, I did find the book lacking in terms of analysis and biographical information.  It is a beautiful book, but not one that satiates my curiosity regarding Vermeer and his work.



'The Astronomer', one of the paintings stolen by the Nazis during WWII and later recovered in a salt mine.

‘The Astronomer’, one of the paintings stolen by the Nazis during WWII and later recovered in a salt mine.

One of the biggest issues was with the biographical information.  In all fairness to Bonafoux, there simply is not very much information about Vermeer to be had, and so it is extremely difficult to gather enough information to put a reliable and interesting biography on the artist.  As Bonafoux notes, Vermeer’s work did not become truly celebrated until two centuries after his death when Theophile Thore-Burger discovered him and fell in love with Vermeer’s work.  He was a Frenchman who sought political asylum in Holland and after falling in love with Vermeer’s work some 200 years after the painter’s death, dedicated his life to bringing recognition to Vermeer’s talent.  Bonafoux does offer some details concerning forgeries that appeared during the a span of twenty years during the mid 20th century, and even offers some biographical information on some of Vermeer’s paintings that were rescued from a salt mine along with 40 000 other works that were confiscated by the Nazi during WWII.  As far as Vermeer though, the most Bonafoux can offer is information on the year he was born, when to whom he got married, when he died, and some information on Vermeer’s finances.


Maidservant Pouring Milk

Maidservant Pouring Milk

A great art book does not need to rely on biography though.  For me what makes a great art book is in-depth analysis.  Bonafoux does have some interesting observations about some of the work, but there is not as much analysis as I would have liked.  Vermeer, for example, made a point of painting working-class women engaged in their occupations.  Whether it be a maid pouring milk (Maidservant Pouring Milk) or water (Young Woman With A Water Jug), or a seamstress sewing (The Lacemaker), Vermeer took a particular interest in working-class women, most especial those who worked in the domestic sphere, and made them a muse for his work.  Much could be said about this.  How did this compare of contrast with other paintings of the era?  How does the pouring of milk link the figure with maternity or femininity?  If his female figures weren’t engaged in such activities, they were often playing a musical instrument (The Music Lesson, Girl With Flute, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, The Lutenist and, The Guitar Player) or reading letters (Woman Reading Letter: Amsterdam, and Woman Reading Letter: Dressden).  What are the implications of these?  Bonafoux offers some insights into the genres, but does not always offer a thorough analysis.  In contrast, Vermeer’s male figures were often portrayed in intellectual scenes, such as The Astronomer and The Geographer.  Why this focus?  Instead of offering analysis, Bonafoux often provides a summary of what is present in the painting.


The Music Lesson

The Music Lesson

There also seems to be some question as to Bonafou’x affection for Vermeer’s work.  Though there are a number of compliments throughout, Bonafoux seems to take some jabs at Vermeer.  In one instance he writes that “just as [Vermeer] paints genre scenes that have no narrative content, he paints portraits devoid of personality” (21).  When reading this, it seems as though Bonafoux is about to make some sort of insightful observation about the merits of such an approach, but he does not.  He simply moves on.  Given the high praise that Bonafoux offers, and the lack of context for these negative comments, the latter seems distracting and doesn’t work within the manner that the book is written.  One is certainly allowed to not like aspects of a painter’s work and write about it, indeed, that can make for entertaining reading, but this seems out of place and inconsistent with the way the material was being presented, and so weighs down the work.


'The Girl With the Pearl Earring', Vermeer's most famous painting thanks in part to a kitsch Hollywood film by the same name.

‘The Girl With the Pearl Earring’, Vermeer’s most famous painting thanks in part to a kitsch Hollywood film by the same name.

The book, to its merit, if very well organized.  There is a clear alphabetical index at the back of the collection that has the page number for each painting on it.  This is a huge improvement from the Taschen book on Monet I read some months back (Taschen is usually the template against which other art books are to be measured, but the indexing on this particular edition was confusing at best).  What is missing, however, is the page numbers alongside each work when it is first reference.  Many art books either identify a figure number or a page number when they first mention a work, and Bonafoux’s book does neither (though this may have been an editorial choice and not one made by Bonafoux himself).  The titles of the works and their corresponding page numbers are easily found in the glossary at the back, but page references next to the first mention of a given work would have been convenient.


'Mistress and Maid', one of several paintings featuring Vermeer's famous yellow coat.

‘Mistress and Maid’, one of several paintings featuring Vermeer’s famous yellow coat.

Though the work is lacking in analysis, there is some present, and Bonafoux does offer some interesting anecdotes about the history of the paintings, both in terms of following a couple of paintings and their journey through the hands of Nazis and such, and also offers some interesting anecdotes about forgery.  These short narratives came across as the most interesting part of the work, but sadly were actually quite brief.  I would have like to hear more about this biographical information, but as mentioned there is little of such information to be had.  Unfortunately, there are only 31 paintings by Vermeer that are known to exist (and the authorship of some of these are challenged).  Each of the 31 paintings is reproduced in the book, as well as some others from other period painters and related works.  Obviously not Vermeer work would be complete without The Girl With The Pearl Earring, however, though that may be Vermeer’s most famous work, his windows-side paintings are both his most technically impressive works (his representation of light is photographic at times) and also the most interesting in terms of analysis give the manner in which Vermeer portrays women.  There is one question I would have like explored: What is up with that yellow coat that appears in so many paintings?  In Woman With the Pearl Necklace (not a porn reference, get your mind out of the gutter), Lady Writing Letter, The Guitar Player, Mistress and Maid, and The Lutenist, the women portrayed are all wearing the same coat.  Bonafoux did mention that Vermeer often dressed his female models in his wife’s clothes, but it seems he would have changed this up?  I guess I will never now.  C’est la vie.


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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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