Notes on the wonderful book by Philip L. Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft


Philip L. Hale, Vermeer. London, 1937 (this is the later edition of the 1913 book was completed by F.W. Coburn & R.T. Hale).

Philip L Hale (1865-1931) was a painter, teacher, writer. His book, which was published in 1913 highlights life and work of Johannes Vermeer with regards to archival documents and painterly qualities. Vermeer, the "painter's painter", even "the supreme painter", is described well and understood in terms of the visual quality of the paint surface.

"There were giants, of course, such as Vélasquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, who did very wonderful things, but none of these ever conceived of arriving a tone by an exquisitely just relation of colour values - the essence of contemporary painting that is really good. (...) We of today particularly admire Vermeer because he has attacked what seem to us significant problems or motives, and has solved them, on the whole, as we like to see them solved. (...) By and large, Vermeer has more great painting qualities and fewer defects than any other painter of any time or place." (p. 3).

He looked at his work to see "...if there was anything he could do to his picture to make it portray more closely the real aspect of nature - la vraie vérité , as Gustave Courbet liked to call it. (p. 4).

"...there is beauty in rightness... (...) Vermeer's art has this quality of cool, well-planned rightness to the full. He holds, as it were, a silver mirror up to nature, but he tells no more pleasant tales as he holds it. His work is as intensely personal as any that was ever done, but it offers a personality disengaged from self-consciousness during the making process. (p. 5).

The personality (...) is revealed in the device of the subject, in the arrangement of colours, in the registration of colour values and of edges.. (...) The man simply painted on (...) striving for and attaining the rightness of things (...). He conceived and sought the best arrangement of line and colour that he could achieve." (p. 8-9).


Some critics feel that Vermeer's hands are among the most wonderful creations in art history. It is almost funny that Hale thinks differently:

"He did not draw structurally at all. While many of the Netherland painters knew their anatomy and constructed their figures understandingly, it is questionable if Vermeer really understood the construction of the arm, the wrist, the hand, the knee, the foot. By sheer keenness of perception he sometimes rendered wonderfully well the general shape and size of a hand; this by indication of the way the light slid over it. He often drew hands well, as if they were still life. His accessories were delineated about as adequately as by anyone. There is occasionally a little faltering in getting the side of a jog even with the other side, but, practically speaking, Vermeer working always from the appearance of things, delineated still life - chairs, crumpled rugs and his famous lion's heads - quite adequately." (p. 74).

Read this wonderful book!

This page forms part of a large encyclopedic site on Delft. Research by Drs. Kees Kaldenbach (email). A full presentation is on view at

Launched 16 February 2001; Last update March 1, 2017.