12. Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction.


Part of an essay on Vermeer, brain channels, neural stimulus, visual perception and art appreciation

A 20,000-word essay on the interface between the fields of Vermeer, Art History and cognitive science, neuroscience and neuresthetics

written by Vermeer specialist, art historian Drs. Kees Kaldenbach, Amsterdam.


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

Updated 15 February 2017.

3.9. Vermeer’s World of Interiors as a Reality or Construction?

Various qualities give Vermeer paintings a peculiar weight. Psychological qualities – in the sense of evoking an event - could possibly be described separately but should be seen in relationship to the two formal points discussed above: paint layers and composition.
Better than his contemporaries, Vermeer succeeded in maintaining the weight and gravity embodied in his history painting when - from ca. 1658 onwards he changed course and entered what is known as his middle phase. Then he crafted a major series of paintings mainly of women set within interiors. Apart from these he painted a few single female heads, plus a few interiors with groups of women and men. As part of this phenomenon a “strange depth of emotion” is transferred to the viewer, as Lawrence Gowing put it.[1]
“There is an intimate significance in these pictures [as in The Music Lesson, Buckingham Palace, London]. Each is the final embodiment of a principle: together they expound a dual view of female nature, challenging and receptive. We have come upon a deep pattern of Vermeer’s thought.”[2]

Vermeer presents a universe of women shown in quiet, private and intimate activities. The women are shown within half a room’s distance of the viewer but are at the same time are kept at a physical distance by shielding their eyes most of the time and by inserting optical barriers such as table, rug, chair or musical instrument. This combination between indicators of nearness and distance may create an emotional tension.[3]
All of these women are fully absorbed by their private activity[4]. All are – or seem to be - women of worth, from the sturdy kitchen-maid upwards to refined women.
The maid is pouring milk into a vessel, preparing bread pudding from a batch of stale bread that otherwise would be discarded. The single women are all fine-clad as are the women who are in pairs - maid and lady, to groups of women and men making music.
“Domesticity is preponderant and this has a complex ideological appeal. Women see themselves taken seriously; men see their surrogate wives and daughters treated respectfully in safe roles.”[5]

Within the formal composition of his paintings we notice an intensification of storytelling by the arrangement of formal elements. The combination of human figures and geometrically outlined objects in space, often heighten the psychological impact. This is particularly the case with the Woman Holding Scales (National Gallery, Washington DC) in which the position of her hand holding the scales high is both at the vanishing point - as part of the perspective system. That same point is visually locked in at the intersection of lines formed by the picture frame of the painting shown in the background, forming a decisive part of the composition. The fact that the framed painting shows a scene of the Last Judgment in which souls are weighed in another scale yields a multi-layered meaning to the painting.

Vermeer’s way of storytelling is never straight or clear but always cloaked in subtle hints at a possible narrative, yielding an open-ended story in which the observer is given free reign to construct multiple stories.

For those of us who seem to know by heart the full range of Vermeer paintings - either from studying the originals in museums or by leafing through reproductions, the whole series of images are known in a cumulative way, heightening the aesthetical and intellectual experience of seeing a single image as it is perceptually infused and influenced by our knowledge of other ones. Added knowledge from technical images such as x-rays, infrared reflectography produces images in which new elements come up make us even more familiar.[6]
“As we view each painting by Vermeer, our memory is at work, relating it to qualities perceived in other paintings by the artist. One result is the acquisition of a sense of the harmony of Vermeer’s life’s work, which is unlike any other artist.”[7]

This effect does not only concern the themes or subject matter or scene portrayed, but also formal qualities discussed above – the use of colour, the particular quality of colour boundaries, style, lay out and the geometry of objects within the scene. Indeed, Vermeer scenes are set in rooms with often-repeated interior architecture - spaces seemingly familiar to us from other Vermeer paintings. The resulting sense of intimate knowledge of his apparent interior architecture is reinforced as we keep seeing echoes of other images, yielding familiar human figures, wearing similar dress items, positioned near known furniture and decorative objects, including rectangular paintings and maps on the wall.

Words fail?

It is quite hard to phrase what Vermeer’s paintings are about. In trying to put into words what we actually see as an image and what we do experience when confronted with these paintings our language easily falters. We fail to grasp the micro-explosive effects of the beauty, which we behold – our subjective personal grasp will only reflect part of what Vermeer conveys in the way of emotion, psychological values and inner truth.
Vermeer’s paintings thus largely evade a verbal description. Beyond the more objective iconography and iconology lays the intangible world of visual fugues and poetry in scenes of human interaction - a subjective, private, inner psychological universe experienced both by the novice and by the informed viewer.
The viewer observes the quiet everyday events represented, often scenes of calmness and introspection through identification with the personality of individual men and women, or in the quiet interaction between men and women. Vermeer subject matter, which stresses stillness, sensitivity, introspection, and what may be termed “female energy” has been embraced by those people in tune with late 20th and early 21th-century cultural values, which do include those of the women’s liberation movement.

For this varied public, Vermeer seems to have communicated on a close psychological level with his women sitters, succeeding in portraying their inner life of on a sensitive level. Because of this empathy and because of his painterly wizardry in communicating with the viewer he has triggered a flood of enthused response and in the end an avalanche of books and articles, which now also include those on gender studies in fine art.

This psychological transfer of moral weight is process hard to describe, yet a number of authors, Arthur Wheelock, jr and Ivan Gaskell being the most outspoken among them, feel that this visual presentation of moral weight is at the core of Vermeer’s enduring value. Wheelock in his 1995 book Vermeer & the Art of Painting uses metaphysical language to describe this process. Gaskell in his Vermeer’s Wager, published in 2000, maintains that at he basis of this peculiar transfer there is a set of purely visual processes triggered by his paintings, bypassing the usual verbal parts of the brain at work to make sense of things.

Vermeer’s storytelling is nearly always subdued, evasive and ambiguous. In his scenes only an enigmatic, obscure, minor part of a story is presented. Content and meaning are partly conveyed through the formal composition, the other, perhaps even greater communicative elements of transmission are colour and the style of painting – the effects working under the skin, triggering in our mind not a conscious and verbal response but an individual psychological response based upon personal inferences.[8]

The depth of individual emotion caused by these paintings does deserve detailed attention. In his book Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman explained for a lay public the human brain route of processing visual information through a series of biological structures (eye, thalamus, amygdala, visual cortex) and the workings of emotional response through the gateway of the amygdala.[9] This line of inquiry may well deserve further study in connection to perceiving art history.

When Dutch seventeenth century painters choose to convey a meaning in their pictures, they had the option of entering into a social and an intellectual game with their informed, literate viewers by way of either quoting an well known image or by doing quite the opposite, by veiling, cloaking, disguising the meaning behind a less obvious one. Incorporating a hidden meaning may have been a ploy in the work of several Dutch painters.

Interpretation of these paintings by the informed viewer was welcomed by the painter on various levels – knowing the background of his educated public who also read Emblemata books by or based on Cesare Ripa, Otto van Veen, Jacob Cats and other authors. By playing in obscure corners the painter realises a certain obscurity and enjoying a possible mental play with layers of contents and varieties of meaning. This concept is related to what Eddy de Jongh coins ‘multivalent explanation’.[10] Within almost all Vermeer paintings, with the exception of his only artistic mistake, the Allegory of Faith (Metropolitan, NYC) there is a wide-ranging freedom of interpretation of both the story being told and deciphering the possible the meaning behind the painting.
De Jongh writes of another painter presenting a possible allegorical charge, and literary components – shrouded in realism.[11] The painter thus presents two levels of ‘ogenlust’, or enticement, the visual and the intellectual.[12]

Descargues in his 1966 book writes:
“Vermeer shows objects in a state of extraordinary purity. He relates the subtlest of ___ the essence of reality. One thinks of a contemplative painter, a recluse in meditation within three planes, a ray of sunshine or the gesture of a woman, must pay attention to the symbolic sense of the human beings and objects.” [trans. KK]

“Vermeer montre les objects dans un état de pureté extraordinaire. Il révèle, après les plus subtiles décantations, l’essence de la réalité. On pense donc qu’un peintre contemplative, un reclus en meditation devant trios plains, un rayon de soleil ou le geste d’une femme, devait être attentive au sens symbolique des êtres et des choses.”[13]

These separate qualities, mentally combined within the informed and experienced viewer, yield a heightened or altered perception – an intensified sublime vision as if reality is suddenly observed through a superior crystal lens system, a reality lifted above itself and elevated to a truer level than everyday human existence, releasing subconscious mental images.

Thus on a number of levels Vermeer paintings raise a number of questions as to the interrelationship between everyday reality as once observed by the artist Vermeer and the meta-reality he succeeded to craft in his layers of paint.
One of the central remaining problems concerning the subject “Vermeer and Reality” is to find out which elements within Vermeer paintings are to be considered as true almost ‘photographic’ likenesses of physical reality and to which degree are these paintings results of artistic artifices, constructions and manipulations and tricks of the painters trade.
Within art history the question of reality within a realistic looking 17th c painting has become subject of debate and of a shift in understanding and emphasis.

3.9.1 Contrasting Worlds

It has now become quite clear Vermeer did not paint his everyday, almost precarious private world – that of a struggling and aspiring lower middle class family. Instead, on the first level of perception he portrayed another, elevated, elegant, affluent social class of young women and men, ‘juffers’ and ‘jonkers’ who are at their leasure, probably getting up wonderfully late in the morning, unencumbered with household tasks, savouring a better kind of life, performing some music and socializing at home with wine and selected guests. It looks as though Vermeer is reaching for the impossible, picturing a world, which would otherwise be just momentarily attainable to the common man or woman in winning the jackpot at a lottery. Andrew Graham-Dixon, who wrote and presented a 2003 BBC television program on Vermeer, phrases this contrast between Vermeer’s real world and the painted world in 21 century terms. In his private reflections jotted down after reading the Montias book he phrases it sharply:

“The more you look at this world the more teeming it seems to become, teeming and venal and sordid, with its out-draggers and lenders and fakers and forgers and religious schismatics killing each other and assassins armed with pistols and inflatable bladders for their getaway […] Much like the modern world in some ways, although the details are bizarrely different. It makes me think, or realise with all the more force, how well Vermeer managed to invent a world nothing like the one he lived in, a world remote from all this clamour and trade and lunacy and mania and disappointment. Maybe that’s why we like him too – he’s a getaway from Saddams and Holocausts and the seemingly endless capacity of people to hurt, kill...”[14]

3.9.2 Identifying actual Objects

If one tries to shed another spotlight on the vexing question of Vermeer & reality one may attempt to compare the 1676 inventory of the Vermeer house, written a few months after his death, with certain items visible in Vermeer paintings. J. Michael Montias in studying these similarities and differences [15] feels that
“…the essential substratum, die Dingen an sich, in any event, must have been there…”
He claims that one particular object, a gilded wine jug mentioned in a testament is precisely the jug seen in the painting commonly called 'Woman with a Water Jug' (actually the painting shows both a jug and a matching basin, Metropolitan, NYC). About this water or wine jug or tankard Montias wrote:
"Only one item that Maria Thins gave to her daughter Catherina in one of her testaments seems to be represented in a Vermeer picture." [...] "A gilded jug was such a rare and valuable object that I doubt there could have been another one that was anything like it in the Vermeer household."[16]

By February 29, 1676, the day of the inventory taking, this gilt jug may either have been sold or hocked because of increasing financial difficulties in the Vermeer family since the economy faltered after the disastrous military and political events of 1672. If the jug was still within the house, it was kept illegally hidden from the notary or his assistant.

Wheelock on the other hand points at another much less spectacular object which must have been around in the Vermeer household: the white earthenware pitcher appearing on the table in the foreground of the Music Lesson (Buckingham Palace, London) and in apparently smaller version in paintings in Berlin and Brunswick.[17]
And of course there are obvious rare items like the large strip of gold-tooled leather[18] seen horizontally in The Love Letter (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and vertically in Allegory of Faith (Metropolitan, NYC), the latter shown together with a crucifix in front of it.[19] The crucifix was an item found almost exclusively in Roman Catholic households and within hidden churches. Within the culture of the Dutch Reformation (the officially supported church), displaying and revering a crucifix was uncommon.
Although J. Michael Montias has presented a huge amount of social and biographical data of Vermeer’s milieu, his grasp of the likely interior architecture of the house was minimal. He erroneously thinks a black and white marble floor was present.[20] More on this subject in chapter 4 and online at the www.johannesvermeer.info web site.


[1] Gowing 1997: 28.
[2] Gowing 1997: 55
[3] Wheelock 1995: 7.
[4] Possible exception in that of the Braunschweig lady who seems to be grinning at the viewer of the painting.
[5] Gaskell 2000: 41.
[6] Gaskell 2000: 50 lists four images of the cupid holding the card.
[7] Gaskell 2000: 41-42.
[8] Wheelock1977: 262
[9] Goleman 2002.
[10] De Jongh in Franits 1997: 22.
[11] De Jongh in Franits 1997: 25 and 40.
[12] De Jongh in Franits 1997: 40.
[13] Descargues 1966: 67.
[14] Text by BBC interviewer Andrew Graham-Dixon, consisting of his private notes made while reading Montias 1989.
[15] Montias 1989: 188-193.
[16] At my request Michael Montias explained in 2003: "I had written about the wine jug on p. 190 of the English edition of my book [Vermeer and his Milieu] that Maria Thins had given to her daughter Catharina in 1657 and confirmed "in one of her testaments" (actually the second) in 1662 a "gilded wine tankard" (p.317). In the Dutch edition, a much more complete version of the testament is available. On p. 361, the text reads "1 vergulde wijncan".[1 gilt wine tankard or jug]"
[17] Wheelock, Persp & Optics, p. 289.
[18] Gold tooled-leather is made of rectangular pieces of leather which have been heavily tooled into raised surfaces in a regular pattern; an extremely thin layer of silver, which has been beaten into gossamer sheets of silver, was then glued to this leather. Finally a varnish and possibly some pigments are added. This results in a golden shine.
[19] Delft Municipal Archives, Protocol by notary public J. van Veen, February 29, 1676
: 'About seven ells [feet] of gold tooled-leather on the wall' 'Omtrent seven ellen goutleer aende muyr' in the inner kitchen ("binnekeucken"). Room C.
'An ebony wood crucifix' 'Een ebbenhout cruys' In the great Hall ("groote zael") Room I. See www.johannesvermeer.info
[20] Montias, Vermeer and his Milieu, p. 193. (both the Warffemius and Kaldenbach studies on the Vermeer house were not yet available then).


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

Contact information for Private Art Tours:

Menu of tours. See client testimonials.

Drs. Kees Kaldenbach , kalden@xs4all.nl

Haarlemmermeerstraat 83 hs

1058 JS Amsterdam

The Netherlands

telephone 020 - 669 8119

(from abroad NL +20 - 669 8119)

cell phone 06 - 2868 9775

(from abroad NL +6 - 2868 9775

Please note: All materials presented on this 2000+ item web site are original and therefore copyrighted. If passages are quoted (in essays, dissertations, books or other works, written or otherwise) then references must be made in the proper way. That is, the quoted passages must be attributed to the author, and the source of the material (i.e. this website) must be cited.

Written 2002-2003. Published online, July 17, 2011. Updated July 12, 2016.


"I detected one misprint, but to torture you I will not tell you where."
Winston Churchill to T.E. Lawrence, re Seven Pillars of Wisdom