30 JUNE 2001, Page 47

Mysterious, transcendent beauty

Martin Gayford is enraptured by the Vermeers on display at the National Gallery In May 1921, all Paris was flocking to an exhibition of Vermeers at the Jeu de Paurne. On the 24th, a strangely attired middle-aged man — muffled up as if in fear of the outside air — set out to join them. On the stairs of his home he suffered an alarming attack of giddiness, but continued regardless. The art critic Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, who had written on the exhibition in L'Opinion, took his arm and led him to the 'View of Delft'.

There Marcel Proust saw again the painting he considered the most beautiful in the world. Hidden away, of course, in its roofscape was the 'little patch of yellow wall' in front of which his character, the novelist Bergotte, was also stricken by a giddy spell — fatal in his case — and died redeemed by the sight of that mysterious and transcendent beauty, 'precious in itself'.

Times change, the little patch of yellow wall is no longer easy to identify, but 80 years on crowds are once again flocking into a great Vermeer exhibition, in London this time. It raises the question of what exactly it is that makes Johannes Vermeer such a star of art — a painter who, Bergotte found in that cliché of a few years ago, was to die for.

It was not always thus. He was moderately successful during his lifetime, largely it seems because of the steady collecting of a single patron. But apparently he never made enough to support his wife and 11 children without help from his wealthy mother-inlaw. And he died 'in a frenzy' — it sounds like a heart attack or stroke brought on by stress — at the age of 43, in 1675, when a downturn in the Dutch economy killed the art market.

His posthumous climb to the peak of aesthetic renown began almost 200 years later. Although there has been scholarly debate on the point, it seems clear that this rediscovery was largely the work of a French critic named Theophile Thora (who wrote under the pseudonym of Burger). He discovered the Amsterdam sale catalogue of 1696 which enabled him to identify many missing Vermeers (some of them hidden behind false signatures and incorrect attributions). He was the moving force behind yet another Vermeer exhibition in Paris (this one in 1866) at which this new old master was revealed to the world.

The Parisian critics went into moderated ecstasies. 'From now on,' wrote one. 'the world will celebrate the interesting Vermeer . . . and who knows?. .. perhaps one day indiscreet people will end up calling him the great Vermeer.' In fact, that took some time. For a while, it was still much more expensive to buy a De Hooch. In the 1860s Sir Charles Eastlake, director of the National Gallery — a man with an eye for a picture — was foxed by Vermeer's frequent shifts of style. Consequently, he turned down a series of superb Vermeers, including the seraphic 'Girl with Pearl Earrings', as not sufficiently good specimens of the painter's manner. But long before Proust first saw the 'View of Delft' in The Hague in 1902, Vermeer had climbed to the peak of Parnassus and was ready to function as a symbol of that ineffable quality that makes art worthwhile — for its own sake.

Still, ineffable though the answer may be, this exhibition provides a good opportunity to decide just why that is so. It contains some of the best Vermeers — not the 'View of Delft', but 'The Art of Painting' from Vienna which is its equal (and which Proust never saw). And it aims to present Vermeer in the context of his fellow townsmen, though as the catalogue is quick to admit. the School of Delft is a fairly random assortment, like the Schools of Paris and London. Two of the major figures, De Hooch and Fabritius, spent much of their careers working elsewhere. And it's probable that Vermeer himself would have been off to Amsterdam if he had been able to do without the free accommodation supplied by his mother-in-law.

But seeing Vermeer in this way makes some interesting points, as well as giving an opportunity to see some wonderful pictures, by Fabritius and De Hooch especially. First, it demonstrates his unoriginality in subject matter and form. Vermeer was one of those artists — Bach was another, whose greatness was also recognised in the 19th century — who did nothing their contemporaries and predecessors did not do. They just did it, somehow, much more profoundly.

Vermeer's repertoire of girls drinking wine with soldiers, heads of people with fancy hats and so on was the common currency of mid-17th-century Dutch painting. He and De Hooch — the two must have known each other's work since they lived five minutes' walk apart — made only changes of nuance to the received pattern. But they both did better than average, and Vermeer far more than that.

Try this experiment. Stand in the centre of the fourth room at this show — if it's not too packed — and look at Vermeer's 'Milkmaid' together with the De Hoochs around it. You will find that, small though it is, it simply pops off the wall. The Vermeer contains a concentrated visual power that makes the other pictures fade away. This is a combination of many qualities — the way the tones are woven together, the geometric lock of the design, the skill with which Vermeer masses his figure as a forceful dark silhouette against the light wall, the pared-down, and hence singingly clear, colour harmony. And that's just a hit of it. In comparison, the De Hoochs — good as some are, others being a bit iffy — look weak and loose. Even 'The Glass of Wine' on the opposite wall, which is not a particularly fabulous Vermeer, dominates 'A Woman Drinking with Two Men', one of the very best De Hoochs. The only picture in the show that can stand up to Vermeer is perhaps The Goldfinch' by Fabritius.

Then there is the feeling that Vermeers generate: a deep, meditative tranquillity, again not unlike the deep calm of Bach's music. This is similar to the quality that Bernard Berenson admired in Piero della Francesca — another painter rediscovered in the late 19th century. Berenson called it 'ineloquence', and you can see how Vermeer consciously or unconsciously strives towards it by quietening the narrative.

Many of his pictures are narrative scenes — bordello romps, plainly enough, in the early and uncharacteristic though wonderful 'The Procuress'. In 'The Visit' De Hooch produces a similar atmosphere, the woman at the table grinning lewdly. Vermeer's 'Glass of Wine', painted a year or two later, is already becoming more decorous, the implications of seduction more ambiguous. By the time you get to 'Woman with a Balance' or 'Young Woman with a Water Pitcher', although there may well be some symbolic or moral meaning underlying the image, the figures have become dreamy, lost in thought.

The result is to make you, the viewer, more contemplative, slowing down, getting lost in the extraordinary subtlety of the way light passes across a white plastered wall, how highlights form on the edge of a linen headscarf or a a silver dish. Some of these pictures you could look at for ever — which is, I suppose, how Proust and Bergotte felt about the matter.

Vermeer and the Delft School, at the National Galley, London WC2, till .10 September.