Though little is known about the life of Johannes Vermeer, the famous 17th century Dutch artist; many now recognize at least a small selection of his paintings after his fictional portrayal in Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and the subsequent film. Even those of us who haven’t read the novel (inspired by the painting of the same name), were sure to note the captivating use of Vermeer’s work on the cover as it graced prominent shelves at the local bookstore.
After lapsing into obscurity after his death, Vermeer’s work was rediscovered in the 19th century, and is now celebrated as amongst the most masterful of the Dutch Golden Age artists. In Vermeer: Master of Light narrator Meryl Streep guides viewers through a journey into Vermeer’s work to explore the facets of his work that make it unique.
Drawing upon the experience and insight of art historians and museum curators, Vermeer takes us to the paintings themselves (surprisingly small in person) as those most familiar with his work speak of restorations, technique, light, and perspective. Through the revealing use of x-ray analysis, infrared reflectography, and extensive use of three-dimensional computer models of Vermeer’s work, casual admirers of Vermeer’s work are drawn deeper into the composition and genius of his paintings.
Streep’s narration is beautiful, while at first notably ‘Meryl’, her soothing tones soon blend with the visual aspects of the film, carefully ushering viewers through a catalog of Vermeer's art as her tones reflect the very tranquility found in so many of his works. Painstakingly directed by Joseph J. Krakora, the use of light, shadow, and careful composition throughout the documentary reflect a deep appreciation and understanding of Vermeer’s work on the part of the director, that when combined with Streep’s narration provide an analogous backdrop for the paintings themselves. Having received an Emmy for Best Graphic and Artistic Design, as well as a nomination for Best Director Documentary, it’s clear that this attention to detail has not gone unappreciated.
Sadly this superb exploration of Vermeer’s extant works is completely lacking in additional DVD features which would make Vermeer all the more enjoyable. Bereft of even a standard navigational menu, all viewers are provided with is a play button. After viewing the disc I double-checked, hoping for perhaps, some full-screen stills of the paintings explored within the film – dreaming of transforming my television into an at-home art gallery if you will. I was disappointed to find that indeed, there are no additional features included.
So, what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? That’s a question that even the minds of those who’ve been studying his work for years fail to answer succinctly. After examining a wealth of technical points, there is still a feeling, a mood, something difficult to pin down, which continues to draw viewers into each painting – wrapping them within the folds of the world Vermeer has created for us to catch a glimpse of. Vermeer: Master of Light takes anyone longing for a deeper understanding of his work “behind-the-canvas’ as it were, in this fascinating art film.