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Vermeer: Sphinx of Delft

As one of the world's most adored artists, Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) has been the subject of blockbuster exhibitions, theater pieces, and best-selling novels (Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, also a sumptuous movie). He enjoys cult status, yet his reputation rests on just 35 paintings. Of course, those canvases—ordinary domestic scenes depicting figures caught in an amber light—are among the most extraordinary ever created. But Vermeer's fame is relatively recent. He died at age 42, worn out by economic woes. Only since the mid–19th century have critics rightfully revered his work. And when Proust proclaimed his View of Delft "the most beautiful painting in the world," audiences worldwide became enraptured.

How Vermeer painted scenes of such incomparable quietude, while living in a house filled with his 11 children, is a difficult question to answer, and little is known about his early life. We do know that his father ran an inn and was also an art dealer, as was Johannes himself. But that doesn't seem important—the "reality" that matters is the one Vermeer captured on his canvases. The way his light traps the most transient of effects is so perfect, you almost find yourself looking around to see where the sunlight has fallen, expecting it to be dappling your own face.

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