The ne plus ultra of Vermeer art books, Vermeer in Detail (Abrams, $65) is a conclusive cataloguing of all thirty-two paintings by the master, accompanied by 170 extremely intimate—often full page—magnifications. Satisfyingly, in this one volume is everything the eye can take in from a Vermeer painting, elucidated by a thorough presentation of all the documentation and research we do have about the dismayingly mysterious, historically unreachable Johannes Vermeer. And yet this canonical volume’s greatest asset is the lightness with which author Gary Schwartz wears his learning. An American art historian residing in the Netherlands, Schwartz delivers prose unencumbered by any scholastic staidness or over-certainty, taking an intelligent but lightsome tone wholly befitting Vermeer’s oeuvre (“Dear Reader: it’s every Vermeer scholar for himself on this one,” he avers at one point). The manner in which Schwartz groups his chosen details into chapters is itself a revelation, providing fascinating insight into life in 17th- century Delft, as well as into Vermeer’s technical genius, yet nowhere detracting from the sheer awe of viewing the Old Master at such microscopic proximity.
A fascinating exercise and assay, Traces of Vermeer (Oxford, $34.95) serves as an elucidating technical accompaniment to the broader scope of Vermeer in Detail. Jane Jelley is, first and foremost, a painter. But she has become something of a reconstructive art historian through her engagement with Vermeer and his artistic process. Vermeer’s startling command of light, the snapshot-like quality of his 17th century masterworks, has long baffled even his greatest admirers. It would seem he used a camera obscura as an optic aide, but how exactly Vermeer might have used it—and whether its use in some way detracts from his genius—has been highly controversial. Jelley brings a vast knowledge, and, more importantly, practice, of traditional painting techniques to this discussion: grinding one’s own pigment, preparing canvases, long apprenticeships, third glazes. Through trials in the studio, she proposes a novel suggestion as to how exactly Vermeer could have used a camera obscura lens to arrive at his compositions, plot them onto canvas, and then prepare and layer paint to create his unparalleled works. The process, she maintains, would only further elevate Vermeer’s genius. Jelley’s engaging prose is a boon to both scholars and casual art appreciators.
Following his award-winning profiles of Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein, Walter Isaacson continues his exploration of creative genius with this in-depth and insightful study of Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, $35), the great Italian painter, architect, and engineer. Isaacson keeps da Vinci in a dual focus, portraying him as both a great artist and a man of science and technology; in vivid tableaux, he shows us the quintessential Renaissance man in the act of dissecting cadavers to learn about human physiology, observing water and wind, and pursuing any and all ways to better understand his world. Isaacson also chronicles how da Vinci, because he was born out of wedlock, was prevented from attending Latin school, which spared him from the need to conform to many of his era’s social exigencies. Using the great treasure of da Vinci’s Notebooks, Isaacson mines the master’s work itself for insight into various periods of his subject’s life, analyzing paintings for both the history they convey and the invaluable glimpses they offer into da Vinci’s artistic techniques. The book is generous with illustrations, illuminating not just Isaacson’s portrait but also serving as an immediate reference to Leonardo’s brilliance.