Vermeer was criticized for exaggerating the perspective of his interior settings until eyes accustomed to reality as seen through the camera lens recognized that his perspective was in fact accurate. When the painter is very close to the nearest object in his composition, for example, only 2 feet from it, an object of equal size that is 4 feet from his eye will be depicted, correctly, as half the size of the first. Vermeer arranged his objects to achieve such contrasts. The effect of this practice is to make the voids in a sense tangible. The space is built up along with the objects in a construction of cubic solidity.
It has been suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscura in composing his pictures and that this accounts for both his striking compositions and his peculiarities in handling colors and values. Delft in his time was a center of optical experimentation and lens making, and it would not be surprising if artists there availed themselves of optical devices in their work. However, the unique qualities of Vermeer’s paintings must be attributed to his artistic personality. The figures and objects Vermeer painted belong to their environment in a special way that heightens the impression that what he is depicting is a block of space with all that it contains rather than solids separated by voids. He renounced the contours that in most paintings distinguished between figures and their setting. Instead, the outlines of his objects are insubstantial; they unite the elements of his paintings rather than separate them.
Vermeer’s manner of modeling, too, was exceptional. He built his figures with planes of contrasted values, omitting the graduations of tone that most painters use to model the form. In his mature works he punctuated his subtle patterns of light and shadow with pointillé.
The figures depicted in the paintings exist in a realm of abstract beauty. The quietness, serenity, order, and immutability of the world of Vermeer’s art provide, for those with a taste for such virtues, intimations of immortality. Perhaps this why this painter has always been felt to be mysterious.