Johannes Vermeer is a pearl – not a diamond

In worshipping Vermeer's realistic images we're sticking with the familiar. But other ways of seeing are far more original

Johannes Vermeer is one of the most popular artists of all time. His lovelife has been imagined on the page and on screen, and exhibitions of his work – there's one about to open at the National Gallery – are often hugely attended.

We make too much of him.

Vermeer is not one of those artists who were famous in every age. He's not an evergreen like Leonardo da Vinci. In the 18th century he was little known, a minor master. His modern fame started in 19th-century France. In fact, it is entirely a phenomenon of the photographic age, already under way when he was rediscovered by writers such as Thoré and Proust.

Vermeer's paintings look photographic, and that's why he has such a natural appeal today. It makes us give him more attention than we ever do to artists who are more rewarding and more exciting, but who look less immediate to eyes dulled by the camera.

Even though he lived in the 17th century, Vermeer's pictures have a cool, silent precision that can be emulated by photographers. In fact, it seems very likely Vermeer used a camera obscura in his work. He doesn't just look photographic – he is a pioneer of photographic art.

Of course, I am as seduced by Vermeer as anyone. His pictures are enigmatic, sensual and a bit spooky.

But in worshipping Vermeer, we are sticking with the familiar. We live in a world of photographs; we are used to seeing the world reproduced in the straight way the camera sees it. So when art that looks like photography materialises in a museum full of bizarre old paintings, it's like coming across a bit of home in a strange country. Among all those strange, unreal styles, the frilly fantasies of the rococo, say, or the grand postures of history painting, the camera-crisp art of Vermeer is something to latch on to.

Yet the joy of art – seen through time – is, precisely, how different the world looks through different eyes. Artists such as Gainsborough and Cézanne see the world in very unusual, completely unphotographic ways. Why not sample that plenitude of vision?

If you go to the National Gallery's Vermeer show, take time to tour its permanent, free galleries and take in some styles that are the opposite of photographic. Pearls are not the only jewels.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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