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Just about the only thing we know for certain about the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer is the thing that matters most: he was a miraculous painter. What was miraculous about him, among other things, was that he painted nothing, or mostly nothing: a woman reading a letter, or asleep at a table. But he made it seem as if time had nearly stopped in these pictures, and the effect is like slow-motion film: the ordinary suddenly looks extraordinary. Put another way, Vermeer eternalized moments that we all live, the ones when nothing much is happening, and gave them an almost mystical gravity.
Is this what makes him so popular? Partly, perhaps. His beautiful works are an effortless and hypnotic pleasure. A painting like "Woman With a Pearl Necklace" is a typical, well, jewel, full of strange portent: the young woman gazes at herself in the mirror as a diffuse golden light pours through the leaded window and glints off her earring, the yellow satin of her fur-trimmed jacket and the hand-wrought nails of a chair. The image is about vanity, to be sure, but also spirituality, since the woman, in her near rapture, looks as if she might be lifting up a host, not a necklace.