In Travels in Vermeer poet and professor Michael White copes with the aftermath of his divorce by studying Johannes Vermeer paintings around the world. White stumbles into this mechanism accidentally when he takes an impromptu spring break trip to Amsterdam to escape life. While there, he visits the Rijksmuseum and walks into the Vermeer room, where the paintings are “unexpectedly small, but the force of the spell they cast is so eerily powerful that it’s difficult to move, to breathe.” White is mesmerized, and though he tries to explore the rest of the museum, he finds himself back in the Vermeer room, his faith in love suddenly restored. He returns to his hotel and drafts a plan to visit as many of the 35 known Vermeers as possible within a year’s time.
White’s book acts as a handy guide for anyone museum hopping for Vermeers, but more than a series of art critiques, Travels in Vermeer includes biographical detail about both the painter and the author. In between waxing poetic about Vermeer’s women, White tries again with three-dimensional women, detailing several Match.com meet-ups, all of which seem to go well on the surface but never result in a second date. He also delves into the painful topics of his failed marriage and the death of his first wife and occasionally thinks of his daughter.
With the introduction of White’s personal life, the book becomes less about the redemptive nature of travel and art and more about a man and his inability—at least for a time—to connect with women, a man who finds Vermeer’s two-dimensional portraitures easier companions. Perhaps it makes sense that, struggling with the women in his real life, White would turn to the study of women who look real but remain mute, allowing him to project and impose his own feelings. He can build strong relationships with these women who never disappoint, who serve as vessels for his desires, who are wide-eyed and available to him. This is to our benefit because the elegant, illuminative way White describes Vermeer’s work transports the reader to his spot before each painting, whether he be in Amsterdam, the Hague, Delft, Washington, D.C., New York or London.
The reader can learn a lot about Vermeer and his life by following White on his external and internal journey, and it’s easy to relate to White’s disillusionment and rediscovery of life’s greatest joys through its greatest arts, as he slowly begins to learn enough about himself to once again learn to love others. At just under 180 pages, the book is a fast read rich in emotion and setting that may inspire readers to take an art pilgrimage of their own.