Johannes Vermeer is a beloved artist. Is he also a great one?

Vermeer gave the world only a few dozen paintings, ones that invite multiple interpretations and personal projections. He left ample personal records (we know he died in debt at 43, leaving behind 11 children), but no letters, no pupils to reveal how he thought about his craft. As curator Anne Woollett considers the power of Vermeer this week on Getty Voices, we asked Scott Schaefer, the Museum’s senior curator of paintings, to add his voice to the conversation.

oman in Blue Reading a Letter / Johannes Vermeer as installed at the Getty Center

She has arrived: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, about 1663–64, Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas, 18 5/16 x 15 3/8 in. (49.6 x 40.3 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

Scott has been looking at and thinking about Vermeer for decades; at LACMA in 1983, he had “the pleasure and great honor” of hanging Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in an exhibition of treasures from Holland’s Mauritshuis. Now that Girl with a Pearl Earring is visiting the de Young and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is on loan to the Getty from the Rijksmuseum, I asked Scott what he thinks about Vermeer: Is he a great artist? And if so, why?

Vermeer is a remarkable genius.

I judge artists on how few questions are answered when you look at their pictures. To me, the greater the artist, the fewer the questions he or she answers. When you look at “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” there are so many questions: Is she pregnant? What is she reading? Where is the light coming from? What does the map mean?

None of those questions is answered—we, the viewers, have to grapple with these things. And that’s what makes Vermeer interesting. It’s like comparing Degas and Bouguereau: Bouguereau answers all questions, while Degas asks them. Why are we looking at a woman taking a bath, for example? Aren’t we uncomfortable looking at someone through a peephole?

It’s the same way with “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”—we’re looking at a woman who doesn’t notice us. She’s in a private moment and we’re suddenly intruding on her. We feel embarrassed and flustered; we wonder what’s going on. Why the map? What does the letter say? It’s amazing how many people have come up with opening lines to Vermeer’s letter on The Iris. Some are very funny, but many are particularly poignant and moving.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” is an archetypal Vermeer. It’s what Vermeer is about: a strange interior depicted with an extraordinary use of light coming from a window on the left (always on the left); figures lost in their own thoughts, barely speaking or not speaking at all. It’s a ravishing and beautiful picture.

Questions, not answers, make an artist great: Do you agree?