Review of Michael Whites’ Travels in Vermeer

by Emily Howell

Longlisted for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, Michael White’s memoir Travels in Vermeer documents White’s journey to reconnect with the inner self through the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. In the middle of a divorce and custody battle that’s restricting his ability to see his daughter, Sophie, White takes a vacation to Amsterdam as an escape. One afternoon he stumbles into the Rijksmuseum and finds himself in a room displaying Vermeer. He’s struck by his work and upon learning there are 35 of his works displayed in the world he sets out to see them all. Over the course of a year he visits The Hague, Delft, Washington, London and New York.

White gets lost in Vermeer’s world and pulls the reader in with him. He puts each painting under the microscope and brings the beauty of each piece to life on the page. Similar to an art critic White is painstakingly observant in his portrayal of detail, from the quirks in a subject’s facial expression to the layering of paint on the canvas. Not only does he treat Vermeer’s art with such an eye, but also he treats the rooms in which they are held with an equal reverence. White makes the reader believe in the healing power of art as they experience his transformation from a man drowning in loss and pain to one reinvigorated with life.

Throughout the book I found myself lost in time. White uses lyrical prose to describe the places he visits. I was easily transported in time to the cities in the era of Vermeer only to be jolted back to reality by mention of iPhones and dates. White was able to make me experience his emotions alongside him and although at times the storyline slowed I never found myself uninterested. My only frustration was with the lack of visuals included in the book. I wanted to see the paintings. I was constantly removing myself from the story as I felt the need to pull up the paintings on my computer as White discussed each one. It broke the rhythm of the prose, which could have easily been solved by placing the paintings within the text.

Overall, a worthwhile read. I’m ready to go on my own Vermeer driven pilgrimage if only to experience the beautiful clarity with which White now sees love. Toward the end, he talks about his daughter, Sophie, and the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze when she was in infant. “In those first few months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love.” He goes on to ask, “What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? What if he held his immense gifts in reverse, solely for such states of recognition?” This, he says, “is what Vermeer did.” It’s a beautiful example of the impact art can have on the soul.

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