The career of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer spans just 20 years, during which he produced fewer than 40 known paintings. Born in the small but artistically vibrant city of Delft, he seems never to have left it for a significant period of time. In his 20s, he married a Catholic woman and may have converted to Catholicism himself, an unpopular move in a relatively new nation still shaken by the conflict between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. When Vermeer died, he had fathered 11 children. Little else is known of the man, earning him the nickname "The Sphinx Of Delft" and prompting innumerable bits of speculation, no doubt due in large part to his work itself. A nearly unmatched master of light and composition, Vermeer most often chose subjects who concealed more than they revealed: a woman drinking a glass of wine as a man looks on with fondness or hunger, a girl with pearl earrings and an expression as cryptic as the Mona Lisa's, a woman receiving a message from her maid, their faces saying nothing and everything. Less a biography than a thoughtful appreciation of Vermeer filled with information about the world that made him, Vermeer: A View Of Delft artfully distills contemporary Vermeer scholarship into a single, compellingly written volume. Usually deferring to "some art historians" for the more speculative aspects of Vermeer's life, memoirist, novelist, and art writer Anthony Bailey spends much of his book filling in the background. What did it mean to Vermeer, for instance, that his professional career commenced around the time of The Thunderclap, a gunpowder explosion that destroyed a sizable chunk of Delft and struck the fear of Apocalypse in many of its residents? Like his subject, Bailey lets readers draw their own conclusions, as when he points toward self-taught Delft researcher Antony van Leeuwenhoek as the probable model for a series of scientific portraits. The father of microbiology, Leeuwenhoek seems to have been the first to observe, among other material, protozoa, bacteria, and sperm. (The last, he took pains to note, was obtained not through unnatural defilement, but as "residue after conjugal coitus.") Vermeer lived in the same moment, in a time of tremendous technological advances that still took the omnipresence of God as a given. At home in conveying his place and times, Bailey occasionally seems overwhelmed by the sheer openness of Vermeer's life; "What pets did the Vermeer household have?," begins one paragraph. But Bailey ultimately confirms the wisdom of his practiced restraint. Leaving the mystery of Vermeer intact, he animates the world around him, in which light from a nearby window seems always to shine down in approval, in judgement, or simply as a matter of fact.