By Ann Limpert
Updated April 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Painter Johannes Vermeer is perhaps most appreciated for his masterful use of light and his clear-eyed perspective, so it’s ironic that our view of the Dutch master’s life has remained so shadowy. Virtually no written documents from Vermeer’s lifetime exist, save for signatures on paintings and in registries, and this leaves former New Yorker writer Bailey with one tough portrait to render. Searching for clues about the painter by unearthing facts about his home city of Delft and its people, Bailey offers lots of possibilities (if few definitive conclusions). He meticulously examines viable scenarios, discussing painters Vermeer might have known and studied with, as well as visual devices he may have used. But in the end, what dulls this story is not so much the historical minutiae but Bailey’s writing, which is often as dry as cracking paint.