25/11/2011 19:41 GMT | Updated 25/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Behind Closed Doors: The Psychological Power of Vermeer at the Fitzwilliam

Cornelis Bisschop's image of A Girl Peeling Apples presents us with what is initially a familiar and comfortable idea of domesticity and harmony. The composition hints at the Italian masters; the colours encourage us to see virginal chastity and womanly virtues. Bisschop has led us into what is initially a comfortable interior, where a girl sits concentrating on the task at hand.

Throughout the exhibition, which portrays Dutch interiors and the women that inhabited and kept them in the seventeenth-century, family and order remain central themes. Superficially this interest in home and hearth can be ascribed to a weary nation saying farewell to arms after the brutalities of the Thirty Years' War.

Perhaps. But this was a particular type of inner sanctum. Protestant and well-educated, we are led into the Dutch world of sly visual puns and references; a world which actively encouraged introspection and self-knowledge. It is, in short, the thinking characters in these paintings, that makes this exhibition - rather than the garbs and props that cultivate the paintings.

It is for this reason that Bisschop's image continues to hold our attention long after the initial glance. It draws smiles as we follow the sly prompts - the discarded slippers, set of keys in the door, half-drunk glass of wine and the caged bird down the corridor. These are familiar and intriguing refrains throughout the exhibition. Never quite giving us an 'answer' or letting us into the thoughts of the sitter, they nevertheless prompt us to go beyond the superficial. Hidden letters, clever reflections and askew candles: all of these create a sense of a plot and depth that encourages us to consider the flesh and blood characters' thoughts, fears and hopes. One suspects these are the sort of images which would simply go over the heads of the French Baroque dilettantes of the age.

Indeed, the characters are so central to the images that it only gradually dawns on the viewer that many of the scenes are in fact subtle fabrications. The clues, of course, are there: the drapes that suggest a stage like setting, or the apparently innocent hall way or open door revealing to us exactly what the artist wants to see. It's a wonderful, often uneasy, feeling of being led on, deeper into the psychology of the painting. Indeed, like many great artists that are hurriedly branded 'social commentators' - from Chaucer to Hogarth - the social 'realism' sits with an ambiguous sphinx like smile.

A psychological element also appears in many of the paintings. The weight of silent concentration in many of the images defines and shapes many of them. Nicholaes Maes's The Eavesdropper, for example, suggests a pantomime like scene of a young girl listening in on a romance in the other room. Yet, this idea being so central to the painting, we may also ask if the girl wishes it was her that was romantically involved; if, indeed, the threshold of the door is simply cutting off the reality from the swooning imagination of a distracted youth.

It is with this intensely psychological theme that Vermeer, who sits slightly at odds with the intellectual games of many of the paintings, is revealed as the master. With images like The Lacemaker he seemingly goes beyond simply laying down clues and is instead able to craft an overarching tone through the central figure herself. Indeed the fact she is a Lacemaker at all - which was usually associated with marriage - hardly seems to matter.

There is more here, then, than simple displays of well-kept houses and tranquil domesticity. Beneath the shimmering surface lies a deep and often murky world of introspection, privacy and contemplation. We are, I would suggest, looking into the minds of artists inhabiting a world which was deeply engrossed in self-analysis and thought.