Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In a Mysterious Light

Almost nothing is known first hand of Jan Vermeer. Baptized into the Dutch Reformed Church on this date in 1632, the man known today through such images as The Girl with Pearl Earring (above, from 1665) and the spinoff novel and movie is both amazingly difficult and amazingly easy to write about. Writing about Vermeer than man is nearly impossible, a piecing together of documentary evidence without any first-hand accounts, letters, or journals to get at the psyche of the artist. On the other hand, writing about Vermeer is incredibly easy if you restrict yourself to the paintings themselves—whole miniature worlds full of symbolism, fine detail, and masterful composition. It’s hard to see The Girl With Pearl Earring now without thinking of Tracy Chevalier or Scarlett Johannson, but to see it with fresh eyes is to see an amazing image of light itself. The highlight on the pearl earring itself stuns the viewer with its intensity, a mini-sun in the middle of a cosmos of darks and lesser highlights. Perhaps all we really need to know about Vermeer really does exist in the paintings themselves.

Whenever I go to a new museum that I know has one of the 35 verified (for now) Vermeers, I always make a point of seeing it. Vermeer may be the single greatest artist whose entire body of work can be seen in a lifetime comfortably (not counting The Concert, of course, which was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990). When I went to the Louvre, I almost cried out when I found that their Vermeer, The Astronomer (above, from 1668), was on loan to another museum. I couldn’t believe that such works traveled anymore. The curators had placed a black and white reproduction on the wall in its place, mocking me and the other pilgrims who had come to see it worse than if they’d left the wall blank. I love The Astronomer not only for our failed encounter but also for how it shows the scientific side of Vermeer, the precise craftsman of art that David Hockney believes used the camera obscura to achieve some of his effects. How both Caravaggio, the painter of the deepest darks and chiaroscuro, and Vermeer, the painter of the most brilliant highlights and subtle gradations of light, could both have “cheated” in the same way is beyond me.

Seeing a Vermeer in person, as I’ve done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, makes you believe in the ability of artists to truly be the hand of God at times. The Allegory of Painting (above, from 1666-1667) crams in so many different symbols and tricks of the trade that an entire book could be written about it and still not cover everything there. The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words loses meaning when you talk about Vermeer. I’ll take just the simple, lowly floor as an example of Vermeer’s genius—the beautiful perspective of the tiles going off into space. Only Piero della Francesca approaches Vermeer’s ability to make perspective seem like conjuring. Vermeer’s reputation suffers slightly from the many works misattributed to him over the years and from the fakes done in his name (most notoriously by notable forger Han van Meegeren), but from the ground up, Vermeer stands confidently among the truly great.

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