It’s true. I confess it. There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile. This affair transcends time and spans two continents. He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.
Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me. There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.
His name is Johannes. And you might know him: as Vermeer.
If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music. He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said. She’s known for her pearl earring.
It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer. I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed. The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown. It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.
Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club. Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try. The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers. He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting. Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery. No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored. They were also quite rare. There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent. van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all. His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull. How could have so many people been fooled?
If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail. Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you. In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber. The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him. He did it all himself; this limited his output.
However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see. In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth. They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way. While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special. I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative. For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom? What are its contents? What is its affect on her? He allows the viewer to create the story.
His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life. Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices. In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip. The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come. They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile. All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.
Slowly Vermeer became part of my life. It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection. It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters. It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile. My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works. To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame. In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them. The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.
Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work. There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.