What I Love About Vermeer

We started our European tour in Amsterdam. We arrived there two weeks ago, and I cannot remember an easier hop over the great water to Europe. We were met by our friend Monique at Schiphol Airport, who took us to our apartment in the center of Amsterdam at De Hallen. I have been thinking about Vermeer, as he has a large show of his work at the Rijksmuseum right now, and we went there on Monday afternoon of our time in Holland to see it. Another of our Dutch friends, Lennard, joined us. Sue, over from London, came with us as well.

I anticipated a lovely day. What I love about Vermeer is that he creates harmonious spaces that make me feel good, with people, mostly women, who would probably take care of me in the broadest domestic sense. They would feed me. I know they would. Our hunger is fed in Vermeer. He gives us what we need and want. And he does so in the most graceful and believable way of any painter I know. I loved him as a young man when I discovered him, and I love him now even more, almost 70.

Vermeer – The Milk Maid

The Dutch see work as worship. Domestic scenes aspire to the holy. This kitchen maid is carefully pouring milk into a vessel commonly called a “Dutch oven.” The rough bread is nearby, spread out on the table and awaiting addition to this dish being prepared. There is a deep contemplation in this simple action, a holiness in this gesture of pouring the milk. The woman of a very sturdy build is totally focused on her task at hand. One senses the concentration and focus that would pour exactly the right amount of milk into the vessel. The recipe is held in her head.

This is one of the smallest of Vermeer’s works—only 16″ X 18.” It is an oil painting on canvas. But the authenticity of Life that comes through it is grand enough to travel through centuries and place us in that very moment which the artist captured perfectly well for eternity. This is the only painting solely focused on a domestic person and scene. Perhaps Vermeer used one of the house servants for his model.

Another Thing I Love About Vermeer

Visual order exudes from a Vermeer work. There is such a balance in the composition, our minds are brought to silence. There is a “sanctuary of silence” created by pristinely placing the perfected spaces, geometry, vector lines, and characters in an overall transmission of stillness.

Vermeer – A Girl Asleep

We rest in God when we look at a Vermeer. This is not the God of religions or belief systems that vie for our unfaltering faith. This is the God of the actual, the God of Beauty right in our midst, the God of what all of us can access in our daily lives right NOW. Are we willing to look long enough to see it and feel it and BE it? It is possible if we slow down and disengage from thought as we have known it and make ourselves an empty vessel in which to receive this effulgent vision.

When it comes to composition in painting and picture making, placement is everything. We feel a painting’s orderliness based on this placement within the sacred space of the rectangular “window” of our vision. The hidden geometry of this sacred space creates a visual silence that comes into us, even if we are not fully aware why we feel the way we do in it’s Presence. Diagonals are used effectively to order the space. Key points in the composition are emphasized. In this painting, The Girl Asleep, the finial at the end of the rod holding the map in the upper right is in line with the threshold in the door, and the far right bottom of the carpet along the lower edge of the painting. This diagonal mirrors the one formed by the tilted face of the woman. Two parallel lines, one extended from the top of the chair to the bottom of the pitcher on the far left, and the other from the point of the finial through the upper lip of the model, give us another reference of balance and order. These relationships were most likely consciously arranged by Vermeer in creating this composition.

This One Made Me Cry

Mind you, Vermeer lived in the house belonging to his wife’s mother, and with his wife he had 11 children who survived childbirth. Probably the exact opposite of balance and tranquility, the household was most likely abuzz with activity and daily chores. The family, as most Dutch families, was industrious. Vermeer’s father had an Inn and an art dealership, which Johannes inherited when his father died. Johannes inherited these businesses but also added his passion for painting. He painted on the second floor of the house, and maintained the Inn and art dealership. But it was his Mother-in-law who most likely supported them in the times when Johannes was focused solely on his painting.

A Lady Writing moved Sondra and me to tears. Something about her Presence comes forth in this work, and grips your heart. The yellow smock with ermine trim is used as a costume in a number of Vermeer’s paintings. The bright yellow is captivating as it gives its aura of soft presence straight forward toward our gaze. We can hardly forget this canary yellow garment with the soft white fur of the ermine trimmings.

Vermeer – A Lady Writing

Going to the Rijksmuseum

For months in advance of our visit to Amsterdam we anticipated our attendance of the Vermeer Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. We would go with our Dutch friends Lennard and Monique. We have been here once before and I wrote an Art Look about it. You can read that HERE. The Rijksmuseum underwent major modernizations in the last decade, so now it is up to date with its world class collection and its spaces for special exhibitions. The “blockbuster show” is in its repertoire to generate international interest, and put its place on the the world map of great museums. Some of the greatest Dutch paintings are housed here, especially the large public paintings of Rembrandt. The “Night Watch” is here, and Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” lives in the care of the Rijksmuseum’s collection of renaissance paintings from Holland’s best native sons.

When We Actually Arrived There

Finally the day of our visit to the Rijksmuseum arrived. It was a cool late spring day in Amsterdam. Lennard and Monique from Holland, and Sue Njie from England were with us as we headed out in the afternoon for the museum. Our entry time was 3:30 so we left our apartment at the De Hallen Hotel around 3PM and took a joyful march across the streets and canals leading to the museum section of town. There was not much of a line, and we went strait into the inner atrium of the museum with its high skylights and newly refurbished entry hall. We felt grand is this space. Architecture serves to uplift. And the Rijksmuseum is a civic cathedral to the best of Dutch art and culture.

This Video is of our time walking through the show, having arrived in our full expectations at this major exhibition, the largest of Vermeer’s works ever assembled.

Some Key Paintings Were Missing

The Allegory of Painting was not in this show. I kept looking for it, stunned that it would not be there. We asked one of the guards where it was, as I could hardly believe it would be omitted. I found out another of Vermeer’s most famous works, the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was also not there in the show. How could they be absent? Whatever reasons for this omission would have to be tied into the politics and shortcomings those institutions that house these most famous works had going on. The Hague in Holland withheld the “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” because it is a major draw to their tourists who come just to see that painting. They did not want to be without that major attraction. No doubt the same applied to “The Allegory of Painting” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. People would travel all over the art world to come see that painting face to face in Vienna. For this museum to be without this major Vermeer work would be like taking the Mona Lisa or the Winged Victory out of the Louvre.

I got over my disappointment—sort of. The paintings were hard to see in this show because there were so many people seeing them. Each work had a small crowd of onlookers congregated in front of them. I looked the best I could in these conditions, but found myself grateful to have put together the pre attendance video, in which I took a careful look based on the very good records of the paintings I downloaded from the internet. Sorry to say, I could see the paintings better on the internet than in person, without the distractions of a crowd. Probably you can as well.

Vermeer – The Allegory of Painting

My disappointment came to a crescendo when I found out The Allegory of Painting was absent from the show. All of the quintessential elements of Vermeer’s works are in this masterpiece. It spent a spell in the possession of Hitler’s collection, and then in a Salt Mine to avoid Allied bombing during WWII. Eventually it ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is such a perfect painting—perhaps idealized, but none the less perfect. One feels good when pondering the art of painting, observing this artist in his studio, with the Muse of History ready to trumpet the good news of a Dutch 17th-century arts and culture Renaissance. Dutch fame and fortune was sailing forth to meet the New World, the Orient, and to master the existing ties with the Old World of European interdependency.

Though Vermeer was painting within a middle class setting in which he found himself supported by his generous Mother-in-Law, he aspired to a Divine Order that transcended the limitations of his social and artistic fate. It could not have been easy raising eleven children and balancing a career as a painter in Delft, that was not even the center of the Dutch art scene. But Vermeer persevered in spite of his limiting conditions. He painted with a passion in an environment that gave him all the practical elements, people, and props needed to formulate his stunning compositions, but also gave him the familial support he needed to lead a somewhat “struggling” painter’s life.

Unsurpassed Facility

Vermeer’s technical skill to produce beauty in the familiar rooms he spreads forth of the Dutch genre scenes of his day, is only half of the quotient that brings our view into an awesome encounter of unforgettable observation. His facility lies beyond technical skill to capture the formal veracity of his subjects. He is in harmony with the order of the Universe. His sacred geometry sings of a higher truth, and this truth enters our hearts unsurpassed. One is not the same after seeing a Vermeer painting. When I saw the “Allegory of Painting” in an art book in my teens, I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do with my life—paint and dedicate my attention to the visual arts.

Vermeer – Girl with a Pearl Earring

His facility of the most major proportions is Vermeer’s ability to distill our experience down to the essentials of Divine Beauty. He shares in this experience, and bridges the centuries of time it took to produce a major exhibition of his work at the Rijksmuseum.

I was enriched by my week in Amsterdam with this culminating field trip to see most of Vermeer’s 37 paintings all in one place. We did it. It is an event of memorable impressions that I take with me into my own personal perpetuity. I suspect in 400 more years we will still be looking at this Master’s works. Art is beauty and beauty is truth. We all have an unforgettable encounter with this truth in looking at Vermeer.

Thank you for joining me in this timeless meeting.


—Markus Ray

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