JOHANNES VERMEER PAINTS THE STILLNESS OF EVERYDAY LIFE
Last Wednesday, January 17th, 2018, Sondra and I attended this exhibition in its last week at the National Gallery of Art:
Vermeer has always been one of my “art loves,” from a very early age. Especially his most famous and larger work, “The Artist in His Studio.” This exhibition presented the forte of Vermeer’s vision into the scenes of everyday life in upper middle class Holland of the Seventeenth Century. It also presented works by his contemporaries who were copying his style and subject matter.
There is a reason why Vermeer is most well known for this Genre of Painting, and his contemporaries are not as well-known. It is because his paintings are better, more truthful, more balanced, and yes, more beautiful. When we were walking through the galleries observing his rivals’ works, I found myself focused only on Vermeer’s exquisite views into the intimate scenes of people in their Delft homes. Vermeer created a true slice of Seventeenth Century life in a fully articulated composition, with no extraneous parts, or awkward postures, or people who were merely “painted” but not “seen into.” Vermeer had “seen into” the life and times of his day, and we are the beneficiaries of his view, almost 400 years later. Vermeer’s paintings had the “X factor” that was lacking in all the other paintings in this beautiful exhibition.
I was so unimpressed by the other works, I found myself not even taking pictures of one of them. This was not because they lacked skill in execution, but because they lacked “life.” They were boring, and made by rote, somehow. They lacked a creative authenticity.
All of Vermeer’s works emit an intense life force, as though the figures are being seen in the here and now. As well, the carefully composed spaces add to the dramatic effect of what he wants us to see, and what he does not want us to see. In The Lute Player, the finial on the lower left corner of the hanging map almost serves as a vector that takes our eye immediately to the most luminous aspect of the painting, the Lute Player’s face. She is gazing into the light, into the outdoor scenes of the street, focused intensely on a space “outside the picture.” Yet, she is simultaneously plucking and tuning her instrument —seeing one thing, yet hearing another music at the same time. This sets up a real life tension that grips us and holds us in the picture. We are intrigued to know more. We stay awhile and “gaze” into Seventeenth Century Dutch life.
In this Woman Writing a Letter painting, there is also a drama of light happening that illuminates the subject. We are not so concerned with the murky, shadowy foreground and gradually fading darkness of the upper left corner of the background. The illumination of her pose, in that instant of about to write something, captures us. This woman in her fur-trimmed smock is attentively gazing right at us, as she lifts her head up from her writing desk. She looks directly into our soul, as we do into hers. It is a moment outside of time, and we are taken there. “There” is four hundred years ago, but we are here, and so is she, in this poignant instant of the present.
In the same ermine trimmed smock, our upper class lady is holding her necklace out in a gentile pose, again, gazing out the window at the outdoor scene in an almost anticipatory moment of pause. It is like a gaze into infinity. Here, the most light falls above the chair back on the back wall. A delicate silhouette is traced along the hump of black drapery, the chair back, the highlighted bowl, then up the ermine front trim, culminating with her delicately posed hands. It is a symphony of perfect pictorial elements which grip us in their harmony.
Vermeer is a Master. All his other contemporaries in the exhibition were “wanna be’s.” They were good, but not different and great. What can the difference be for the average viewer 400 years later looking at this work? I have looked at a lot of paintings in the 45 years of my art life. Vermeer’s pictures merit study, and even uplift us into realms of perfection that stick with us. They are timeless. They are slices of perfection that elevate us into our own perfection.
The Geographer uses some of the same motifs as the others: the one source of light from the left window; the intensely illuminated face engaged in a very focused activity; the rectangular corners of hanging pictures and maps on the back wall; the foreground tapestry providing a drapery of dappled light. The dynamic gesture of the human figure is elegant, anatomically true and perfectly balanced. We are transfixed in this harmony of visual nirvana.
This last painting I will discuss is a two figure composition. There is a woman writing her letter, and an attendant standing by, perhaps, for any soon to be given directions from her matron. One is totally absorbed on her task, and the other is in the “Vermeer gaze” out the window. This composition also includes the marble flooring that the others do not include. We are informed one more step into the interior spaces of these upper middle class Dutch homes. This moment in time freezes the duet of contrasting attentions. One woman is almost daydreaming into the scenes outside of the picture, and the other is attentively scribing her thoughts in her letter. It is almost as if the attendant is waiting for the letter from her matron in order to deliver it, but until then she is in “another world.”
The scenes Vermeer paints are harmoniously balanced in a kind of visual Heaven that strikes us in the core of our being. Yes, they depict everyday life, but they take these common actions and elevate them to noble moments of human divinity. We may not know why we have such a positive reaction to these works, but obviously our psyches register the extraordinary nature of these pictures. I cannot tell you one other painting in the exhibition, and there were many, which I remember. I can note all of the Vermeer’s, which stood out like Jewels in the Crown of pictorial and painterly genius.
THANK YOU for meandering with me in this ART LOOK. I am grateful to have this resource in my own back yard, so to speak, only a few minutes away at the National Gallery. I am grateful for the professional presentation and coordination that this exhibition makes available to the public. We are blessed in these times that the highest art is accessible to anyone who has the eyes to see. We do not have to be in the circles of the extremely wealthy and privileged in order to reap the benefits of a rich and abundant art history. We have these examples of Vermeer as one who paints for us, his viewers, 400 years after the fact.
THANK YOU for reading, as always,