Seeing Beyond the Beauty of a Vermeer

This spring, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I stood again in front of “The Milkmaid,” returning 33 years after that day in Lagos to her humility, her solidarity, and the continuation of her domestic work. . I love him – I love him – no less than I ever did. It was she who wrote Wisława Szymborska’s epigrammatic poem “Vermeer” (translated from the Polish by Claire Kavanagh and Stanisław Baranzak):

Until that woman in the Rijksmuseum
Paint quiet and focused
It continues to pour milk day after day.
From pitcher to bowl
The world has not earned
end of the world

Much appreciated by the curators of the Rijksmuseum. Exhibition, the largest collection of Vermeer paintings Ever assembled, 28 or so of the 35 survivors generally agreed to be on his side. It is a feat of the coordination of the organizers and the generosity of the lenders, a gathering unlikely to be repeated on this scale in this generation.

But I was not in the mood to see the exhibition and reasons not to go started piling up. The entire run of tickets, about 450,000 of them, sold out within weeks of opening, and even if I managed to get one, the galleries were sure to be crowded. I was also skeptical of the exhibit’s rather narrow focus: one Vermeer painting, then another, then another; Most successful exhibits require more context than this. But what was really starting to grate on me was the spontaneous critical acclaim. The name Vermeer is, by now, a shorthand for artistic excellence and the high praise for this exhibition also seems like emotional shorthand. Magnificence, perfection, magnificence: words appropriate for a certain kind of cultural experience. People who had seen the show were jealous of those who hadn’t. That it represented a “once in a lifetime” experience was taken as gospel. (And yet, how many of our best encounters with art have occurred on a quiet day in a modest museum? What moment, fully inhabited, isn’t “once in a lifetime”?) The idea that the images were sublime is one of the few. It was not obtained in any way. Mixed with the belief that the images were anything but amazing. Amidst all this enthusiastic consensus, critical dissent was hard to come by.

But some Dutch friends arranged for me to enter, which weakened my resolve. Afterward, Martine Goslink, the director of the Mauritshuis (home of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and one of the museum’s major lenders to the exhibit) invited me hours later to walk the exhibit with him. Well, at that point denial would have been pointless. In the late afternoon of March 13, together with a friend, we entered the exhibition. The last wave of regular visitors was ushered in, and there we were three lucky viewers, with 28 Vermeers.

He wasn’t Priceless: He is believed to have created a total of 42 paintings. It is reasonable to assume, as art historians have long done, that this slow pace of production was the result of particularly complex techniques. But X-ray and infrared imaging show that he made rapid underpaintings and drawings with little preparation. So what was he doing with all that extra time? For one thing, he had a day job as an art dealer, a profession he inherited from his father. For another, he himself fathered as many as 15 children (11 of whom outlived him). There must have been noise in the house. In the implicit background of this noise, startling and spontaneous pictures come, two or three of them every year. These are images that seem to do things with light that no image has done before. Art historian Lawrence Going describes this as a particular fidelity to a certain reckless, pure appearance of the subject: “Vermeer almost does not care, or even know, what he is painting. What is a wedge called? A nose? A finger? What do we know about its shape? For Vermeer it doesn’t matter, the imaginary world of names and knowledge is forgotten, he cares nothing. There is nothing but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light.

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