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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 solidity and the ongoingness of her domestic work. I love it — I love her — no less than I ever did. It was she who inspired Wisława Szymborska’s epigrammatic poem “Vermeer” (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak from the Polish):

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

The curators of the Rijksmuseum have brought together, in a much-praised exhibition, the largest number of paintings by Vermeer ever assembled, 28 of the surviving 35 or so generally agreed to be by him. It is a feat of coordination by the organizers and of generosity by the lenders, a gathering unlikely to be repeated in this generation at such a scale.

But I had not been keen on seeing the exhibition, and the reasons why not began to accumulate. The entire run of tickets, some 450,000 of them, sold out within a few weeks of the opening, and even if I did manage to get one, the galleries were sure to be crowded. I was also skeptical of the bluntly narrow focus of the exhibition: a painting by Vermeer, followed by another, followed by another; most successful exhibitions need more context than this. But what was really beginning to grate on me was the breathless critical acclaim. The name Vermeer is, by now, a shorthand for artistic excellence and so much of the praise for the exhibition sounded like emotional shorthand too. Greatness, perfection, sublimity: the appropriate vocabulary for a certain kind of cultural experience. Those who had seen the show were envied by 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 happened in a minor museum on a quiet day? What moment, fully inhabited, isn’t “once in a lifetime”?) The idea that the images were wonderful had somehow gotten mixed up with the dogma that the images were nothing but wonderful. Amid all this rapturous consensus, critical dissent was hard to come by.

But some Dutch friends arranged entry for me, weakening my resolve. Then, Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis (home of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and one of the major museum lenders to the exhibition), invited me to walk through the exhibition with her after hours. Well, refusal at that point would have been absurd. Late in the afternoon on March 13, joined by a friend, we entered the exhibition. The last wave of regular visitors was ushered out, and there we were, three lucky viewers, with 28 Vermeers.

He was not prolific: He is thought to have made as few as 42 paintings in all. It’s reasonable to assume, as art historians did for a long time, that this slow rate of production was a consequence of a particularly meticulous technique. But X-rays and infrared imaging show that he made swift underpaintings and very few preparatory drawings. So what was he doing with all that extra time? For one thing, he had a day job as an art dealer, the profession he inherited from his father. For another, he was himself father to as many as 15 children (11 of whom outlived him). The household must have been noisy. Against the implied backdrop of that noise, the astonishing and self-possessed pictures arrive, two or three of them a year. These are pictures that seem to be doing things with light that no pictures had ever done before. The art historian Lawrence Gowing describes it as a certain heedlessness of subject, a certain faithfulness to pure appearance: “Vermeer seems almost not to care, or not even to know, what it is that he is painting. What do men call this wedge of light? A nose? A finger? What do we know of its shape? To Vermeer none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light.”

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