Tuesday, November 10, 2009
What I love about Vermeer...
For a long time I've been trying to figure out exactly what it is I love about Vermeer. The luminosity, the attention to details, the contemplative women. But I knew it was more than that. While I can certainly appreciate technique, I felt that the answer lay in the content. Recently the Dutch, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of their arrival in what was known as New Amsterdam, sent one painting - a fact that my daughter, Kate, found charming. The famous "Milkmaid."
I went to the Met and saw it, and it is beautiful, but what I paid the most attention to was a painting I know quite well. The Met owns it and it is perhaps my favorite painting in the world, also a Vermeer. "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher" which I have posted here.
What I love about this painting is its sense of anticipation. A longing to be elsewhere. The open window, the woman, poised, but not moving. And then what I noticed upon closer inspection a map of the world. In several of Vermeer's most famous paintings - including this one, "Officer and Laughing Girl," and the widely interpreted "Woman in Blue Reading Letter by an Open Window," - there is a woman, sitting or standing, with a map of the world behind her.
In one painting she is speaking with a man who appears to have returned from a journey. In "Woman in Blue" she reads a letter, appears to be pregnant, and stands before a table of books and again the map of the world. While I love Vermeer for his meticulous technique, his ability to capture the moment and emotion, what I love the most is that he understood women. He understood their longing to be elsewhere and their inability to go. It is right there. In every painting almost.
Of course this exists elsewhere in art. When I read The Palace Walk by Mahfouz, I was so struck by the woman who marries, is taken to the home of her husband, and, thirty years later, has never gone outside since. The claustrophobia of her life. This is the definition of imprisonment, isn't it, and that is what is so terrible about prison. Clearly it is a circle of Hell. You can't leave.
I have said this many times before, but a beloved teacher of mine, John Gardener once said that there are only two plots in all of literature. You go on a journey or the stranger comes to town. For centuries women were denied the journey, but their longing was palpable. They wanted to leave but they were trapped by the circumstances of their lives. Vermeer understood this. He painted it over and over again. I cannot thing of a more poignant depiction of this than his maps of the world and the women who stand, immobile, captured, before them.