Seeing Beyond the Beauty of a Vermeer

This spring, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I once again stood in front of The Milkmaid and remembered her humility, steadfastness and constant domestic work 33 years after that day in Lagos. I love it – I love her – more than ever. She was also the inspiration for Wislawa Szymborska’s epigram Vermeer (translated in Polish by Claire Kavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczyk).

As long as that woman in the Rijksmuseum is there
I drew quietly and concentratedly
keep pouring milk every day
From pitcher to bowl
the world does not earn
The World’s End.

Curators at the Rijksmuseum have put together one of the largest collections of Vermeer’s paintings ever assembled in one acclaimed exhibition. It is generally accepted that 28 of his 35 surviving works are by Vermeer. This is due to the coordination of the organizers and the generosity of the lenders, and it is inconceivable that a rally of this scale will be repeated in this generation.

But I didn’t really want to see the exhibition, and the reasons for not going to see it piled up. About 450,000 tickets were sold out within a few weeks after opening, and even if they were available, the gallery was sure to be crowded. I was also skeptical of the exhibition’s decidedly narrow focus. A painting by Vermeer followed, then another, then another. Most successful exhibitions require more background than this. But what really started to irritate me was the breathtaking critical acclaim. The name Vermeer is now an abbreviation for artistic excellence, and much of the praise for the exhibition also sounded like an emotional abbreviation. Greatness, Perfection, Sublimeness: Vocabulary suitable for certain cultural experiences. Those who saw the show were the envy of those who didn’t. It was accepted as gospel that it was a “once in a lifetime” experience. (Still, how many of your best encounters with art happened in a small museum on a quiet day? Aren’t “once-in-a-lifetime” moments full of people?) The idea somehow took hold. It was mixed with the dogma that images are all great. In this enthusiastic agreement, it was difficult to get critical dissent.

But my resolve was weakened when my Dutch friends arranged admission for me. Then Martine Gosseling, director of the Mauritshuis (home to Girl with a Pearl Earring and one of the major museum lenders to the exhibition), took the exhibition with her after hours. Invited me to look around. Well, it would have been irrational to refuse at that point. Late afternoon on March 13th, we entered the exhibition with a friend. The last wave of regular visitors was ushered in, and there were her three lucky viewers, with 28 Vermeers.

he wasn’t Prolific: He is believed to have painted only 42 paintings in all. As art historians have long done, it is reasonable to attribute this slowness to a particularly meticulous technique. However, X-ray and infrared images show that he sketched quickly and did very little. So what did he do in that extra time?First, he had a day job as an art dealer he inherited from his father. Second, he himself was the father of 15 of his children (11 of whom outlived him). It must have been noisy at home. Against that implied background of noise, we receive a couple of amazing self-owned photographs a year. These photos seem to do something with light that no previous photo has ever done. Art historian Lawrence Going describes it as a kind of carelessness of the subject, a kind of fidelity to pure appearance. What do people call this wedge of light? nose? one finger? What do we know about its shape? For Vermeer, none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, and nothing but the visible, the timbre, the wedge of light. It doesn’t matter. “

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