If we spent a good deal of our time in Amsterdam enjoying the streets, the canals, and the parks of the city, we also spent a good part of each day on the Museumplein soaking up highlights of the extraordinary collections of the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. Each experience had its own flavor and delights; in each we learned something in a different way.
First up was the Rijksmuseum. Like the Met in New York, or the Louvre in Paris, there’s too much to see in a day; as with both of those other museums I’ve learned to be targeted in my attentions. Rather predictably, my targets were Vermeer and Rembrandt, though for very different reasons. Today I’m going to narrow that range even farther to focus on four little masterpieces that were hung together on a single wall.
I’m certainly not alone in holding Vermeer in highest esteem, a fact that was borne in on me by the hordes of people jostling to photograph the four works that were on display: View of Houses in Delft (The Little Street); The Love Letter; The Milkmaid; and Woman Reading a Letter.
Seeing a Vermeer is person is always a surprise. I own a couple of books about the painter, one of them a large folio with plentiful detail shots that reproduce, full-page, details like the pots and the bread that sit on the table in The Milkmaid. Accustomed as I am to viewing the paintings in this manner most of the time, being face to face with a square of canvas that is smaller than the pages of my book, well but not brightly lit as a conservation measure, always takes me aback. I’m disappointed that I can’t put my nose, or a loupe, right up against the surface to see those tiny dots of pearlescent white paint on the rim of the breadbasket. I’m amazed that I can take in the entire painting in a single glance. And I have to admit to a kind of awe at the realization of being in the presence of what feels to me like a sacred object: something rare that requires an extraordinary effort to be in the presence of, that commands and focuses my sight and requires a discipline of mind to shut out the commotion around me, to edit out the flashes and clicks of cameras, as well as to recall to mind the facts I’ve stored up about the work, the details now available more to memory that to sight. I’m surprised at how much work simply looking at a Vermeer entails.
Once I’m over that initial surprise, I start to register light and color. And I’m surprised anew to realize in a way that I don’t normally consider, how color is simply an aspect of light, how intertwined the experience of what I normally consider two separate phenomena are. It’s seeing The Milkmaid and The Woman Reading a Letter side by side that brings this home to me. The rich, rough, tactile blue of the milkmaid’s skirt is utterly different from the pale, diffuse softness of the woman’s smock and I wonder at the artist’s choice for a moment before the difference in the light in the two paintings registers.
Although the light comes from a window to the left side of the scene, visible in The Milkmaid, unseen in the Woman, the quality of the light is very different in the two paintings. Most obviously, it illuminates the right side of the canvas in the former and the left in the latter. Supposing a similar orientation to the compass, the time of day is later in The Milkmaid, and indeed, the light is stronger, the overall effect sharper. It glistens off the milkmaid’s forehead, while it softly illuminates the letter-reader’s face. Everything in the former is clearer and brighter. Even as the light strikes the white wall behind, even as in both cases it falls most brilliantly on the blank part of the wall and makes the emptiness glow, it still provides more accents on the basket and the metal pail than it does on the map that hangs behind the woman.
Turning from these two classic Vermeer interiors to the View of Houses in Delft, one of Vermeer’s rare (two) exterior scenes, I’m not immediately struck by the light. Instead, it’s the solidity of the buildings that first catches my eye, and the frontality of the image, the rectilinearity of the composition’s elements, the doorways and the windows. The green and red shutters draw me to them by the contrasts in tone to the subtler shadings of the rest of the painting. And then I notice the soft fall of the blue creeper at the opposite edge and corner of the scene and suddenly I’m released from the first impression of rigidity. I notice how the slope of the roofs echo the fall of the flowering vine. Now I’m attuned to angles and perspective. I realize that on the left half of the painting perspective is clearly delineated by the slant of the little alleyway’s wall, and by the slope of the bench outside the doorway on the left.
But the right-hand side of the painting is still flat and frontal; the image plane is almost perfectly divided in half. To the left we are given a sense of perspective and our eye is led to a vanishing point beneath the pointed rooftop in the distance. To the right, everything crowds to the front of the picture plane. The windows are blank and admit no sight of what lies behind them; the shutters even more effectively stop our gaze at the frontage of the building, as do the striking red and green shutters. Only the two children playing on the tiled fore-porch suggest any kind of depth in this half of the painting.
And finally, when I have absorbed all of that, and lingered over the detail of the brick work and its magnificently crazed mortaring that hints of the age of the buildings (as does the luxuriant fall of the blue flowers), only then does the quality of light return to my mind. In this painting the sky is overcast, and unlike the light that falls sharply through the windows into the interior of the other paintings, it acts not to highlight and provide depth, but once more to flatten out the image. There are barely any shadows at all in the View. Light does not register time in this painting as it does in The Milkmaid or the Woman. Instead, time is present in the very fabric of the things depicted, in the brickwork and the vegetation, in whitewashing of the ground floor exteriors, in the contrast between the children and the older women. And yet there is a timelessness implied as well in the routines of the women, in the cleaning and the sewing, in the pursuit of youthful amusement. All of Vermeer’s paintings capture a single moment with superb clarity and astounding suggestiveness; the View of Houses in Delft does so in a way that suggests, if not eternity, at least a recognition of the cyclical nature of life. And it makes me wish Vermeer had explored this ground more often.
The Love Letter is singular another work among Vermeer’s pictures, although it employs a common device in Dutch painting of that era, in which a dim interior provides a frame for a brighter space in which some kind of activity is taking place. Here, the central section of the painting in which the young woman is interrupted at her music by the arrival of a servant who has just handed her a letter—a surprise it seems—might well have formed the entirety of a more conventional work. Although Vermeer occasionally frames other paintings with a drape of cloth, there is always only one room in his interiors. Here there are two, and for me, that alters everything.
In the little that I’ve read about this painting, there’s a good deal of discussion of the iconography: how the lute is a symbol of carnal love, how the casually discarded slippers in the foreground suggest the illicit nature of the affair, and the broom, put aside, represents a turning away from domesticity. The paintings of the sailing ship and the lone man on a path re-enforce the absence of the lover.
But to me, it is the dark passageway through which the woman is glimpsed that creates the psychological sense of an intimacy interrupted. If the picture plane is to be regarded as a transparent frame through which we view the objects and action in a painting, that pane is truly transparent in the other paintings I saw in the Rijksmuseum. There seems to be nothing between me and the milkmaid, or between me and the Delft street. But here in The Love Letter I have a sense that I am observing an observer. I am put at a remove from the subject of the painting, a remove that seems to turn that subject into a object. None of Vermeer’s other paintings give rise to this sense of intrusive observation; I am simply there, slightly outside the frame, if I think about an observer at all. Here I feel forced to ask just who it is that is watching the arrival of this letter. Am I the only spectator, or does someone else stand just out of sight, peering in at the surprise on the young woman’s face? Given the speed at which the post traveled in the 17th century, might the lover have returned at the same time as his letter? Or is a rival about to intrude?
And so the immediate thrill of simply being in the presence of paintings by Vermeer gradually gave way to an immersion in them. I did manage to shut out the crowds and focus on the formal qualities of the paintings, and then on their suggestiveness, the meanings embodied in the flawless application of paint to canvas. I suppose it’s a fair commonplace that Vermeer’s paintings create a world that, while it shares many formal characteristics with his contemporaries, he creates a space and a world that is uniquely his own, instantly recognizable and familiar, and yet always mysterious, unrevealed, and inviting. More than half my life has gone by since I first stood in front of a Vermeer, but the fascination has never waned and the beauty reaches out to me as strongly as ever. That makes for great art in the book of my life.