A Delicate Balance

John Haber
in New York City

Jan Vermeer at the National Gallery

I may believe in Vermeer's perfection, but I want to imagine his doubts. Or are the doubts my own? They begin with a single painting, from a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective in Washington.

In The Woman Weighing Pearls, the scale appears almost precisely in balance, but one's line of sight can be misleading. Anyway, one cannot know what has been loaded. The metal pans are thin slivers of color, the pearls all but invisible. Jan Vermeer's Woman Weighing Pearls (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1664)

The woman is dressed in the sumptuous restraint of the Dutch haute bourgeoisie—plain colors, a simple yet costly kerchief, her collar of the richest fur. She is also decidedly pregnant, or perhaps she just looks that way to modern eyes ignorant of seventeenth-century clothing styles. And yet her private chamber naturally shows not a trace of a man's presence, his love, or his loss. She could be triumphing in her wealth for the hundredth time. Or she could be anxiously counting out a still-beautiful woman's fragile future.

Reflection and revelation

She could be weighing her greed or her purity—or Vermeer's. Like Rembrandt, another Dutch artist with a classical subtlety and a taste for luxury, the somewhat younger man traded in, indeed usually owned, his lavish props. (A movie of Girl with a Pearl Earring assigns that prop to his wife.) Among them, a royal blue fabric, swept high in the foreground, is even more striking than the pearls. Pearls also can stand for the quiet assurance with which he depicts textures or the passage of light, the transparency of his oily glazes, and the geometric exactitude of his compositions.

Part of that precision is way the blue fabric encloses the room and recalls the rising blue dress over the woman's stomach. Part is the echo of fabric and pearls in the shimmer of sunlight through a blue glass window at left. Part, too, is a dark rectangle on the back wall, just enclosing her head. Roughly quartering the canvas, it establishes the grid that ripples through the whole.

As many have noticed, the rectangle frames a Last Judgment. That older painting, too, must once have passed through Vermeer's hands as dealer and collector, and here it forms an obvious commentary on the woman's worldly concerns. Fewer have noticed that her dignity comments on the painting within a painting as well. She shows no trace of guilt. Amid the unusually cool colors, harsh highlights, and icy tonality of The Woman Weighing Pearls, her smile offers a shadowy hint of warmth. Who is to judge which light is truer? Is it the light within the Last Judgment, or the light that descends through the window to outline its tracery, modulate its stained and unstained glass, and catch her pearls?

Fewer still have noticed a smaller frame with its back to the window and its edge toward the viewer. It might hold a "cabinet picture," one of the small genre scenes often found in homes like these. In that case, it could affirm a more earthly standard of judgment. My guess, however, is that it holds her private mirror, still another ambiguous mark of vanity and introspection.

I think of the two frames side by side: mirror and painting, self and otherworldliness, the appearances of things and their meaning, reflection and revelation. The frames also remind me of contrasting, traditional metaphors for art—the direct imitation of appearances and the symbolic representation of reality. Some modern critics try to encompass them both, with terms such as text or allegory.

She looks away from both. Her thoughts, much like Vermeer's art, are colored by both kinds of perfection, but they are encompassed by neither. Who is to say whose act of weighing is more eternal—hers, God's, or Vermeer's?

Allegory and evolution

Perfection makes a bad model anyway for the slow unfolding of impressions that holds me in front of a Vermeer like Girl with a Pearl Earring. Doubt does not require Cézanne's hesitant brush, his spots of bare canvas, and his overt emotional anguish. It is not incompatible with absolute calm and technical confidence. Now one can reach for that calm onself.

The National Gallery exhibits two dozen paintings, over two-thirds of his extant works. Along with a return to New York, where the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection hold five more, one could see all but a handful in one weekend. (For the record, one must rely on memory for at least eight: The Procuress and Woman Reading a Letter from Dresden, The Milkmaid and A Woman and Her Maid from Amsterdam, The Astronomer and The Lacemaker from Paris, another couple in Berlin, and The Allegory of Painting from Vienna. The Flute Player, probably by Vermeer, remains in Kenwood, England, and another painting was stolen some years ago from the Gardner Museum in Boston.)

Seeing so much together, one can focus on Vermeer's formal delights and, especially, his evolution as an artist. A visitor to this show can trace his growth from early allegories, influenced by broader brushwork of the Flemish Baroque. The large, simple gestures of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha reach out dramatically across the exhibit's entrance.

Then come the first genre paintings and two landscapes, with their all but superhuman objectivity. Here Vermeer began experimenting with a camera obscura. Like a modern camera without a negative, this box projects an image onto a neutral surface in a darkened room. With it, he could map an entire city skyline or measure out faint depths of shadow in a half-hidden alley. Distant points of light begin now to intensify and glow.

His maturity is devoted almost entirely to the fate of women, all played out in one room. Brushwork slowly loosens up again, only now to measure out small areas of increasingly intense color and increasingly varied texture. The foreground tapestry in The Music Lesson modulates strikingly from a red pattern on blue to practically its photographic negative. Women sometimes look out toward the viewer, as if to question their own identity amid the visual magic.

Finally, as if to summarize his career, he paints allegorical images but in that same private studio. Their meaning remains as elusive as his women's fate.

Plain experience

I expected that evolution. What surprised me was the constancy of his concerns. From the very beginning, shadows are integrated into the texture of things they define, and glazes are fully part of the underlying color. He restricts himself largely to primary colors and bright highlights against a neutral range of warm browns and cool greys. His surfaces reward and defy the best scientific analysis, and they must be awfully difficult to restore and to clean.

From the beginning, too, his subjects tease out sexual innocence and experience. Here we get to see Diana cleaning the feet of her virgin followers. Older painters had shown Acteon, the male as hunter and voyeur, torn apart by stags in recompense for having stumbled upon Diana's innocence. That narrative lends a quiet charge here simply by its absence.

Vermeer, like his contemporary Pieter Saerendam, appears to a modern eye as near to abstraction. They earned that dignity the hard way, by incorporating and altering tradition, even the tradition of their native cities. As with Diana shorn of Acteon, Vermeer uses narratives of a woman's experience, but he outgrows a foundation of painting in their symbolism. His stillness and sexual charge are able to coexist because of that displacement of narrative.

Women are seen as troubled actors in a drama, as well as simply objects of one man's desire for beauty. Their sharply modeled hands are always at work on something—knitting, performing at the virginals, weighing. Houses, trees, walls, and props cut off suggestions of deep space so that the viewer will focus on them too.

Figures in familiar interiors lend their dignity to grander themes, rather than the other way around. I felt the same dignity for Christ with Mary and Martha as for the woman ignoring her final judgment. Vermeer converted to Catholicism at his marriage, and historians have duly noted that these two are Catholic subjects. I suspect their plainness reflects Protestant Holland quite as much or more.

I have to add that none of these characteristics are shared by Saint Praxedis, which the curator, Arthur Wheelock, newly attributes to Vermeer. (He omits another risky attribution, of the Young Woman Seated at the Virginals in a private collection.) Heavy shadows tumble out from garish draperies, hands are vaguely drawn, and the Catholic veneration is untroubled. The background is confusingly deep; without prompting from a book, one could never decipher that object behind the saint. (It is the martyr whose blood she preserves.)

This is a very close copy of a dull Italian painting. A young painter traditionally learned by copying, and no doubt so did Vermeer, but can this original have been so central to his education? Wheelock also can point to a market in the north for new work from Italy, one that Vermeer must have helped satisfy as a dealer if not as a copyist. Yet, as with that Last Judgment, later this artist has never been shown to copy; he appropriates.

Nothing in his sensibility prepares one either for the copy's addition of a crucifix to the saint's hands. Vermeer preferred the simple sanctity of a human gesture. Even the signature differs from his later ones, with wider, thinner characters and no V-shape before the "Meer."

Visual questioning

I want to remember instead a consistency of style and theme that makes Vermeer's art seem so close to perfection. And I want to understand that doubt. I can imagine the spiritual questioning that must surely have preceded his conversion; I know the visual questioning of his mature paintings.

Is that complexity why he so loved the camera obscura? The then-new scientific means of representation leaves "circles of confusion" around points of light in front of or behind the focal plane. In his View of Delft, he renders them in vibrating brushstrokes. Critics have mistakenly compared this method to Pointillism, but his brush avoids any mechanical gestures. As Meyer Schapiro has noted, in some periods variety and nuance define painterly style quite as much as consistent handling. Vermeer was after not the formula but the question.

He must have loved, too, the distortions of shapes demanded by linear perspective. In The Music Lesson, one can still see the pinprick in the woman's sleeve. He pinned down the vanishing point, so that threads could mark lines of recession. Yet above her head, her reflection in a mirror is at a seemingly impossible angle.

That woman is Vermeer's only figure shown from the back. Her concentrated leaning into the keyboard and delightfully casual hair suggest innocence. In the mirror, however, she looks oddly composed, and she seems to turn invitingly toward her teacher. I could say that Vermeer makes no mistakes, for a 1990s recreation of the scene has verified even the angle in the mirror. But that would miss the point. In Vermeer, the eye is always the subject of both seeing and desire, and both are at risk.

The mirror also catches an odd shape, most likely the legs of Vermeer's easel. Complexity includes and confuses all poles of meaning—the work, the artist, a represented world, a viewer. One can always read a painting as a stand-in for expressive perfection, the painter, its actors, or oneself. One must never forget, however, that the identity of each is a fiction, a ghostly presence that is re-created in the act of looking. I have myself become a kind of illusion. Is it obvious that the "real" me dislikes pearls?

In another painting, a woman turns her embarrassed grin toward the viewer. She could be invoking any of those presences. She might be looking away from her lover in shame, at Vermeer to demand the right pose, or toward me for help and challenge. Optical truth, painterly beauty, and the finest human intentions almost guarantee uncertain understanding. They give the quietest of paintings an enormous and fragile sensuality.

Coming closer to perfection

The National Gallery puts on an intelligent show in its older wing. Its nearby collection also makes a good setting. One can compare Vermeer's street scenes to those of Pieter de Hooch, which suddenly looked a lot dimmer by contrast. I thought about those pearls when I again checked out the tiny pebbles in a Renaissance scene by Veneziano and the formidable erotic tension in Man with a Medal by Sandro Botticelli. I enjoyed calming down in a different way in the East Wing, which was exhibiting over 400 works (no kidding!) by Winslow Homer.

I had to be prepared to appreciate Vermeer slowly. Because the crowd was dispersed among so few paintings, it was oppressive beyond belief. At one point, I numbered among twenty-five people in front of the View of Delft.

I picked a spot maybe six feet away, to get the big picture, and then approached as others permitted to examine the detail. I also took time out for a room off to the side, which benefitted from Wheelock's top-notch scholarly studies of Vermeer's technique. There the exhibition used models and photos, some based on X-rays and nuclear radiation, to account for what lies, quite literally, beneath the surface. Then I could only ponder why it remains so transparent—and so inexplicable.

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Jan Vermeer's art was on display through February 11, 1996, at The National Gallery of Art. The Web can point one to All About Johannes Vermeer, including what little is known of his life, and to a guided tour of his Delft.


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