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Vaarwel, Vermeer
Ellen Schecter

The mystery that dwells in the
ordinary: a personal meditation.


Vermeer and The Delft School was a blockbuster exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City that ran for just ten weeks in Spring, 2001. It drew record crowds, with an average daily attendance of nearly 8,000 people, including many repeat visitors. In toto, the exhibit attracted over half a million people. Some were so devoted to specific paintings that they lined up outside the Museum each morning. As soon as the doors opened, they bolted through the galleries to visit their favorites before the crowds could gather to elbow them aside.

It's been well over a year now, but Vermeer's luminous, meticulous paintings still haunt me. And so I offer this personal meditation as a kind of farewell. I will remain grateful for the privilege of entering into his vision of the blessing of simple sunlight -- and for waking me to the mysterious that dwells in what only appears to be ordinary or commonplace.


After three lingering visits, Vermeer's paintings somehow began to belong to me. Each time I stood before them, I could almost feel their light fall across my shoulders. I was surprised how small his canvases were, and how intimate -- yet how powerfully they lured me into sustained moments of solitude and stillness. They made me feel lusciously alone despite the hubbub around me; despite the susurration of far too many Philippe de Montebellos whispering archly into the ears of far too many people via the very mixed blessing of AudioGuides.

For words seemed entirely superfluous in the presence of the women who occupy Vermeer's paintings so fully. And it was the women who live so vibrantly in those canvases who drew and held me: Vermeer's fascination with all kinds of women ensnared in all kinds of moments matched and deepened my own. Here was a woman in the deepest, most ponderous hours of pregnancy; there, a woman aching with exhaustion, and another, with loneliness. Vermeer offered me very young girls in the heat and confusion of courtship alongside older women pouring milk, clinching a deal with a john, adorning and assessing themselves before mirrors so real I almost expected to see my own face reflected.

I fell under the spell of all those women, all those years ago -- women pausing to notice, read, examine, weigh; to carefully consider and reconsider in moments of surprising gravity before they entered back into their lives. How satisfying that a man in that time and that place took time to notice them, consider them, study them -- to show them to himself, to themselves -- and to me.


Perhaps my ability to enter into Vermeer's paintings was enhanced before my third visit by two surprisingly well-written, meticulously researched, and deeply satisfying novels his work spawned over recent years: Girl In Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland (Penguin), and Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton). Each of the books, in its own way, is a stunning act of imagination which employs the small handful of facts known about Vermeer's short life in Holland as a launching pad for completely different flights of fantasy.

Why, I wondered, was there such a great gush of intriguing fiction in such a short period about an actual artist? Perhaps it's because the paintings are so evocative and, even more, because almost nothing is known about Vermeer, thereby making it safe for writers to imagine his life without a thicket of facts to pen them in. That, and the fact that the paintings themselves so cordially invite us to walk into them: to imagine we can overhear the conversations, feel the heat or chill passing between the characters, move even closer to observe the details of the maps and paintings hanging right over there on the walls, or investigate that mysterious man casting his shadow just out of sight in the next room. It's easy to believe we can reach out to touch the texture of the gold braid on the orange velvet gown of the young women getting tipsy from too many sips in The Glass of Wine; or push open the leaded windows to peer down into the noisy street below.


I am drawn to Vermeer's paintings not only for their pellucid atmosphere and sumptuous detail, but for their considerable capacity to explore the human dimensions of everyday life in a time and place so distant, yet so immediate. In Woman Holding A Balance, I find it hard to understand how scholars ever overlooked the voluminous velvet-and-ermine-clad belly of the woman observing the delicate balance scales. It seems utterly clear that she is immensely pregnant. My guess is that she's not only contemplating the fate of her immortal soul, as suggested by The Last Judgment symbolism in the painting behind her -- but of her unborn child. Nothing seems able to compete with her urgent interior fantasies --not her pearl necklaces in softly radiant hues of palest blue, bronze, and cream; not her golden chains disregarded on the table top; not even the grim, cautionary painting. Her inward gaze suggests to me that she worries the same haunting worries of all women so near delivery: How long and painful will my labor be? Will my child live, or die? And what will happen to me? Perhaps she already feels her first labor pangs: is that why she steadies herself against the table?

Despite the darkness that nearly engulfs the room, the woman's meditative face and full figure are flooded with pale radiance -- moonlight? The cool purity of that light seems transformative, even protective. But I will only know her in that pensive moment when trust and hope seem to hold their delicate balance against fear and uncertainty. So in addition to being ravished by the beauty of one of Vermeer's masterpieces, I will forever hope that her fondest wishes be fulfilled.


Vermeer's meticulous rendering of the real -- both imperfect and perfect -- offers a nearly holy sense of the everyday: of sunlight and shadows shimmering on cracked, nail-studded plaster; of smeared reflections in well-used pewter and silver; of the small, early morning miracles of light poking through a keyhole, or gilding the doorjamb in a shadowy room.

This gift of my vision made new doesn't grow old once it's unwrapped. One of the joys of visiting any museum is not just what fills my eyes when I'm there, but the ways my vision changes after I leave. And so I cherish how Vermeer helps me see the world his way, even just for moments: how he wakens me to see the play of gray clouds against a grayer sky; the harmony of close shadings of mauve and lilac in a woman's skirt, sweater, scarf -- even the shadows beneath and behind her eyes; the splay of a child's bright shadow against the museum's cement staircase, and the way it borrows color from its source.

Vermeer not only bestows the gift of seeing more precisely and with a sense of the numinous: he also gives the gift of silence, for his paintings awaken a sense of the contemplative that not only helps me see, but to listen in ways I often forget are possible.

And so -- how did I say Vaarwel to Vermeer? Very quietly. Without fanfare, or drum tattoos. By remembering light falling softly through pale colored glass on lustrous pearls or rich yellow satin. By recalling children kneeling to play on a tiled sidewalk while ivy clambered up a ruddy brick wall and an old woman knit lace in a nearby doorway. By celebrating the marvel of opaque pigment transformed into the light and sheer crystal of a diamond-etched wineglass.

Vermeer's vision transformed mine. So I pause more often at my windows overlooking the Hudson. And I notice: thick, watery seams of tugboats plowing upstream pushing heavy barges. Wind weaving plaids against swift currents beneath the river. Ivy showing silver just before rain. And I remember those other women, standing quietly near their windows all those many years ago, pausing just a moment before they continued on their way.



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