Thursday, April 7, 2011

Seeing All the Vermeers

There's a poem by Alfred Corn called "Seeing All the Vermeers," that I think is pretty wonderful.  We went to Amsterdam in February and I can still close my eyes and see The Milkmaid.  We also took a day trip to Den Haag and saw The Girl with the Pearl Earring and View of Delft.  We haven't seen all the Vermeers - and there are 34 that a person could see.  I do know a number of people who keep a running tally of those they've seen, those they want to see.  Over the years we've seen quite a few, not entirely by design.  Rob has seen some more than once.  Together we've seen the ones at The Met and The Frick in NYC, the ones at the Louvre, in London at the National Gallery, and now these in Amsterdam and Den Haag.  Though it's likely a long way off, we've decided that our next family trip will be to Washington D.C.  If you're thinking about traveling to see all the Vermeers, this would be a good site to look at when making plans.

When we were in NYC (above) a couple of years ago now, I broke down.  It took me completely by surprise.  Our daughter still talks about it.  I still can't really explain it.  I remember sort of hyperventilating and letting out a few big sobs, so that the docent's attention was drawn.  The docent didn't seem alarmed, either.  Had probably seen these types of behavior before.  I had to sit down.  Tears streamed down my face for an interval.  I think I was pretty discrete about it, but who knows.

So when we went to see the Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum and then at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, I think our daughter was wondering if the same thing would happen.  And it didn't. But I do remember feeling as though I were dreaming somehow, or having an out of body experience.  We spend a fair amount of time sitting in front of certain paintings when we travel.  And then we'll have lunch and then go seek them out again, which is what we did with the Vermeers on this trip.  In The Mauritshuis, there was a fairly large crowd during our first viewing.  But after lunch we had the bench in front of the painting to ourselves for a pretty large span of time.  We could sit and look at Girl with the Pearl Earring and then swivel around or look over our shoulder to see View of Delft. But still, it's not enough.  Even though I can close my eyes right now and picture The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I know it will fade.  I just don't have that kind of visual memory.  You can look at the reproductions in a book or online, but it's not the same.  The glow isn't there.  The light isn't the same.  You'd think that on the screen you'd get the same idea of the light that Vermeer's paintings emanate, but you really don't.  On the page the reproductions flatten it out, and on the screen, the back lighting muddies it, drowns it out.

We went to The Rijksmuseum on two separate days, I guess because we knew that a couple months later we'd have the feeling that I have now.  This yearning to experience that feeling I had sitting in front of the Vermeers, especially Girl with the Pearl Earring.  I'd seen it reproduced so many times, I assumed I'd be a bit numb to it in person.  Not at all, not at all.  Okay, maybe this sounds dumb, but here is the best way I can think to describe it - that light entered my heart.  Also, a lightness, but more like a sharp and real shard of buttery light. And so if there's an ache in my chest right now, I'll ascribe it to that moment in February when I so desperately wanted to feel something so beautiful, as beautiful as love and other annunciations, and that I did.

And it makes me smile now to think that my experience was this poetic and divine submission to the earthly glow, the inner fire and silence of the painting, where I melted right into it, felt myself looking over my shoulder and pierced by the pearl earring that I would later buy a replica pair of in the museum gift shop - but Rob, was roaming around the room, getting close as possible to the painting, hands behind his back.  And maybe what was running through his head was more like, how?  I think he must be able to feel the movement of the brush, and the mud of the colours being made on the palette.  And he must know what size of brush for what area. When he's thinking about the light he's wondering how this shadow or that daub of paint make it happen.

And all those people swirling about, in and out of the room, sitting, some of them, for a time beside us on the leather bench.  What of them?  The craning necks, the waiting for an opening, the peering through those at the front, seeing this sliver of the painting, or that one.  It seemed to me there was a patience at work in the room, building, inspired by the painting.  And maybe this was due to the general politeness of the Dutch, the fact that in February there are many fewer tourists than would normally be.  I can't help thinking that it would be a brilliant study - to just look at the people looking at a particular painting over the course of a week, or even a few days.  Recording what you saw.  One day, I think I'll find a way to do this.  Because what I remember seeing, when I wasn't busy drinking in the painting myself, was awe and just happiness.  A serenity, is what I felt, intermingled with excitement.

You can see that I'm meandering, trying to work all this out for myself.  The way I look at art, the way others look at art.  The whys and hows of it.  And I suppose this is why, in part, that I resurrected this blog - as a place to do that, to think things through.


  1. Shawna, I look forward to your continued explorations! I love the idea of watching others look at a painting. You could make a video. And it would be fascinating. But trying to do it in words alone would be a bigger challenge. And an interesting experiment.

  2. Thanks Susan - it's been fun so far, this resurrection. It's got me thinking about things I want to be back to thinking about...


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