November 6, 2009
Shortly after his death at age 43 in 1675, Jan Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, wrote this: "as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead." They had 14 children, lived in his mother-in-law’s house and he had sunk into debt. We’ll never know if her use of the term, “frenzy” referred to seizures or if he just died in a fit of depression. But, he was not a happy or successful man in his own eyes. How ironic then, that 334 years after his ignominious passing, he is considered by many art historians to have been perhaps the greatest of the Dutch painters during the so-called ‘Golden Age of Dutch Painting”.
For about two centuries after his death Vermeer remained obscure, barely a footnote among the giants of his time. It only slowly came to the attention of art historians that this man who lived in relative isolation in Delft during his lifetime was one of the most accomplished painters of European history. Some feel he ultimately surpassed Rembrandt, whom many have considered to be the true Grand Master of his time. Their personalities and approaches to both their lives and their art could hardly be more different. Rembrandt left behind no fewer than NINE self-portraits that chronicle his passage through life. Vermeer left not a single image of himself, though some suspect that it may be he who is the fellow on the left, looking at the viewer, in his painting, “The Procuress”. There is a wonderful website that is a virtual gold-mine of information on Johannes Vermeer and I suggest you go there for a deeper understanding of who this marvelous painter was: www.essentialvermeer.com.
It is not my purpose to simply provide the facts of his life and career here. Truth be told, not a great deal is known about him. Much of what is written is admittedly speculative, based on hints and other small bits of evidence. His lifetime body of work amounts to only 36 known paintings, tiny compared to most of his peers. He is thought to have completed about three paintings a year and died young, is not known to have had any apprentices or students, like so many masters of that time did. Instead, I would like to share something of what his work has meant to me. My purpose in so doing is to offer the suggestion that art that has been done with sincerity and integrity, in addition to highly developed skills and a sense of beauty, has a power that is light-years beyond the modernist, conceptual crapola that I have been writing about prior to this point. From Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, to McCarthy’s “Complex Shit” (the giant inflatable dog-turd that assaulted a childrens' home), to Julian Schnabel’s poor girl with a dark stripe across her face ("...so that you'll look at her chin"), and on to Lucien Freud’s depravity, taken even deeper by poor Jenny Saville's silent scream for recognition, we have seen a parade of fools. Oddly enough, these fools are also highly successful picaroons, making fantastic amounts of money for becoming expert at playing a game that dares us to see that it is indeed just that….a game. Here is one of the greatest painters who ever picked up a brush—according to art historians, not just myself—and he died in a ‘frenzy’ deep in debt. Ah, life…what a divine comedy it is after all.
In my mid-teens, I used to take either the train or a bus into Manhattan. I browsed the galleries and museums…and on a particular day I found the Frick, right across the street from the Metropolitan, one of the world’s great museums. As it happened, I found myself standing in front of Vermeer’s painting, “Mistress and Maid” (seen above). I was the only person in the entire gallery, with the exception of a security guard, and I moved closer. At this time in my life, I was already very much fascinated by painting and I was alert to any exhibition of technique that appealed to me. This did so…in spades. There was the obligatory velvet rope on stands creating a reserve area in front of the piece but the rope was very slack so it was possible to move closer…and closer, until, finally I was looking at the actual brushstrokes of a painter who had laid them down with such caring that it was instantly apparent--even to my addled adolescent mind--that he painted with love.
There was simply no other way for me to comprehend how such perfection could be created. Now, over fifty years later, I can tell you without any doubt that it would never happen at the hands of a painter who is trying to dazzle or beguile (much less outwit, confuse and bamboozle) his audience. Others—Rembrandt notably—may have learned to create rich imagery with brushwork and techniques of consummate skill, but, in comparison, the result is all ‘smoke and mirrors’. Take a close look at the fancy finery of some of Rembrandt’s portrait sitters. What you will see is amazingly skilled heavy impasto under-painting—most probably in ‘flake white’, i.e lead carbonate-- that has then been allowed to harden and then glazed over with a technique some call ‘frottage’ and almost by magic created the appearance of gold brocade, with all the highlights and shadows one would see on the real thing. This kind of approach is very attractive and requires both effort and skill, but it is hardly one that strikes the viewer with how much the artist was painting with a sense of loving what he was creating.
As I stared at the hands and forearms of the woman seated at a writing table—from a distance of less than a foot—two things happened: tears came to my eyes, and I was suddenly aware that the security guard was hovering over my right shoulder. He didn’t quite have his hands extended to jerk me back, if I tried to touch the painting, but he was certainly ready. He also must have noticed that I was in a state of near rapture. When I finally pulled back and exhaled a long sigh, he just smiled at me and walked away. He seemed to know of Vermeer’s power to pull people in. At 64, now, a lot of water has gone under my bridge. Only the Universe knows how much more is to flow, but, I have—all these many years later—a perfect recall of those few moments in front of that painting. It was literally an unforgettable experience.
So, each morning, when I lay out my palette for the day, and pick-up the first brush I will be using, Jan Vermeer is with me. Somewhere in the depths of my being lies the knowledge that a simple and unpretentious man went through the same motions, and proceeded to spend the next hours applying paint to a surface with consummate love. For his efforts he died penniless and in a ‘frenzy’, but three centuries later his daily sincerity and devotion to his art still has the power to reach out and touch other souls.
And, that, dear friends….is what art that truly deserves to be called ‘fine’ is all about.