I got to see the the Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. last week. It wasn’t bad, although it was too crowded and there was a certain sameness to the paintings — on purpose. Here we see a bunch of paintings of women looking into mirrors; here we see a bunch of women writing letters… everyone is influencing everyone else. I preferred the more diverse Dutch exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago.
But in any event I got to introduce myself to a few more Vermeers. There are only 34 paintings firmly attributed to Vermeer, and I’ve now seen over half of them (including the one stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum that is currently buried in some aging mobster’s shed or something). Good for me! To see the rest of them I’ll have to go to the Netherlands, Germany, and Scotland, or hope for another blockbuster touring exhibit or two.
My family isn’t as enamored of Vermeer as I am. But to me there’s something different about Vermeer compared to the other Dutch artists in the exhibit — the light! The enigmatic scenes! I could stare at them forever.
For example, what does this young lady have on her mind?
And why is that dark curtain there on the left side of this painting, as if we’re seeing a scene from a play?
And look at the deep perspective of this painting — why does Vermeer distance us from this scene?
And finally, what is this woman doing with this balance?
Wikipedia tells us:
According to Robert Huerta in Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal (2005), the image has been variously “interpreted as a vanitas painting, as a representation of divine truth or justice, as a religious meditative aid, and as an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life.” Some viewers have imagined the woman is weighing her valuables, while others compare her actions to Christ’s, reading parable into the pearls. Some art critics, including John Michael Montias who describes her as “symbolically weighing unborn souls”, have seen the woman as a figure of Mary.[To some critics who perceive her as measuring her valuables, the juxtaposition with the final judgment suggests that the woman should be focusing on the treasures of Heaven rather than those of Earth. In this perspective, the mirror on the wall may reinforce the vanity of her pursuits.
Well, that certainly clears things up.