Vermeer life list

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.

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Who doesn’t like MORE busts of Roman emperors?

For some reason, one of my most popular post here was this one showing some busts of Roman emperors from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  I was at the Harvard Art Museums the other day, and guess what?  More busts!

Here’s the Emperor Tiberius:

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He’s not looking all that great, if you ask me.  The accompanying description says the bust was probably sculpted when he was in his early sixties.  Read Tom Holland’s book Dynasty for an interesting discussion of this tortured soul.

Here is Lucius Verus, who ruled for a while in the second century AD with his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius.

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Note the beard, which became fashionable for emperors starting with Hadrian earlier in the century.

Finally, here’s a full statue (well, almost full) of the Emperor Trajan:

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The description in the Harvard catalog suggests that he was probably holding a spear in his left hand.

Trajan was one of the best of the Roman emperors.  Wikipedia says:

As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured – he is one of the few rulers whose reputation has survived nineteen centuries. Every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (that he be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a virtuous pagan. In the Renaissance, Machiavelli, speaking on the advantages of adoptive succession over heredity, mentioned the five successive good emperors “from Nerva to Marcus”[2] – a trope out of which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Trajan was the second.[3]

Once you’ve finished reading Dynasty, you should read the wonderful SPQR  by Mary Beard, for a fuller view of a thousand years of ancient Rome.

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

As usual, I didn’t make it to the latest big exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts till the next-to-last weekend, on a rainy Sunday where everyone else in the city seemed to have the same idea.

It was great, although the crowds made it a bit exhausting.  They wouldn’t let you take photographs, so here are images from the Internet.

Here was my favorite Rembrandt, “The Ship-Builder and His Wife”:

I like paintings where you’re not quite sure what’s going on.  This is almost always true of Vermeer paintings.  There were two Vermeers in the exhibit.  Here is “Lady Writing a Letter”:

Is she thinking about her next sentence?  Is she looking at someone?

And here is Vermeer’s “The Astronomer”:

I’ve seen both of these Vermeers before, in Washington and Paris, so I didn’t add to my Vermeer life list.

My favorite painting at the exhibition was this one by Pieter de Hooch, “The Courtyard of a House in Delft”:

Which reminds one of Vermeer’s similar painting, “Little Street”, viewing Delft houses from the street rather than from the courtyard:

Here is an interesting essay comparing both of these great paintings:

Vermeer’s Street in Delft is a greater painting than de Hooch’s, but far harder to write about. Where de Hooch is essentially a moralising painter, an artist for whom images define correct or incorrect social behaviour, Vermeer’s ethical credentials have always seemed somewhat suspect. Reticent, forever withholding or obstructing easy reading of his pictures, Vermeer remains a thoroughly enigmatic artist.

He appraises the houses that are his subject in Street in Delft not from the back but from the front, and at a greater distance than de Hooch in his Courtyard. Although Vermeer’s picture includes genre-like details – the two children in front of the gabled house to the right, playing knucklebones; the woman sewing in the doorway; the other woman, seen through the open doorway to the right, bending over a tub – their diminished scale robs them of the aura, so strong in the de Hooch, of role models, figures meant in some way to instruct. Their faces, moreover, are left blank. This is possibly the most striking example of where Vermeer’s painting differs most fundamentally from de Hooch’s: namely in the daring quality of its realism, its intermittent, inconsistent, variable nature.

Sparkly mayonnaise jars and modern art

During my recent trip to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts I took this photo of modern food items treated somehow to make them sparkle:

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I’m guessing this is a trenchant commentary on American consumerism.  But I could be wrong–the artist might just enjoy making mayonnaise jars and cracker boxes sparkle.  In either case I’m a bit baffled by why these objects are in a major art museum.

Seems to me you go to a museum like the MFA to view objects that you’ll want to view again and again.  Like this happy, wise statue:

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Or this famous Renoir (sorry for the tilty iPhone):

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I don’t think I’m cut out to be an art critic.

Who doesn’t like busts of Roman emperors from the Museum of Fine Arts?

As a pre-Father’s Day treat I went to Buston’s Museum of Fine Arts with my son (the good one, not the other one).  I took lots of random photos.  Here are three photos of Roman emperors, in descending order of greatness. Plus a goddess.

This is a well-known bust of Augustus as a young man (it’s an idealized likeness from after his death):

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And here’s a somewhat placid-looking Hadrian:

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And here is the loser emperor Balbinus, who managed to rule as co-emperor for three whole months before the Praetorian Guard offed him (238 AD was not a great year to be a Roman emperor):

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As a special bonus image, here is a statue of the goddess Juno, which I am told is the largest Classical marble statue in North America.  I should have my good kid stand in front of her to show you her size.

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