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.

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Coincidence? Well, maybe.

Coincidences don’t have much of a place in fiction, as I tried to explain in this post.  But surely they have a place in life.  After listening to the This American Life podcast about coincidences, I tried to think of any of them in my life.  Couldn’t come up with any.  But then…

Two nights ago my wife and I were watching a bit of a James Taylor/Carole King special on TV, and at the same time I was reading Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.  Carole King starts to sing “It’s Too Late,” a song that was everywhere in the early 70s but that I haven’t thought about in decades.  And at the same moment I start reading a passage in Telegraph Avenue that describes a memorial service for a recently deceased black jazz organist where “It’s Too Late” is played; turns out this was his signature tune.

The next day I was reading the news about the FBI knowing who stole the paintings from the Gardner Museum 23 years ago. Then I returned to Telegraph Avenue, and sure enough:

He remembered taking Julie to the Gardner Museum on a trip to Boston a few years earlier, seeing a rectangle of paler wallpaper against the time-aged wall where a stolen Rembrandt once hung, a portrait of the very thing that perched atop the stool where Mr. Jones [the dead organist] used to sit: emptiness itself.

Those coincidences certainly aren’t good enough to get me on This American Life.  But they’re odd and somehow meaningful, at least to me.  They entwine my life and experiences with those of Michael Chabon and his characters.  I’ve heard that Carole King song countless times.  I have stared at the wall in the Gardner where the Rembrandt used to hang.  It’s all connected,

So now I’m going to entwine you.  Here’s the song, sung with James Taylor in the documentary I was watching while reading Telegraph Avenue:

Here’s the stolen Rembrandt:

And here’s the empty space where it used to hang, not exactly as Chabon described it, but close enough:

By the way, if you happen to know where that painting is, please let the FBI know.  I’d love to see it again.