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Vermeer at the Met

September 27, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibition through November called Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid. It consists of The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, complemented by the Met’s own Vermeers and some of the Met’s paintings by Vermeer contemporaries.

I don’t anticipate getting to see the show. I never seem to get to the special Vermeer exhibitions that take place from time to time in New York or Washington. I desperately wanted to get back to DC in the winter of 1995-1996 to see the big Vermeer show at the National Gallery. The only saving grace was that had we gone, we might have fallen victim to the museum closures that occurred as part of government shutdowns during the show. (Some background on that show is here. It had 21 of the 35 known Vermeers. The shutdowns were a product of the Gingrich-led Republicans in Congress fighting the Clinton administration to a stalemate in their unwillingness to pass a budget.)

Though I won’t see the show, yesterday I finally got around to reading Peter Schjeldahl’s review of it in the September 21 issue of the New Yorker. I realize Schjeldahl is one of the great art critics of our time, but I usually have trouble getting through his articles. Not this one. He does a superb job of catching what makes Vermeer so special. I’ll quote one passage, though in doing so I’m omitting its context, a passage from Proust that Schjeldahl discusses in opening the review. Schjeldahl writes that

a little patch of lapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing the backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher [pictured above],” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could. The young woman is a serene bourgeoise at her morning toilette, easing open a leaded gate window. The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throughout the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into an illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.

New York City is blessed with not just the Met Vermeers, but also the three just down Fifth Avenue at The Frick Collection. My favorite of these is Mistress and Maid, below. How about that jacket? I suppose yellow isn’t my color, at least not since my hair changed from brown to gray to white. But I would happily wear (a suitable re-designed version of) it. Instead, I will be content with the “illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.”


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