Monday, May 16, 2011

Meditations on a Vermeer

The Music Lesson (1662- 1665)

The Music Lesson- three years in the execution, layers of detail and a tour de force of textural reproduction.

Here we see several Vermeer trademarks: the windows on the left, presumably facing north, judging from the qualities of the light, the black- and- white tiled floor, and the familiar corner, present in so many Vermeers. The woman in the picture is reflected in the mirror behind the piano as her teacher looks on. A bit of tension there, I think. His arm is on the edge of the piano- a tiny violation of personal space.

His hand rests on a cane. I'm sure there's a reason for this, like pointing out a wrong note, but I think that mostly the cane is there to bring the teacher's other hand into the composition, much like the table is there so Vermeer can paint that incredible oriental rug and the pitcher on top. 

Is that his cello? Have they been playing duets? if so, then why is the blue chair turned from the piano.? Wouldn't they have wanted to see one another as they played?
Or is she the cello player, checking a note to see if she's in tune? Or maybe she's the teacher and he's the student. If so, he's not a good one because he's paying more attention to her than to the note she's playing.

And who just throws down an expensive cello? Wouldn't she (or he) have rested the instrument carefully, against the chair maybe, before turning to the piano?

Unlike The Girl With the Pearl Earring, a very soulful painting, The Music Lesson is a virtuoso turn in which the artist crams as many textures and objects and mirrors into the painting as he can without ruining it.

Personally, I love all the Vermeers I've seen (most of them, actually), but the single figure ones appeal to me much more than the complex, kitchen sink efforts like this one or The Art of Painting, as fun as they are to look at.

We know so little about him that it is very tempting to read his personality into his paintings. This is dangerous, I think. He took years to finish a single painting, and even the simplest were painted slowly over long periods. Some are over- labored to be sure, but most are just remarkable, in composition and in his reproduction of that amazing Dutch light, which one can still see in Amsterdam, and probably Delft, although I've never been there.

One thing I do find interesting is the claim that Vermeer is easy to forge. All my life I kept hearing about the "great" Hans Van Meegeren, who could, they say, paint a "perfect" Vermeer in hours. I finally saw reproductions of some of the forgeries, like
Jesus Among the Doctors. And I have to say only a non- artist would be fooled by Meegeren's clumsy drawing, bad composition and total non- appreciation of the rules of light. I understand that the Nazi leader Goring claimed ownership of and was convinced he had a Vermeer that turned out to be a Van Meegeren, but that's no surprise, I think- it could fool a heavy- handed, culturally deprived fascist, maybe, but anyone else- impossible!

Vermeer is no more easy to forge than anyone else. I'm sure that he's forgeable- anyone is, including Leonardo or including Will Eisner. And I'm being serious here- there's not a big difference between great comic art and great "real" art. But if it took Vermeer three years, it would take a good forger three years as well.

Quality is kind of the same value no matter where it's application is evident. So let's just enjoy these incredible works of art. See them wherever you can, here in Washington, DC or wherever you find them.You will be a happier and smarter person afterwards!


DTK said...

Vermeer is my favourite. That incredible intensity of colour in such casually sly settings. There's one with a soldier talking to a woman. The relationship isn't clear but there's a hint it's not legit. My mother's been to Delft and she tells me it looks exactly as it does in Vermeer's painting.

paul said...

I think this post is subtle, inventive, instructive, and beautiful.
A+ as far as I concerned, Bret!

Bret Littlehales said...

That's funny Paul because sometimes I DO feel like I'm writing an essay for school!

paul said...

Would you tutor me?