With Vermeer, as with Raphael and Mozart, we are inches closer to the Divine when in the presence of his work. Perhaps it’s our eternal sunshine that draws them, but periodically a Vermeer painting will vacation in California; a few of them live in New York and Washington, D.C., also Boston and Philadelphia, but pretty much all the others reside in Europe. Until the end of this month, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” is basking among her contemporaries in the East Pavilion of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Curator Anne Woollett calls the work “exquisitely nuanced,” and while that sums it up nicely one could leave additional praise at its feet: Sobering, enchanting, graceful, restrained, mesmerizing, discreet, poignant… As the title explains, the picture is of a woman engrossed in a letter she has received, perhaps related to the string of pearls on the table, or perhaps not; perhaps related to the map on the wall behind her, which may suggest dimension in terms of time and space, or maybe not. The painting is visually eloquent, serenely balanced in its proportion and its integrity, but it’s not a picture that reveals much about its subject. Some observers wonder if she’s pregnant – a vessel bearing fruit to compare with the correspondence that brings tidings from one present moment (when it was written) to another (when it’s being read). Perhaps. But the woman is wearing a once-fashionable farthingale (a sort of hoop skirt), and if you look at other Vermeers you’ll notice that many of the women depicted therein also look as if they may be expecting.
Does this matter? No, I don’t think the idea of incipient maternity is at the forefront of this picture, but then again pregnancy and childbirth and children must often have been on the painter’s mind: His wife bore 15 of them, and when Vermeer died at the age of, I believe, 43, he left behind eleven underage children.
This makes me think of three things simultaneously. The first has to do with the grace and emanation of the picture itself. The palette of colors, the harmonies in contrast and complement, coupled with the detail and that glaze of soft light that bathes the entire scene, is nothing short of miraculous. As Kant said, beauty charms, the sublime moves, but Friedrich Schlegel noted that beauty is both at once, charming and sublime. A picture like this (if we are fortunate enough to linger in its presence) inhabits the eyes and takes up residence there. And this brings to mind a few words by the Uruguayan author Felisberto Hernandez who wrote: “…the pleasure of entering a woman’s soul slowly and making myself at home inside her, with my piano and my books.”
We want to inhabit the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” and we want it to inhabit us.
Second of three things: Vermeer must have lived in a virtual nursery. Dutch genre pictures can be noisy – just think of those rowdy tavern scenes by Jan Steen or Franz Hals – and yet by far the vast majority of Vermeer’s pictures have us in a quiet space, where we hardly dare breathe, let along whisper or otherwise break the silence. So one is well within one’s rights to ask: How did he prepare himself before sitting down at the easel? How was he able to concentrate to the point where the tip of his paintbrush could reach to the very portals of heaven and thus bring back, into the work, a kind of ethereal splendor? And what about his sitters themselves, most of whom were young women; what did they think of this man who looked at them with the eyes of a genius and a magician? What on earth did they talk about, before, during, and after each session?
And thirdly: This painting, which was completed in 1663 or 1664, is now 350 years old. What happened to these sensitive or energetic or simply very pretty young women whom Vermeer depicted? Where is the dust that used to be their bones? There is a certain pathos here, in that time has erased everything that we see in the picture. The painting is like an after-image, an echo, a faint resonance of something once as substantial and real as you, and me, and those of us who can still look at and appreciate Vermeers today.
Some people may say that this is a timeless beauty that we’re looking at, but what it really is, of course, is an ephemeral beauty. Knowing that “all things must pass” can ennoble something, or someone, and this allows us to consider it or them through wistful eyes. “Perhaps eternal beauty is best preserved in the most fragile objects,” wrote Carlos Fuentes, and certainly a painting, like a human being, is a most fragile object. And so, when we gaze upon a Vermeer, and now this one in particular, we may become all too aware of the impermanence that surrounds and awaits us, yet which somehow elevates us, touches us deeply, and enhances our lives, giving it depth and meaning, courage and resolve. In this world, a beautiful picture like this is a true consolation.
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-1664), by Johannes Vermeer, is on view through March 31 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Open daily except Monday. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER