A PERFECT PAINTING
 
JOHANNES VERMEER, YOUNG WOMAN WITH A WATER PITCHER, ca.1664-65
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
 

    This is what perfection looks like. Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is a perfect painting, perfectly composed and exquisitely executed. Even the finest reproductions cannot capture the exact tone of its lovely blue-white light, and even the most carefully chosen words cannot describe its silent, astonishing beauty. Its power is out of all proportion to its size. No 18 by 16in. piece of cloth covered with pigment should be this impressive. Discussion seems superfluous. What more is there to say about something that is perfect in itself? I think of a passage from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols that should haunt anyone who tries to write about great art: "Whatever we have words for, that we have already got beyond. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable."1 In this Vermeer we see the ordinary raised to a poetry beyond words. There is beauty and mystery here that we cannot touch. The old cliche is true: words fail...

    Yes, words fail. A distinctly uncomfortable situation for one who intends to write about the painting. Is this essay possible? Probably not. But to paraphrase Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. Faced with the ultimate, we can either fall silent, go mad (Nietzsche did both), or keep talking, keep looking, keep trying to understand.

    The mystery of Vermeer’s paintings is entwined with the mystery of the man. While we know a little more about Vermeer than those nineteenth-century critics who labeled him the "Sphinx of Delft," we still know nothing important about him, nothing that helps us understand the paintings. Research over the past century has turned up a large number of trivial facts gleaned from public records, but we still don’t know who Vermeer’s teachers were, who his patrons were, who his friends (or enemies) were, where he studied, what he thought about religion or politics, how much of the content and form of his works was determined by patron’s strictures and how much was his own genius. We know so little, in fact, that any attempt at biography must rest on a shaky foundation of suppositions, a long string of ‘maybes’ that could just as likely be ‘maybe nots.’ Indeed, writing a life of Vermeer from the known facts is like writing your life (whoever you may be) on the basis of a birth certificate, two cancelled paychecks and a sheaf of 1040 forms. What would we be able to conclude about your opinions and desires? The door to Vermeer’s life is closed and, barring any truly unprecedented discoveries, it will remain so. We should accept the mystery of the painter and turn to the paintings, about 35 works–many great, a few transcendent. Some of the best, like Young Woman, are also the most mysterious. It is necessary to look long at these paintings and to read them by their own light.

    "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is a sonata in the key of blue." I wrote those words in my notebook one afternoon while standing in front of the painting–those words and nothing more, though I must have stood there for 15 or 20 minutes. The canvas is infused with a cool blue-white light that sets the tone of the entire painting and makes me think of a crisp, clear spring morning, the beginning of a beautiful day. Light passes through the blue-paned window, strikes the woman’s dark blue dress, then falls on the blue drapery and the thin blue ribbon that emerges from the jewelry box. These dominant colors are matched by a yellow counterpoint that crosses the painting in the opposite direction: The yellowed map balances the blue window and rhymes with the yellow front of the jewelry box. The brass basin and pitcher carry this theme onto the woman’s yellow jacket, and the final note is sounded by a thin, vertical strip of sunlight along the inside edge of the window frame. The warm red rug on the tabletop prominently contains blue and yellow flowers in its design, so it can be seen as a symbol of the overall color harmony that binds the painting together. Likewise, the reflections on the basin, pitcher and water appear to contain the entire palette of the painting, every color on the canvas, from bright white at the edge of the basin’s rim to dark blue on its underside. The work’s most important and obvious harmonizer, though, is the woman herself. Her blue and yellow outfit unites the two color themes in a single form, while her semi-transparent white collar lies over this yellow and blue just as that subtle blue-white film of light seems to lie over the entire canvas.

    Concentration, in all its senses, is a key to understanding this work. The longer we concentrate on the painting, the more we appreciate how Vermeer concentrated all his pictorial powers to focus our attention on the young woman at the center of it all. The space represented here is unusually shallow for Vermeer, and compared to the works of such contemporaries as de Hooch or Metsu (to whom this painting was once attributed) the space is radically flattened. Vermeer takes his view close, at a distance one would not quite call ‘intimate’ but which is certainly ‘familiar.’ The floor tiles and ceiling beams that define perspective space in such works as The Music Lesson and The Artist’s Studio are here kept out of view. The table that Vermeer often shows at an angle is here placed parallel to the picture plane, minimizing our perception of the table’s width and thus the painting’s depth. The near side of the rug, the map and the chairback are all flat planes that further emphasize this shallowness, as do the large expanses of bare wall. The window, although its top and bottom edges recede in perspective, registers more as a flat vertical rectangle than as a form retreating into space. But the most startlingly flat passage in the painting, the kind of thing we won’t see again until Cézanne, occurs where the edge of the pitcher’s spout flows into the contour of the woman’s sleeve, eliminating the space between. This flatness encourages us, with our modern eyes, to ‘abstract’ the picture, to see it as a geometric abstraction lying in a single plane. (The ease with which this can be done is one reason for Vermeer’s continuing popularity throughout the twentieth century: he can be considered a precursor of abstract art.) We then see the major objects circling the woman’s form in a clockwise pattern. From the map, the movement descends to the chairback, then on to the tabletop where the rug flows off toward the bottom while our eye is carried onward to the shadow on the wall and thence up to the window and back across the wall to the map again. But the movement isn’t merely circular; it’s centrifugal. The cropping of table, map and window opens the composition and adds a note of instability, a sense that these objects continue outside the frame and might fly off, spinning out of the woman’s orbit. This painting that seems so eternally stable is in fact dangerously close to dissolution. And the only thing countering this instability is the woman’s mysterious gesture. Scholars are undecided on exactly what this woman is doing with her water pitcher. (Is she going to wash her hands? her hair? water some flowers outside the window? The answer may have been obvious to a seventeenth-century Dutch viewer, but it’s lost to us.) Compositionally, though, her gesture is easily interpreted: she makes a connection across the painting and holds everything together. Just as her dress harmonizes the main colors, her action gives the canvas an eternally frozen split-second of perfect balance. The woman is a calming, steadying force in the flux of life.

    But formally she remains a thing of curves in a painting of edges and angles. Vermeer achieves a harmony between these disparate elements by ‘softening’ all the corners near her body. The bulbous knob and rounded finial at the end of the map rod counters the right-angled rigidity of the map’s only visible corner. The corner of the chairback is similarly softened by extending the vertical side into a rounded lion’s head finial. The jewelry box’s corners are offset by the proximity of the flowing ribbon and the basin’s long oval curve. Even the two corners of the table–potentially the most solid and prominent angles in the entire composition–are concealed and rounded by the covering rug. The window’s sharp bottom corner is shadowed; only its top corner describes a prominent dark angle against the lighted wall, but this is also–not coincidentally–the angle farthest from the woman’s body. Furthermore, the composition’s three largest rectangles (map, rug and window) contain internal curvilinear elements: metal lines in the window glass, irregular contours on the map, a stylized floral design on the rug. At this point we are not surprised to notice that the woman also partakes of this line-curve harmony; while the contours of her body and garments are defined by curves, her jacket contains sharp yellow angles along the waist, and her large white collar is open over her chest in a long–and very slightly curved–triangle. Most importantly, Vermeer integrates the woman into this overall harmony by means of her gesture: in one hand she holds the curved handle of the pitcher, in her other hand the straight, rigid window frame. Again, she is holding it all together, connecting the painting’s opposing shapes just as she connects its colors and composition.

    Aside from creating a perfectly balanced painting, what does all this harmonizing of curves and angles mean? Since we know virtually nothing of Vermeer’s intentions, the answer to that question can only be speculative, but if we base our speculations on the given facts of the painting, we shouldn’t wander too far afield. Straight lines and right angles suggest control, stasis, rigidity, the timeless truths of geometry and mathematics. For Vermeer they might have represented the rigors of perspective construction, the technical, theoretical side of painting. Curves suggest motion, freedom, the shapes of nature, rolling hills and falling water; a curve can be a sign of pregnancy, of fertility, of sexual desire. Straight lines represent reason and logic; curves are the meandering paths of emotion. Of course, these are traditionally (and, needless to say, male chauvinistically) gendered concepts: masculine reason versus feminine emotion; masculine straightness (a bit of male wish fulfillment, perhaps) versus feminine curves. The important point for this painting is that both these gendered opposites are united by the woman. She holds reason and emotion, male and female, in perfect balance. Does Vermeer intend her to be a symbol of Woman with a capital W, the female principle in Dutch domestic life, providing the force that binds an entire household in harmony? Maybe...or maybe not. The answer to that question is lost in the mystery of the man. We can say that the artist’s near-obsessive concern with harmony and his careful focusing of our attention on the woman at the center of it all suggests that she is an embodiment of balance, a human counterpart to the small scales held by another Vermeer woman in a different painting from these same years. If we can speak of a meaning for the painting as a whole, it seems to be about transcending division and harmonizing opposites. Immediately, I want to extrapolate this meaning into the political and biographical realms. The recent history of the Netherlands in Vermeer’s day was a tale of religious and political division and strife; the artist himself, raised a Protestant, married into a Catholic family and was almost certainly a convert. Are personal and political meanings encoded in this wishful image of peace and harmony? Perhaps. But these speculations distract us from the true power of the work: the matchless beauty of an ordinary moment captured and raised to the level of art. It is a woman, a table, the corner of a room. It is the prose of life transformed into pure poetry.

    And it is also a very precarious balance. Perfection is a delicate thing. If any element of the painting were moved just a few centimeters, everything would be lost. In two tiny passages of empty space–at the end of the map rod and at the edge of the chair–the woman’s form almost-but-not-quite touches two objects, and the spaces between woman and object seem energized. These are, in their subtle way, the most dramatic areas of the entire painting. The vast expanse of blank wall (created by Vermeer during the painting process when he moved the map far to the right) suddenly narrows to a small, white channel between rod and shoulder, like a wide river unexpectedly flowing into a dangerous rapids. And just as quickly as it narrows, the wall opens out again into a large patch of empty space, only to be more severely narrowed where the hand almost meets the line of the chair. The rhythm created by these passages is like breathing: inhale and exhale, expand and contract. But more importantly, these two tiny areas are visual metaphors for the transience of this frozen moment and for the precision and delicacy of Vermeer’s art. Like the Louvre Lacemaker, this painting can be read as a commentary on its own construction. Where the lacemaker’s intense concentration and the precise nature of her work lead us to reflect on the same qualities in Vermeer’s painting, here we must consider how the artist achieves perfection on the narrowest of margins. One wrong move on Vermeer’s part, and the balance is lost. This kind of art is a thing of centimeters and seconds. The exact placement of objects is executed with a delicacy and minuteness that finds its counterpart in the painting’s illusion of a split-second captured, a tiny fragment of time frozen forever.

    "You told me that you had seen some of Vermeer’s pictures," says the narrator of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to his lover Albertine, "you must have realised that they are fragments of an identical world..."2 While Proust’s narrator intends this last phrase to describe the family resemblance among all the works of a great artist, the words themselves are much more poetically suggestive. Vermeer’s paintings are indeed fragments of a world similar to, but more perfect than, our own. They show us reality filtered through the artist’s consciousness and materials–and, perhaps, through the lens of his camera obscura. Vermeer’s works are not realistic mirrors held up to the world (even the View of Delft slightly alters the city’s architectural reality). Rather, they are like the reflections on the young woman’s pitcher and basin. Vermeer shows us reality purified, just as the pitcher reflects the blue drapery and red box top as abstract vertical stripes of blue and red–reality stripped to its color essence in a passage that miraculously prefigures Matisse. The entire painting is a fragment of reality that has been heightened, selected, perfected, made strangely unreal.

    Proust, a master of the alchemy by which reality is transformed into art, adored Vermeer. He considered the View of Delft "the most beautiful painting in the world,"3 and one of his very rare daytime excursions near the end of his life was a visit to a Vermeer exhibition at the Jeu de Paume. One of the characters in his massive novel, the writer Bergotte, collapses and dies at such an exhibition (Stendhal’s Syndrome taken to the final extreme), and this leads the narrator into a brief meditation on immortality and the sources of art that seems almost Platonic until we come to the final echt-Proustian coda:

They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.4

A writer’s immortality is signaled not by ethereal spirits but by books, the material products of his art. The artist’s soul may or may not exist, may or may not be immortal, but Proust’s books, Vermeer’s paintings, Shakespeare’s plays–these can be seen, studied, verified. The long life of the work is the only kind of immortality an artist can know.

    Life is short, art is long, but even art is not eternal. Vermeer’s Young Woman is starting to show her age. A 1995 "technical description" of the painting, published in the Washington National Gallery’s exhibition catalog, found "[a]brasion...in thin-glazed shadows" and "scattered flake losses."5 Nothing out of the ordinary for a 350 year-old painting. More troubling are the pentimenti that are beginning to appear as the outer layer of paint on the back wall becomes transparent with age. Below the woman’s right wrist we can see the faint silhouette of the finial atop what was originally a foreground chair (the fact that Vermeer painted it out testifies to his desire to eliminate a barrier between viewer and woman), and on the wall above her head we can vaguely discern the original position of the map and rod. These pentimenti are not very distracting today, but in a century they may be visible enough to seriously compromise the beauty and power of the work. The painting is as mortal as ourselves; its rate of decay is just much slower than ours. Anthony Bailey tells us that in Vermeer’s day the "Dutch word for portrait was conterfeijtsel,"6 a counterfeit. The techniques of art counterfeit reality, while the longevity of art counterfeits immortality. Vermeer’s Young Woman is an inconsequential moment transformed into an illusion of eternity. Implicit in this image is the idea that such perfect moments are all around us, lurking in unnoticed corners of familiar rooms, very much like the whole edifice of Proustian memory lying dormant in a tea-soaked pastry, waiting for the narrator to take a bite. This is the optimism of Vermeer, the promise of all his best works. If we could learn to see life with his eyes, we would walk through a world of epiphanies.

    When T.S. Eliot wanted to end The Waste Land on a note of transcendence, he repeated three times, mantra-like, the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih,’ which he translated as "The Peace which passeth understanding."7 This Vermeer is an image of such a state: beauty beyond words, perfect peace and harmony. This–not architecture, as Schelling would have it–is truly ‘frozen music,’ a sonata suspended in time. This painting is a sign of hope, an image of a possible world, a triumph over flux and chaos, a perfect moment that can give us perfect moments. When I stand in front of it, I think: This is what art can be. This is what perfection looks like.
 
 
NOTES

1. Nietzsche, Portable Nietzsche, 530-1.

2. Proust, Remembrance, vol.2, 644.

3. Carter, Marcel Proust, 318.

4. Proust, op. cit., 510.

5. Wheelock, et al., Vermeer, 146.

6. Bailey, Vermeer, 223.

7. Eliot, Waste Land, 75.

 

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