Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vermeer: A Stillness in Mirrors

The Art of Painting (1665-1666; oil on canvas, 47x40) by Jan Vermeer

For a while, Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632-75) lived like a king, amassing an extraordinary collection of "curiosities" - exotic seashells, ancient sculpture, rich silks, books, tapestries, paintings, maps, historical weapons and armor ... but when he died, his wife had to forfeit the estate and sell off his paintings (which nobody wanted) just to keep herself and their 11 children out of debtor's prison.

Lyme Connecticut artist Jerry N. Weiss has published a wonderful interpretation of Jan Vermeer's The Art of Painting (1665-1666) in The Artist's Magazine this month. His article strikes a balance between explaining the painting's content and celebrating the artist's technical and aesthetic achievements.

Vermeer was supreme, Weiss writes, in his ability to use "the physical property of light to evoke a revelatory experience in everyday life." The light in Vermeer is bewitching; it's directional but never harsh, and the way it reveals form and color allows us to sense the very quality of the air it passes through.

Weiss nods briefly to the painting's typically Dutch allegorical symbolism before passing on to highlight the work's remarkable clarity, its precise, asymmetrical design, its "cool reserve and pitch-perfect tones." The stillness is almost like that of a reflection in a mirror. Vermeer suspends and plays his two figures off of each other by turning them gracefully in opposite directions, almost like dancers, balancing the model's left-pointing trumpet with the artist's right-pointing mahl stick and literally drawing lines (the map's border) between to connect them.

Vermeer's finesse is even more remarkable given the chaos of his life. He may have been a creative genius, but to his eventual downfall, he had only one main patron, a wealthy merchant in his hometown of Delft, who bought up Vermeer's painstakingly crafted paintings but thereby kept the artist's fame from spreading. When the French suddenly invaded the country, the Dutch economy collapsed, and disposable income for luxury items like paintings dried up. Jan was stuck, and not even his day job (art dealer=more luxury!) could save him.

How visionary then, the special stillness in Vermeer's "self portrait," partly the result, as Weiss's piece suggests, of its magical combination of cool light and complex pattern. Vermeer's poetic vignettes transcend the narrative, as his figures transcend their settings, interacting "as if in a dream suspended."

What really moves us in Vermeer's The Art of Painting, Weiss concludes, is how it imparts, even after 400 years, "the blessing of absolute stillness, the Zen of north light." Hear, hear.