Rooms of Vermeer to Lighten the Heart an Understated but Powerful Exhibit at Washington's National Gallery of Art Provides Respite from Political Jostling

By Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Rooms of Vermeer to Lighten the Heart an Understated but Powerful Exhibit at Washington's National Gallery of Art Provides Respite from Political Jostling


Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It was not a Vermeer moment. The nation's leaders were trading barbs. Government had ground to a halt. Television trucks circled the city like electrified insects.

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, tourists who came to view the world's largest-ever tribute to Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter, found the building locked.

In the darkened exhibit rooms, Vermeer's subjects remained as he had painted them: engaged in private moments or lost in meditative stillness, unaware of the political gamesmanship outside.

But now that the exhibit is reopened, we discover that the six-day budget drama earlier this month has not diminished Vermeer, but enhanced him. In Washington, with its current abundance of pettiness and inflated rhetoric, his modesty stands taller by contrast.

In a city of spin, Vermeer's quiet images - rich in light and perspective - remind us of the power of unscripted moments, the elegance of simple scenes, and the timelessness of emotions.

By any measure, Vermeer was not a political painter: There is almost no public dimension to his work. Not only are his images predominantly domestic in nature, but the artist himself is something of an enigma.

Born in 1632 in the village of Delft, Vermeer spent his entire life there, selling and appraising art to make a living and running the local painters' guild. Beyond that, little is known about his training or personal life.

Despite his modern acclaim, Vermeer received little notoriety in his own time outside the Netherlands, and he died at the age of 43 with large debts and 10 dependent children. No serious attempt was made to collect his paintings until a 19th-century French critic pronounced them masterpieces of the first order.

One of the miraculous aspects of this retrospective is its diminutive size. Although some scholars believe Vermeer may have produced far more paintings, his entire known oeuvre consists of only 35 works.

Because his paintings are so rare and far-flung, no enthusiast ever tried to draw them together for one exhibit, until now. Although the show pales in comparison with recent Monet and Matisse retrospectives in Chicago and New York, it's just as well: Each of Vermeer's 21 paintings here coaxes the viewer to linger.

His subjects, often women, usually indoors, radiate a sense of security. They are enveloped and protected from the outside world by walls, hanging draperies, and half-closed doors. Warm white light streams through open windows. Stillness reigns.

Behind the calm, however, there is mystery.

The young woman in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is, arguably, Vermeer's Mona Lisa. Set against a black background, she has turned to glance over her shoulder. Her turban seems to swing at her back. Her eyes, impossibly soft and round, bear a message. Her lips, moist and parted, seem poised to speak.

But her thoughts at this moment go unrevealed. Sometimes her gaze seems sensual, at other times impatient or timid. Like Vermeer himself, she lives on as a beguiling riddle, silenced forever, more beautiful with each encounter. …

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