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Arts & Culture

Vermeer in Manhattan

August 4, 2015 | by

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep, oil on canvas, 1656–7, 2' 6" x 2' 10".

“Imagine you lost everything that really mattered to you, and then you had a dream, and in that dream you found out that you never really lost it, because it can’t be taken away from you. That’s how Vermeer makes me feel.”

The poet Michael White was trying to explain to me his obsession with Johannes Vermeer—with his psychologically charged interiors and enigmatic female figures. Michael’s fascination arose from a chance encounter with the artist’s work in Amsterdam, where he had gone to distract himself from a divorce so destructive that it had left him deeply depressed, feeling as if he would live out the rest of his life alone.

Though I was working with him at a university in North Carolina, I didn’t know him well enough at the time to understand the emotional hardship he was going through—or that his experience in the Rijksmuseum with Vermeer’s quietly ambiguous images had led him to travel the world on a quest to see every one of the master’s paintings. In fact, none of that was clear to me until I read his new memoir, Travels in Vermeer, a book that’s part travelogue, part meditation on the meaning of art.

Reading Travels in Vermeer made Vermeer’s paintings so emotionally real to me that by the end of the book I felt as if I knew them—as if they were characters in a marvelous novel about lost love, desire, and healing. I think of Michael’s first sight of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example:

I feel a breeze, a shiver on my back as I enter, causing me to turn … I look at her across my left shoulder. She is looking at me dead in the eye across her own left shoulder. She is, if any painting can be, a breathtaking encounter.

Love: how could I have forgotten that feeling? The instantaneous, passionate gaze that comprehends me, beyond accusation or forgiveness. The lovely sympathy in her hazel irises, the lush eroticism of her lips, her mouth.

The problem was that I’d never actually seen a Vermeer in real life. Michael agreed to take me around to look at the paintings available in New York. There are eight: three at the Frick Collection and five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were going to see them all.

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Officer and Laughing Girl, oil on canvas, 1658, 19.87" × 18.13".

We began at the Frick with Officer and Laughing Girl, in which an officer in uniform and a young woman are sitting at a small table in the corner of a room by a window. Michael explained that this was probably meant to be a brothel scene, a genre popular in Vermeer’s day; he pointed out the woman’s outstretched hand resting on the table, open as if for payment. And yet the picture refuses to make a lot of sense on that level. The woman wears a prim white linen bonnet that covers her hair, and her face positively glows in the indirect light banked in through the shimmering window. Her eyes are on the soldier and her expression is quietly, exquisitely happy.

“Look at her,” Michael said. “She’s in love.”

The soldier, too, is hardly the merry reveler you’d expect in a typical bawdy picture. He occupies the foreground, his back to the viewer, one hand stroking his chin—awkward and restrained. He seems to be assessing the girl, or perhaps assessing his own intentions toward her.

“It’s almost as if he’s a stand-in for the artist,” Michael said. “The artist questioning his right to paint the woman.”

A brothel picture that refuses to be a brothel picture, emotions that fail to match up in the ways we expect them to, that complicate and swirl—all suffused with the most exquisite, darkly glowing light: this was the Vermeer I remembered from Michael’s memoir, but with the strange power that comes from hanging on the wall in front of you. Standing in front of Officer and Laughing Girl, it seemed impossible to me that anyone could make something so luminous, so beautiful, with nothing but a little paint.

We walked over to the next painting, Girl Interrupted at her Music. The female figure is seated at a table on which sits a cittern, a lute-like instrument. A man stands over her, one hand resting on the back of her chair, his eyes on the sheet music she holds in her hands. But her attention has been pulled away from their music making: she looks directly out at the viewer with a highly ambiguous expression that contains some form of charged recognition.

“She seems to understand exactly who I am,” said Michael. “But who is that? What am I to her? A friend? A lover? A confidante? Sometimes I think I am about to figure it out, but never quite get there.”

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Girl Interrupted at her Music, oil on canvas, 1660-61, 15.5" × 17.5".

We left the Frick and walked up Fifth Avenue to the Met, where we checked out all five of the museum’s Vermeers. The one that grabbed me was A Maid Asleep, in which a richly dressed maid sits at a table alone with a glass of wine. Her eyes are closed, her head resting against one hand. Immediately behind her is a half-open door leading into an empty interior room that somehow feels mysterious, a sense reinforced by the key visible in the lock.

“There were a male figure and a dog in that room,” said Michael. “He painted them out.”

That absence resonates outward, filling the picture, which feels like a question wrapped in stillness and quiet, a moment of life perfectly perceived and yet resisting interpretation. Is she really drunk, as the scene implies? Is she even really asleep? If so, why are her fingers so perfectly, actively curled on the tabletop?

“She could be awake,” I offered. “But melancholy.”

“Or she could be pretending to be asleep,” said Michael—perhaps for the benefit of the man who no longer existed in the painting. Or for the viewer. “Vermeer’s work contains all these fascinating narrative threads, but they always remain just threads.”

The way Vermeer simultaneously implied and undermined a narrative was one of the sources of psychic charge in his work. For Michael, those narratives were always about romantic loss and renewed hope. Standing in silence beside him, I remembered a passage from Travels in Vermeer about his first time standing in front of a Vermeer in Amsterdam:

Suddenly, I understand: Vermeer’s hushed clarity addresses me, is for me as I stand here now. What I’ve been going through, what I’ve tried to deal with in my divorce, is total loss. I thought I knew about all that when my first wife, Jackie, died of cancer—but this time, I’d lost faith. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in love; I’m not sure I believe in anything. But, looking at these radiant canvases—unreachable yet familiar—reminds me … It’s as if these visions are here to startle me to my senses by showing me recovered images from a former life.

We stood for a while more, and then Michael pointed to the top left corner of the painting, where a picture hangs behind the woman. Only the bottom edge of the picture is visible, and all we can see in it is a child’s bare foot.

“The painting on the wall here is one we know he actually owned, and it appears in two more pictures, one at midcareer, one toward the end. It’s of Cupid, though here we can only see his foot. It will take another fifteen years for the complete Cupid to finally appear, in A Lady Standing at a Virginal. The feeling for me is, Yes, it was always there, all along, preparing to reveal itself. The power of love is always there, though it may take lifetime to see it whole.”

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All the Money in the World and All Will Be Revealed. His short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Tin House, The Oxford American, and other venues, and have been recognized with O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, among other honors. His essay “Criminals” will appear in the Fall 2015 issue of The Paris Review.