Tuesday, April 22, 2008

He painted silence and stillness and light

I've been watching art critic Sister Wendy on Vermeer. He lived in a house in Delft with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his eleven children; I knew that, but it never occurred to me that Vermeer painted with the same craving that drives me to the woods to run down trails---the craving for solitude. Vermeer's subjects, placid Dutch women, are bathed in light, and they're all so still. You can almost hear dust motes floating around them in sunlight, they're so still.

I run through the other Dutch painters I know--Rembrandt, Cuyp, Rubens, Mondrian, Hals, de Kooning. I dismiss them as too stiff, too marine, too primary, too cavalier, too expressionist, too just notVermeer. Only one, Adrienne Coortje, captured the light in raspberries and asparagus as Vermeer did with silks and tiled floors. His tiny oils had the same timeless luminescence.

What's more beautiful than light? The light of winter dusk backlighting stark black branches, late afternoon sun stretching out a shadow till it's twice its length, a watch crystal flinging spangles onto a painted wall. If I could only see one thing in my last moment, it might be the flash of sun on water or wood or the hair of someone I loved, or heck, it doesn't even have to be someone I love; Keanu Reeves' or David Beckham's hair would do just fine. What I'm after here is the physical property of beauty. What Vermeer saw when he locked the door against his eleven children and wife and mother-in-law, the peace in which to savor these blessings and the time to watch light shimmering and sparkling in his mind's eye without interruption.

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