Vermeer going #2

May 18th, 2013
italy

Part of the reason why Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute is not anyone’s darling is that the picture shows its age: it has been rubbed, scrubbed and pretty well deprived of nuance anyone would expect of a Vermeer. It is a bare-bones canvas, a sea of brackish browns and unattractive grays with only a lick or two of what anyone would call color. Moreover, the young lutenist is no Hollywood starlet. She is “mousey,” if you like the picture, or “homely” to downright “ugly” if you don’t. Visitors at the MET nod at her respectfully— she is after all a Vermeer— but quickly move on to one of the museum’s more amenable images.

Oddly, I have always found it one of Vermeer’s most moving canvases. Caught between a spacious map of Europe, a massive oak table and a hanging slate blue curtain, the girl’s lute turns one way and her face another in search of something the painter does not reveal. To those few attuned to the picture and able to set aside its pitiful state of conservation, it coveys a sense of hope, of searching for something of great value, but also of potential loss.

When the Woman with a Lute came to Rome last year I counted on renewing our dialogue but didn’t expect to receive anything more than what I had already gotten although the passing of time frequently allows us to see new things in familiar pictures. On this rendezvous, I was particularly struck by the monochrome map which I hadn’t thought about too intensely because I had always taken it primarily as a compositional device, a means for focusing the viewer’s attention on the girl or, perhaps, an allusion to her fanciful dreams of a faraway land or a faraway man. As coincidence has it, the map features Italy, the country where the picture was for the moment being exhibited for the first time after it left Vermeer’s easel.

As I stood in front in front of my favorite Vermeer girl (love is blind) and her big brown map of Europe I could not help but wonder what the artist thought of as he sat on a wooden stool and carefully painted the Italian shoreline. What did he know about Italy? How many Italians had he met? Who were his favorite Italian painters? Was he familiar with Petrarchan love poetry? Had he ever desired to visit Rome or Venice or was he, like his most illustrious colleagues Rembrandt and Frans Hals, content to remain where he were born? Or perhaps, for the painter the Italian coastline was just a boot-shaped contour to be rendered as accurately as possible with a fine brush and a bit of black and raw umber. One thing is almost certain, he could have never foreseen that 350 years later more than 300,000 Italians would have queued up in Rome, the heart of the grandiose Italian Renaissance, to see his meek little girl.

Click here for a high-resolution image of the painting.

One Response to “Vermeer going #2”

  1. Michael White

    This is a beautiful meditation, Jonathan. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly, as I think you know, with your feelings about this painting. (I never knew the map depicted Italy, though.) Each time I’ve seen the works in the Met, I find the more dazzling, luminous paintings rather stiff and doll-like; this one is so sweet and hopeful, and it captures Vermeer’s most attractive and humane side.

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