Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Enlightening Vermeer's Light

Being a film buff who particularly loves costume pieces, naturally I was drawn to looking at Vermeer paintings for at least one of these assignments. Reading through the article “The Strangeness of Vermeer” by Svetlana Alpers in Art in America (an article written in 1996) I was stricken with just how many of the technical aspects of Vermeer’s work that Tracy Chevalier wove into her novel Girl With a Pearl Earring. What is truly interesting about the article is that it was written in reflection after going to an exposition of over two-thirds of Vermeer’s paintings. The article is not so much an examination of his techniques or the interpretations of specific paintings, but more the appreciation of all of his works put together and how, as a whole, the body of work can be interpreted.

There main argument of the article involves both Vermeer’s portrayal of women (as well as the few men in his paintings) and the way that the paintings are much more a small window into the ideal world than a reflection of it. Alpers claims that the portrayal of Vermeer’s women is not so much to represent them as women but that they become this overarching representation of humanity itself. The work that the article is most concerned with as a singular piece is Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid. Personally, my favorite aspect of Vermeer’s paintings (and from what I can tell, most critical acclaim) is his realistic and innovative use of lighting. Alper’s particular fascination seems to be with the lighting of the Lady’s bodice, as on one shoulder it’s a deep grayish tone and on the shoulder closer to the light source it has become entirely bleached white. The page of an art criticism teacher explains to me numerous pieces of symbolism in the painting that I never even picked up on, such as the large painting in the background being a famous rendition of Moses “indicating that somebody must be rescued and cherished” and that on the window there is the sign of Temperance.

The thing that really catches my attention when I look at the painting is that the maid in the background seems to be presiding over the action, as well as being idle. The Lady may be in the foreground, yet she is occupied and her face is hidden. The painting projects that while the maid may not have all the liberty and wealth in the world, she elevates herself above petty things in the letter (there is even a letter crumpled up on the floor suggesting that the Lady was not satisfied with a previous draft). The maid also has the freedom to dream, suggested by the fact that she stares wistfully out of the window, and though she wears a poor person’s dress, her body remains untouched by any table, finery, or task. I also like the way that both women look in completely opposite directions, leading one to think that perhaps two worlds are portrayed here even in this tiny corner of the room.

Granted, I may have slightly romantic notions as to Vermeer’s works because of the novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, yet even in the novel as well as the movie the “strangeness” (as Alpers calls it) of Vermeer’s work comes through. They portray his detachedness of his work that Alpers put best: “in Vermeer's practice the painter crafting an image on the canvas is as humanly detached as if he himself were light making an image on a camera obscura screen.”

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