Art and Architecture: Johannes Vermeer
The wrong things in our world are glamorous: fast cars, tomato throwing contests, actors – instead of the right things: going to bed early, long walks observing the sky at dusk, kindness. It’s not that nothing at all is glamorous, it’s just that we need to direct our admiration and excitement more wisely; we need to turn it upon the things which genuinely deserve prestige.
Artists can help us. One of the fundamental things art can do for us is turning the spotlight of glamour in the best – and most helpful – directions. Artists identify things that we tend to overlook but which, ideally, we should care about deeply. And through the Serving women, bread, and milk were not especially exciting in the late 1650s, when Johannes Vermeer painted this picture. [The Milkmaid, 1657-8]. She wasn’t a celebrity; he isn’t showing us someone who was already highly admired.
Yet Vermeer saw in the serving woman pouring milk something that he felt deserved prolonged contemplation and admiration. He thought something really important was going on. By worldly standards, it’s a pretty humble situation. But the care with which she works is moving. Vermeer is impressed by the idea that our true needs might be quite simple. Bread and milk are really rather satisfying.
The light coming through the window is beautiful. A plain white wall can be a major source of delight. Vermeer is redistributing glamour by raising the prestige of the things he depicts. And he’s trying to get us to feel the same way. The Milkmaid is a kind of propaganda (or an advert) for homely pleasures. Or consider the painstakingly skillful – and commercial – business of lace-making [The Lacemaker, 1669-1671]: Vermeer paints the self-employed businesswoman with the usual devotion and care that would be given to a military hero or a great political leader.
Vermeer was himself unremarkable in many ways. He was born in 1632 in the small but beautiful city of Delft, where his father was a modestly successful art dealer-cum-innkeeper. He stayed there most of his life. He never traveled away from Delft after his marriage at age 20. He hardly even left his pleasant home. He and his wife, Catharina, had 11 surviving children and he did much of his painting from the rooms on the upper floor. (Modeled after Catharina:) Vermeer was a slow painter, partially because he was not only a painter.
He continued the family businesses of art dealing and innkeeping and he also became the head of the local guild of painters. In contemporary terms, his career was not a huge success. He wasn’t especially famous and he didn’t make a lot of money. He was, in fact, an exemplary member of what was, in those days, a newly important kind of person: the middle-class individual.
Vermeer was in his teens when Holland (or technically the Seven Provinces) became an independent state – the first ‘bourgeois republic’ in the world. In contrast to the semi-feudal aristocratic nations that surrounded it, Holland gave honor and political power to people who were not at the pinnacle of society: to merchants, administrators, prosperous artisans, and entrepreneurs.
It was the first country in the world to be recognizably modern. In this era, a great insight of Christianity – one which is easily detachable from the surrounding theology – became increasingly relevant: that everybody’s inner life is important, even if on the outside they do not seem particularly distinguished. Vermeer paints ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ with the same kind of consideration. [The Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1665]. She isn’t anybody famous or important. She isn’t rich.
The earring that she wears is nice, but it is a minor trinket by the eye of the fashionable world. It is the one pricey thing she owns. Yet she’s not in need of justice – she’s not downtrodden or badly treated. She is (for want of a better term) ordinary. Yet, she is (like everyone) not in the least ordinary: she is unique, profoundly, and mysteriously, herself.
The picture which best sums up Vermeer’s philosophy, The Little Street, has become one of the most famous works of art in the world. It has pride of place in Amsterdam’s great Rijksmuseum; it is insured for perhaps half a billion euros and is the subject of a mountain of learned articles. Yet the painting is pointedly out of synch with its status. Because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special.
The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching the children, darning cloth – and doing these things faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty. It is an anti-heroic picture: a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status.
It argues that doing the modest things, that are expected of all of us, is enough. Vermeer did not live long. He died in 1675, still only in his early forties. But he had communicated a crucial – and hugely sane – idea: much of what matters to us is not exciting, urgent, dramatic or special things. Most of life is taken up dealing with things that are routine, modest, humble, and (to be honest) a touch dull.
Our culture should focus on getting us to appreciate the average, the ordinary and the everyday. When Vermeer painted his hometown he didn’t choose a special day; the sky is neither very overcast nor especially sunny. [View of Delft, 1660-1] Nothing is happening. There are no celebrities around. Yet it is, as he has taught us to recognize, all very special indeed.