Simple things that shimmer like a jewel

Vermeer was as perfect a painter as any who ever lived. In his hands a simple jug or tablecloth could achieve the formal weight and importance of another artist's complex battle scene or monumental mountain range. He was an artist who never strained for an effect or descended into melodrama. More than any other Western artist of his or more recent times, he knew the virtue of discretion, tact, and balance in art.

He also knew about light, about the way it steals into and subtly permeates a quiet, cool interior. The way it rounds upon a form and strikes a highlight upon the tip of a nose, the corner of a table, or the edge of a pearl. The way it heightens the atmosphere of a room and all that lies within it, or plays upon surfaces, picks out details, gives substance and identity to paper, cloth, brass , stone, tile, glass -- even to such a humble thing as milk.

Vermeer also had a special way with color, knew as well as anyone has ever known just what lemon yellows and creamy whites can do against a soft gray -- or against a dull blue. Or how to interlace blood reds and wood-stained browns -- and then to intercut them with black and a slender shiver of white.

However, while his paintings glow with color, he was sparing in its use, preferring to extend the dramatic possibilities of a few pearly grays or light-drenched siennas to the point where the introduction of a deep red or a brilliant blue would create the effectm of intense coloration without cluttering up the composition with an overabundance of hues.

But color without exquisiteness of formal placement only leads to pretty pictures, and Vermeer's could never be called merely pretty. Their power and sense of balanced finality resulted from his remarkable compositional skills, which permitted him to know precisely where every single detail in a picture "belonged." As a result, his paintings are as compact and as intact as a well-built house, as "all-of-a-piece" as a successfully assembled jigsaw puzzle.

"Officer and Laughing Girl" is a very small painting that would be easy to pass by were it not for its vibrancy and sparkle. Its quality of light is such that it radiates outward toward the viewer and his attention toward the picture's girl and her male companion. What was merely a rectangular, framed piece of colored canvas a moment before suddenly becomes a window into a tiny, perfect world. And within seconds we are ravished -- I can think of no better word --and the map, the warm silhouette of the officer, the drama of his black hat against the window, the sumptuous yellows and blacks of the girl's gown, but most particularly, by the absolute sense of "thereness," the undoubted actuality of the girl as a living, breathing human being.

She is like a perfect jewel within a perfect setting, with everything, every single thing,m in the composition doing its bit to frame her face, to focus our attention upon her laughing expression, her remarkable sense of life and good humor. All we need do to realize her importance to this picture is to place our thumb over her head. With it covered, the painting is like a wheel without a spike, a vase without a flower.

And yet, having built his composition as solidly as a rock, Vermeer then relents and permits us to savor the particulars of the room he has depicted so precisely.The map in particular is a light-saturated wonder, a piece of pure painting that comes extraordinarily close in effect to some very recent 20 th-century watercolors and prints. And the windowpanes, the various textures of cloth, wood, lace, and skin, are brought to life with just the appropriate touch and emphasis.

But it's the design and the painting of the wall behind the girl which stamp this picture as the work of a master, for this apparently blank space is actually a highly charged shape and form in its own right, the final, shrewdly conceived and gorgeously painted device that locks the girl and the officer in place forever.

Much of this effect is lost in black-and-white, but in the original (and in most good color reproduction), this area is literally charged with light. It shimmers and vibrates with atmospheric tension and pictorial drama, and seems to move in the direction of the girl's gaze until it meets and forms the outline of the officer's face, hand, and arm. This is pictorial magic of the highest sort, the kind of thing only a handful of painters have ever been able to achieve, for this simple area of blank wall serves to define form, suggest space, and create psychological tension between the man and the girl.

It's hard to believe that such a simple and insignificant-looking section of a painting could be so crucial. But, after many years of looking at and enjoying this picture, I've come to the conclusion that it's the real clue to this work's extraordinary power. That, in fact, it is in just such "simple" things that greatness in art most truly makes itself known

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