Rooms of Vermeer To Lighten the Heart

An understated but powerful exhibit at Washington's National Gallery of Art provides respite from political jostling

It was not a Vermeer moment. The nation's leaders were trading barbs. Government had ground to a halt. Television trucks circled the city like electrified insects.

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, tourists who came to view the world's largest-ever tribute to Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter, found the building locked.

In the darkened exhibit rooms, Vermeer's subjects remained as he had painted them: engaged in private moments or lost in meditative stillness, unaware of the political gamesmanship outside.

But now that the exhibit is reopened, we discover that the six-day budget drama earlier this month has not diminished Vermeer, but enhanced him. In Washington, with its current abundance of pettiness and inflated rhetoric, his modesty stands taller by contrast.

In a city of spin, Vermeer's quiet images - rich in light and perspective - remind us of the power of unscripted moments, the elegance of simple scenes, and the timelessness of emotions.

By any measure, Vermeer was not a political painter: There is almost no public dimension to his work. Not only are his images predominantly domestic in nature, but the artist himself is something of an enigma.

Born in 1632 in the village of Delft, Vermeer spent his entire life there, selling and appraising art to make a living and running the local painters' guild. Beyond that, little is known about his training or personal life.

Despite his modern acclaim, Vermeer received little notoriety in his own time outside the Netherlands, and he died at the age of 43 with large debts and 10 dependent children. No serious attempt was made to collect his paintings until a 19th-century French critic pronounced them masterpieces of the first order.

One of the miraculous aspects of this retrospective is its diminutive size. Although some scholars believe Vermeer may have produced far more paintings, his entire known oeuvre consists of only 35 works.

Because his paintings are so rare and far-flung, no enthusiast ever tried to draw them together for one exhibit, until now. Although the show pales in comparison with recent Monet and Matisse retrospectives in Chicago and New York, it's just as well: Each of Vermeer's 21 paintings here coaxes the viewer to linger.

His subjects, often women, usually indoors, radiate a sense of security. They are enveloped and protected from the outside world by walls, hanging draperies, and half-closed doors. Warm white light streams through open windows. Stillness reigns.

Behind the calm, however, there is mystery.

The young woman in ''Girl With a Pearl Earring'' is, arguably, Vermeer's Mona Lisa. Set against a black background, she has turned to glance over her shoulder. Her turban seems to swing at her back. Her eyes, impossibly soft and round, bear a message. Her lips, moist and parted, seem poised to speak.

But her thoughts at this moment go unrevealed. Sometimes her gaze seems sensual, at other times impatient or timid. Like Vermeer himself, she lives on as a beguiling riddle, silenced forever, more beautiful with each encounter.

In merely three rooms, the exhibit traces Vermeer's work from the grand history paintings like ''Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha'' that marked Vermeer's early career, to the vivid landscapes of Delft, to the domestic scenes that most define him.

Visitors often nose up close to the paintings, some of which have been beautifully restored, to marvel at this painter's technique. While his gentle subjects capture the amateur critic, his complex talent holds the expert.

Fascinated by perspective, Vermeer employed advanced techniques to enhance the sense of depth in his paintings. He used a camera obscura, a crude form of early camera, to help portray objects with added dimension.

In ''The Music Lesson,'' Vermeer employs a sharply receding perspective. Examination of the canvas shows that the artist likely attached a pin at the painting's ''vanishing'' or focal point - the girl's sunlit sleeve.

Scholars believe that he attached strings to the pin that radiated out to different points on the painting's edge, helping him to align the floor tiles, the run of the wall, and the windowpanes in the foreground. The result is remarkable: Viewers feel as if they are simultaneously inside and outside the picture.

It may have been this fascination with perspective, or the effects of natural light in rooms, that drove Vermeer inside to paint. By limiting himself to one or two rooms whose dimensions he thoroughly understood, Vermeer was free to play with gesture and glance, and with the mysterious and joyous properties of light.

Into the rooms he painted over and over again, sunlight spills onto flesh and fabric, bread and goblet. Vermeer beguiles us with light. In some paintings, as in ''Woman With a Pearl Necklace,'' the central figure seems to be light itself.

Vermeer's mastery of light stems from his understanding of the physical properties of paint. By applying thin layers of light paint and coating his canvases with glazes, his paintings have a glossy sheen. Highlighted objects, objects that are catching light, take on a luminescent glow.

Whether it's a geographer pausing over a map, a maid pouring milk from a jug, or a woman scrawling a letter, Vermeer's tranquil scenes somehow evoke more than their surroundings give away: vanity, unrequited love, restraint, intelligence, and even passion.

While these images are not by themselves dramatic, Vermeer's talented brush imbues them with the emotional tension, and sense of mystery, that surrounds human beings in ordinary moments. Through his painting, we remember that even as history churns our world into unrecognizable shapes, inside we are much the same.

* The paintings of Johannes Vermeer remain at the National Gallery through Feb. 11. Passes are required and free. Contact the museum at (202) 842-6684. Passes are available from Ticketmaster, but for a charge. From March 1 to June 1, the show will be displayed in its only other venue, the Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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