A number of years ago I was inching along the crowded galleries at the Metropolitan Museum’s Vermeer retrospective feeling unusually blasé in the presence of his rare paintings. The chatty crowd was busy reading the labels, commenting on the value of a shinny gold goblet, or guessing at the meaning of the model’s gesture or enigmatic look. To be honest, the scenarios he staged, always in the same corner of his studio and bathed in cool northern light were never convincing to me.
The narratives he created to illustrate the ideals of the mercantile class needed more than the expensive props he borrowed from wealthy clients to get them over. They needed to be embellished and idealized, but Vermeer, the hybrid offspring of science and art, was not interested in theatrics. He was a painter devoted to the mechanics and then the poetry of light, not to the story. His paintings, unequaled for their beautiful rendition of pictorial space, light and surface, never sold very well in his lifetime because he was unwilling to idealize or embellish. To his prospective clients the girl in his painting was never more than a servant wearing someone else’s pearls and the suitor, just the butcher boy posing in a borrowed coat.
On that day I was not interested in the goblet, the ubiquitous map or the gossip about the true identity of the maid. I was interested in what Vermeer the painter could teach me. I was looking for something I could bring back to my studio. But as I crept from painting to painting I could not find an opening, one crack in their highly finished surface that I could peel back to get an idea of what was going on inside, or better said, what went on as he was creating it. I felt like I was in the presence of exquisite old clocks, too delicate to wind, unable to tick to our time and tell the painter’s story.
Vermeer’s paintings were meaningful in his time partly because any depiction of two-dimensional reality was extremely rare and therefore meaningful. Before I came upon this painting I was again questioning the viability and visibility of similar representations in our world flooded with cheap clocks and vivid, moving two-dimensional images. Of course, I constantly asked myself why I insist on working for months on one painting just to add another representational image to the flood of now devalued images? If the thing is to create a meaningful image, why not avail myself of the new technology. Why do I restrict myself to the clumsy brush and recalcitrant, sticky oil paint, the Luddite’s choice, when I could just push the button, download, modify and then print? At least I would save a lot of time on clean up.
Those were the thoughts that were buzzing around my head when the crowd suddenly stopped in front a very small painting and we all leaned in as one. No one bothered to read the label and there were no sly remarks from the crowd about possible soap opera entanglements between the painter and the model wearing someone else’s red hat.
Jolted awake by the full strength vermillion disk of the hat, I flew past the blurry lion’s heads in the foreground, into the surprisingly vast space inside Vermeer’s fifty-four square inch glass room. The breathing closeness of her mouth, the immediacy of her blazing ivory collar, startled and amazed me. This was the opening I was looking for; this precious little clock was still ticking and I had to know why.
I studied the paint surface and realized a number of things this picture encountered in a book could never reveal.
Vermeer had reconsidered his first pass at the face. He had wiped it back and then scumbled a vague, semi- transparent warm to cool skin tones over the shadow area and into the eyes. That feathered rocket ship of a hat was painted in smooth vermillion layers over a grayed alizarin. The few deft brush strokes he left intact described the feathered surface, but also slow the eye– kept it from spinning off the hat. The folds of the cloak articulated in three distinct values of blue, glazed over a warm dark undertone, compress at the elbow then release the eye to travel up the column like forms that support the head. The yellowish highlights on the shoulder, rendered in liquid brush strokes, sit brazenly on the surface of the painting, but still manage to define the high points of the forms. The cravat, a masterful flick of the wrist in viscous lead white, was gently scraped back with the wooden handle of his brush to create the folds by revealing the slightly darker undertone. Vermeer’s touch, his exquisite control of the paint tugged at me, insisted on a closer, more intimate view of this magic.
A tap on the shoulder from the guard stopped me from falling into the painting. He snapped me out of my spell and then asked me to step back. When I apologized for getting so close he said , “ don’t worry about it, it happens all the time.”
From a safe tourist’s distance I tried to call up everything I knew about Vermeer’s work in order to try to understand how this odd little painting fit in the dynamic of his work.
It’s a well-known fact that Vermeer like many artist of his time experimented with the use of the Camera Obscura. It was not unusual for painters to use the camera as projector, a mere tool used to by-pass the difficulties of drawing and composition. With the forms outlined in the bisque stage they would then fill in the colors and values from direct observation of the subject. But in the ‘Woman with the Red Hat,’ Vermeer did more than trace a projection. He observed and faithfully painted what the image of a woman with a red hat looked like after the lenses had projected and then flattened it onto the piece of translucent velum in back of the camera. The messy complications of binocular vision and the painter’s task of focusing, gathering the thousand details, then restating them in the right order, had been relinquished to the to the Cyclops eye of the camera. He allowed the camera’s shallow focal zone to resolve the visual field in the painting. That would explain why the lion’s heads are out of focus even though they are the closest object to the painter’s eyes, and the pooling of the highlights. Both effects can be reproduced by selectively focusing with a Single Lense Reflex camera.
In this painting Vermeer manifested supreme faith in the power of science and it’s devices to express objective reality. It was a bold move considering how different optical reality was from the one his eyes and brain insisted upon. Vermeer’s choice was ahead of the curve but actually very logical. After all he lived in Delft, the city where the technology for accurately grinding lenses was developed. The revelations of new worlds seen through the microscope were leading to a reconsideration of visual reality as perceived by the naked eye. But that was not the only interesting choice Vermeer made in this painting.
Just as I thought I was starting to get a hold on things, a tall woman wearing a red hat, as big as Vermeer’s, but not as graceful, stepped into my line of sight. I leaned right, then she drifted right too and blocked my view again. I stepped to the left, and caught a quick peek , before she blocked my view again.
As I walked away the image of the painting was still ticking in my mind’s eye, clicking along the triangular path between the hat, her blue shoulder and the cravat, drifting over the face. Unhindered by demanding details, my eyes passed over her eyes, a feature that always demands a slow read.
By the time I had squeezed out of the crowded gallery, the image of the hat and the cloak had faded. Only the blazing gesture of white paint under her chin remained.
As I sat down on the Met’s broad front steps, I was thinking that Vermeer was right to leave her face and eyes impassive and indistinct. They do not inspire us to invent relationships–a narrative, but still we can’t help but be aware of human presence there. Passive, too humble to judge, she seems to be watching us as we freely enjoy the painting for its physical qualities– the glow of a color, the graceful interactions of its parts.
I pictured Vermeer getting up from behind the easel to stretch his legs, probably intending to sit back down to work into the razor sharp ivory edges, maybe put back more information into the shadows of the face. But he must have seen something that told him that this painting worked, maybe that’s why he didn’t sit back down. Vermeer, the sensible father of eleven decided to ignore the purse of the patron, the precedent of his own work, and the demands of the narrative. He made the painter’s choice and walked away even though when compared to the high level of finish of his previous work, as well as that of his contemporary’s, it must have looked unfinished to him. He let the paint speak.
Unlike the other clocks in the gallery, Vermeer left this one open so that we could see the gears and springs that move the hands and tell time. We can feel the energy of the painter’s hand driving the precise movements amplified by the compressed space of Vermeer’s tiny room. The sequence of events evident in the painting gives us a glimpse into the painter’s intent and instills a sense of time to our experience of the painting. With this information our brains can synthesize, visualize, and then animate. We can recreate the painting; transform it from an aloof, distant fact, to an immediate performance, taking place in the very intimate space between our ears.
This painting engages us because it speaks to us in a modern language. We have come to accept truth or reality as modified by the lens. Our modern eyes, tuned to high chroma colors, and the hectic motion of our visual world, demand a high-octane fare. In painting, the brush stroke has been set free from the menial task of pulling the story wagon to express itself as pure energy, motion and time. Vermeer’s mining of the novel effects of the lens, expanded the painter’s language to reach beyond the telling of a specific story.
As I watched the woman with the big red hat walk down the steps I wondered how Vermeer knew that the blazing ivory strokes, pure vermillion and the pooling highlights were the beating heart, the tightly wound spring that would keep this little painting ticking into the future.