Seeing All the Vermeers
Met Museum, 1965, the first I'll see, his Young Woman Sleeping. Stage right, bright-threaded carpet flung over the table where a plate of apples, crumpled napkin and drained wineglass abut the recapped pitcher. Propped by one hand, her leaning drowse, behind which, a door opens on the dream, dim, bare but for a console and framed mirror—or a painting too shadowed to make out. Next to it, (certitude) one window, shuttered for the duration.... That dream also timed me out, a lull in the boomeranging hubbub of the staggering city I'd just moved to. * In the Frick's Officer and Laughing Girl, spring sunshine entered left, partly blocked by the noncom suitor's hat-brim, wide, dark as seduction, conquest. A map dotted with schooners backed her fresh elations, the glass winking at them both.... He'd see why, in a later day, crewcut recruits were shipping out to Nam; and she, why the student left was up in arms against the war. * In '67, Ann and I spent a graduate year in Paris; and lived in the Louvre, too, along with The Lacemaker— self-effacing, monumental, an artisan whose patience matched the painter's, inscribed in tangling skeins of scarlet oil against an indigo silk cushion. Silent excruciation among toy spools framed the bald paradox termed "women's work," disgracing anything less than entire devotion to labor entered into. (That May, a million demonstrators marched up the Champs Elysées.) * From there to Amsterdam and The Little Street, where innate civility distilled a local cordial, free from upheaval, from dearth and opulence, each brick distinct, their collectivity made credible by a chalky varicosis that riddled foreground façades. A century's successive mortars filled those cracks, nor will the figures down on hands and knees in the foreground stand up again till they've replaced that broken tile. The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter calmed misgivings with the global trust that swelled her body, a soft counterweight to expeditions tracked across the weathered map behind. A new-found Eden, festooned with portents, history piloting ship and cargo across the wrinkling sea. The Maidservant Pouring Milk's power to see in threadbare clothes and plain features a meek radiance made of caritas, doesn't need words... But since I do, call her a velvet motet developed in blue, in scaled-down yellow-green that I could hear, the resonant stillness centered on movement's figment, cream paint paying out a corded rivulet at the cruse's lip. Crusty loaves, nail-holes in plaster, and knuckles roughened by scalds and scrubs witnessed to the daily immolation, performed as first light tolled matins from a dutch-gold vessel hooked to the wall. * By train to Den Haag, to see the View of Delft's ink-black medieval walls and bridge, barges anchored on a satin water more pensive than the clouded blue above, where one tall steeple took its accolade of sun. (Proust's "patch of yellow wall" I couldn't find, though.) The Girl in a Turban looked like Anne Wiazemsky, Godard's new partner, whom we'd seen in his latest film. Liquid eyes, half-parted lips, a brushstroke ancillary to fable highlighting the weighty pearl at her earlobe, her "Turkish" costume stage-worthy, if she ever chose to act. * By then it was set: No matter how many years or flights it took, I'd see all of Vermeer—which helps explain the Vienna stop we made that spring, and our instant beeline to An Artist in His Studio (called, today, The Allegory of Fame). What to make of the Artist's bloomers, outmoded even then— and why would his model hold book and clarion, standing before the mapped Low Countries? If that anesthetized mask on the table near her denied the chandelier its candles, then who hung a tapestried curtain in the left foreground? Vermeer; but his meaning subverts comment, always less hypnotic than the surface itself, a luminous glaze adhering to receding frames in series, chromatic theaters for featured roles that also kindle fervor in their supporting actor, the secret soul. * Strike me dumb on first seeing The Astronomer in Guy de Rothschild's study—well, a photograph of it in an '80s coffee-table book, The Great Houses of Paris. Not long after, thanks to philanthropy and the tax structure, it devolved upon the state. Semester break that winter, McC. and I jetted to France, entered the Louvre's new glass pyramid and fought dense crowds to where he hung, The Lacemaker's late consort. In a brown studio, his fingers reading the globe, he sat, immovably dutiful to calculations devised ad hoc to safecrack the star-studded zodiac. * I was one of the visitors tiptoeing through Isabella Gardner's house in Boston decades before the heist, which to this day remains unsolved. But balance one instance of good luck against a trip made to Ireland in '86, missing by only a few months the Beit Collection's Lady Writing a Letter. Paid so often now, the compliment of theft puts a keen edge on our art pilgrimages: The icon may be gone when you arrive. That fall, I lived in London's Camden Town, writing on... call them stateside topics; and soon tubed up to Kenwood House, relieved to find their prime collectible unstolen—its potential as ecphrastic plunder not apparent at the time. (A sonnet, no less, completed earlier in New Haven, qualified me for that satire on the Connecticut bard besotted with Vermeer. Still, subjects could be barred in advance only if they and poems were the same gadget. Disbelief, you're suspended, even for the standard gloat over shots knocked back at the Cedar Tavern, ca. 1950, with Pollock and de Kooning.) Here then was Kenwood's Lady with Guitar, in corkscrew curls, lemon jacket trimmed with ermine, lounging like some hippie denizen of Washington Square, strumming for the nth time his secondhand Dylan... Maybe they heard her, too, the National Gallery's paired women portraits, each playing a virginal, both in silk dresses, one seated, one standing— Profane and Sacred Love, if the old allegory fits. A trip from London to Edinburgh produced, beyond the classic-Gothic limestone city grimed with soot, an early Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, conceived before the painter's parables began unfolding at home in Delft. Still, Martha's proffered pannier is as real as the bread it holds, and Jesus' open hand, rendered against clean table linen, as strong and solid as Vermeer's. * A chill, damp March in Dresden with Chris. We'd begun with the Berlin State Museum's holdings and then trained down on our way to Prague. The Gemäldegalerie, quiet as a church, listened while beads of tarnished rain pelted the skylights. Works known from reproductions offered themselves to the gray ambient, visibly conscious of having survived Allied firebombs fifty years earlier and a postwar Ice Age that slammed home, then froze every bolt in the Eastern sector. Young Vermeer's The Procuress makes love for sale push beyond the sour analogue of art-as-commerce into distinct portraits, comedic types you have and haven't seen before caught up in cheerful barter while wine flows at a balustrade draped with carpet and a fur cape. The client's left hand could have been mine, weighing down a pretty shoulder (and the bodice), but not the right, poised to let fall a coin into her open palm. Men's hunger for sex and poverty's for comforts—an old story, mean or tragic, and never finally resolved. * Having missed Her Majesty's The Music Lesson, lent over the years to several exhibitions, guess who danced when told that it would grace the show to end all shows scheduled in Washington, the fall of '95. And other hard-to-sees from Brunswick and Frankfurt— jubilation—were included also, plus apprentice works on pagan or religious themes. Long caterpillar of a line, composed of hundreds come to worship art and its obsessive love of life. An hour's wait on aching legs, and in we go: The Geographer, taking his place by The Astronomer; Ireland's letter-writer, look, recaptured, and now restored to the public; a View of Delft, cleaned so thoroughly you couldn't miss that patch of yellow—not a wall, Proust got it wrong, instead, a roof... Sheltering involuntary memories of countless choked-up viewers, whose gazes added one more laminate of homage to a surface charged with how many hundred thousands now. From the permanent collection—why?—I saw as though I never had the Woman Weighing Gold, some twenty years (gone, and still here) since that first visit (Walter with me) to the National Gallery. By word-origin Galilees, international through their holdings, these cathedrals of art draw in the faithful that faith in art has summoned for mutual appraisal, what we are seen in what we see. Hence the scales at center canvas Vermeer suspended from her fine-boned hand, the face all understanding and, so, forgiving all. Nevertheless, the great maternal judge weighs one gold (a ring? a coin?) against a smaller gold, in gloom as dark as the Day of Wrath, whose millennial trumpet tears away a final veil. So human error will yield, her calm demeanor says, to Pax caelestis and dawn break forth in perpetual light transforming breath, strife, treasure, theft, love, and the end of love, into its own substance—strong, bright beam of Libra rising step by step up the scale to Eden and a countenance the soul, made visible, is now accorded grace to see. Around us, heads bent toward a morning vintaged more than three hundred years ago. Manifold delight wearing Nikes, Levi's, parkas; students, grizzled veterans, young mothers, teachers, painters—awestruck, whispering Heavens! Just look at that!—his New World public.
From Contradictions (Copper Canyon Press, 2002) by Alfred Corn. Copyright © 2002 by Alfred Corn. Appears with permission of Copper Canyon Press and the author.