by Michael White
A few years ago, in the midst of a bad divorce, I flew to Amsterdam. I rented a bicycle at Central Station and rode all over town, across canals and through the sprawling, leafy Vondelpark. Then I visited the nearby Van Gogh museum. I was saving the huge Rijksmuseum for my second day. I had a vague idea that I wanted to see the Rembrandts. I’d been depressed for months, and I thought the Rembrandts might somehow help.
At that time, the Rijksmuseum was undergoing a major renovation. Wandering through the crowded galleries, I remember passing a doorway on my left. A sign said: Vermeer Room. I decided to pop in for a second. Three small paintings hung on the far wall. As I moved closer, I felt an electrostatic charge in the air that shivered the skin on my forearms. A little further, and goosebumps appeared. I watched others in the room as they, too, approached the wall in a subdued, reverent hush. My scalp was twitching upon my skull; my knees were buckling a little.
The paintings, from left to right, were: The Little Street, The Milkmaid, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. A later Vermeer, the highly stylized The Love Letter, hung on the wall to my right. I knew nothing then about the artist. I was pretty sure I’d seen one or two Vermeers in Washington. I had liked them. This time, however, a door had been thrown open for me. It was as if everything in my life had conspired to prepare me for the full force of this lacerating encounter. I realized within a few seconds that I was going to write a book about Vermeer. This awareness dawned with a calming certainty.
The Milkmaid, unsurprisingly, exerted the greatest hold on me—it was and is the most generous, most blessedly attentive work of art I have ever seen. A ruddy young maid stands dressed in a lead-tin yellow tunic with lapis apron, bent to her work but lost in thought. We slowly realize we’ve chanced upon her in some kitchen backroom, where she’s making a bread pudding for the household. She hasn’t noticed us yet. She’s pouring a thin, white-blue trickle of milk that falls with an iconic, trompe-l’oeil tangibility. Sight within sight, space within space ballooned within my mind, and for an hour I scored into my cortex every square millimeter of canvas. Her broad head, clothed in crisp folds of linen, and especially her great brow—sculpted of unblended white, ocher, brown, and gray impasto—is a polyvalent wonder. Scholars have informed us that maidservants were associated with promiscuity, and I suppose this would’ve been obvious to all in her time. But, like most contemporary viewers, I see this woman (and all of Vermeer’s female subjects, even the obvious courtesans), as an exalted creature of fantasy.
Beyond the maid herself, everything else in the painting matters, everything seems considered: every crack and nail hole in the whitewashed kitchen wall behind her, surely the most gloriously patinaed wall in any painting up to the moment of its creation. Even the breadcrusts, lavishly strewn about the table where she works, seem to be gilded with sunlight. This was, I’d later learn, due to a technique known as “pointilles,” in which flat, spherical daubs of paint are used simply to evoke light’s optical effects.
After this utterly transformative encounter, I returned home and started reading. The process of finding works that spoke to me about Vermeer was helped immeasurably by a website (run by an artist and expert in the field) called The Essential Vermeer. The book most lauded by artists and critics, as I learned from the website, was the classic 1952 study Vermeer, by Lawrence Gowing. Gowing was a painter himself, and though self-taught in art history, he also became a prolific and respected critic.Vermeer consists of an erudite 55-page monograph on Vermeer’s entire oeuvre, followed by comments on various black-and-white photos of selected paintings. He doesn’t linger long on any particular painting. A few color photos were added to a later edition. (They don’t help much. Often, now, I prefer the black-and-white photos.)
I checked out every Vermeer-related book in my university library, including Gowing’s. I remember how deeply the book frustrated me; the fact that it was long out-of-print didn’t surprise me. I had so many questions, and it seemed that Gowing wasn’t interested in answering them. So I quickly moved on to the other books, especially the extraordinary study by Edward Snow (my favorite Rilke translator). Of course, there are shelves of criticism on Vermeer to peruse—and the vast majority of the work comes after Gowing’s contribution, which seemed to have been superseded.
In my reading, I tried to catch myself up on all the heated debates of our time . . . Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, for instance. Or the question of who his women actually were; or why it has taken four centuries for his work to find international acceptance. In recent years, teams of scholars have used computer analysis to examine and prove theories about Vermeer’s process; others have built and studied 3D reconstructions of Vermeer’s studio and of the camera obscura; others have exhaustively sifted the archival evidence and made radical discovery after discovery about every facet of Vermeer’s life. Meanwhile, Vermeer’s star has risen in dramatic fashion, especially after the great international exhibition of 1995-96. It’s conceivable that he has become the most beloved painter of all time. Gowing died in 1991; he didn’t live to see any of this.
But, oddly enough, after I’d dismissed it for general unhelpfulness, Gowing’s book kept insinuating itself back into my consciousness. The first time this happened, I was trying to understand the nuances of the camera obscura debate, which centers on the work of David Hockney and Philip Steadman (author of the groundbreaking Vermeer’s Camera). I thought it something I ought to address if I were really going to write about Vermeer, but I struggled to find my way into the conversation. Then I remembered how Gowing had handled the question in his day: “For Vermeer the situation, technical and personal, was deeply tangled” . . . Gowing goes on to posit the camera as simply one of many tools with which Vermeer could study the manifestations of light on a subject (or perhaps the light isthe subject) without disturbing it. I decided then that I could (and probably should) leave the riddle of Vermeer’s use of the camera to the experts.
Next, I began to examine some of Vermeer’s ravishing, isolated effects—many of them very likely based on observations from his work with the camera obscura—like the pointillés that had thrown me for such a loop in The Milkmaid. Once again, it turned out that the most memorable insights I found were from Gowing, particularly in his note on The Milkmaid in the back of the book. (Some of his best gems are tucked away in parenthetical asides or in footnotes.) In writing of the daydreaming maid, it’s as if he’s standing awestruck three feet from the painting, seeing it for the first time: “granules of light are scattered irrespective of the textures on which they lie . . . paint revealed its capacity to provide a glittering barely relevant commentary of light.” The truth is that although Gowing’s prose might seem quaint at first, he’s capable of flourishes of sheer lightning. The way that he discusses the pointillés is especially delicious: “The surface of the bread is lost under a separate crust of incandescence . . .” Reading Gowing helped me see further, even when I disagreed with him. And the deeper I sank into Vermeer’s art, the more relevant and indispensable Gowing became to me.
I’d characterize the monograph as an attempt to hold Vermeer’s entire creative life in mind as a unified narrative. The paintings reveal mysterious clues and characteristics; they aren’t necessarily the main focus. It takes a few reads to become comfortable with this approach, but the rewards are huge. When Gowing describes The Milkmaid as Vermeer’s “single frontal assault on the problem of physical immediacy,” this rings true, in a large-minded way, in the context of Vermeer’s career. It probably doesn’t mean much otherwise. There’s an integrity and depth here that reminds me of The Duino Elegies. Gowing’s book is an all-or-nothing text, like the Elegies; it’s in that sort of baffling genre: you get it or you don’t.
In any case, the year that followed that afternoon in the Rijksmuseum was among the best of my life. I traveled ecstatically, Moleskine in my hip pocket, to cities that housed groups of Vermeers. I stood around in galleries day after day, and then retraced my steps and did it again. I wrote blindly, without forethought or planning. I read voraciously. I talked to experts who were intimates of the world I wished to join. At first, I thought I was writing a book of travel/art essays. But each time I returned to my desk in North Carolina, what I actually wrote was either verse, or some species of poetic prose. Then, for a while I thought I was writing a mixed-genre book, with prose travel sections interspersed with poems that looked more directly at the paintings. Eventually, the genres diverged and became separate manuscripts. I was lucky enough to publish both Vermeer in Hell (poetry) and Travels in Vermeer (memoir), with the same distinguished small press, Persea Books. They came out as companion volumes, and each enjoyed a fair bit of success.
Still, the happiest part by far was before all that, before the editing and the reviews, back when I had no idea what I was doing . . . When I was simply wandering through Amsterdam or Delft or London or New York in a haze, carrying my pale-green, thumb-creased copy of Gowing’s book, looking for Vermeer.
Michael White received his PhD from the University of Utah and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His four prize-winning poetry collections are The Island, Palma Cathedral, Re-entry,and Vermeer in Hell. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review,the Best American Poetry, and many other magazines and anthologies. His memoir, Travels in Vermeer, was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award.