The Genius of Vermeer

“Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” Vermeer via

It’s hard to imagine a more revered painter than Vermeer. But is this our conception of a great artist at work?

But the funny thing about Vermeer is that many of his paintings were probably made by the careful application of small splotches of paint, in an almost paint-by-numbers attempt to reproduce, inch by inch, the image of a camera obscura. The current film, Tim’s Vermeer, documents the process by which tech engineer and non-painter Tim Jenison paints a Vermeer using simple tricks of mirrors and a camera obscura. The result is not a Vermeer painting. But it is close enough to show that much can be accomplished with a camera obscura and a small mirror. The film proves that some of what Vermeer achieved in the area of “miraculous” realism and the capturing of minute effects of light was a more or less mechanical affair.

What do we think about this? That we appreciate his mechanical savvy? Does this sound like a genius?

There are tiny pinpricks in many of Vermeer’s paintings. He would stick a pin in the painting, attach a string to the pin, put some chalk on the string, and then make a number of erasable perspective lines on the painting with which to work out the lines of perspective.

A chalk line? Vermeer used the same basic technique my brother-in-law used to frame his remodeled basement? Where’s the genius in that?

Morgan Meis stands up for our man:

The analysis of technique and technology, however refined, never gets us to the heart of the pictures. It never explains the mystery of Vermeer’s paintings. Vermeer’s paintings were appreciated in his time. But they were not loved by many. Vermeer died a poor man. He painted few pictures, around forty. Many of them he kept around the house until he died. It is not unreasonable to assume from this that Vermeer was painting for reasons of his own. He was trying to reveal something through his pictures. The tricks of optics and the painterly skill were at the service of this revelation. It is something that we want to see, too, something that we’ve become more obsessed with as the years pass.

And just what was it? What do we see when we see a painting by Vermeer?

Vermeer was always interested in women paying close attention to some task: writing a letter, sewing, playing an instrument, or putting on jewelry. He was also interested in what happens when that concentration is broken.

Vermeer, then, was fascinated with thresholds. To put it another way, he was interested in what happens when a person is concentrating on one thing and is then brought back to a moment of self-awareness.

Meis calls this the “threshold moment” and devotes considerable time to analyzing why they are beautiful. You should read the full discussion, which I found illuminating. But I was not fully persuaded by the reasons he gives for the beauty of threshold moments:

But it might have something to do with the following. We (human beings, that is) are a hovering kind of creature. We are never entirely outside of ourselves, nor entirely inside either. We experience moments of intense concentration, and moments where concentration is broken. We sometimes perform tasks with little awareness of what we are doing, and we are sometimes, especially at threshold moments, hyper-aware of ourselves and what we are doing. Subjectivity, to put it simply, is inherently strange. The core of the ego, the “I”, is a thing that hovers around itself, never fully apparent to itself, but never fully opaque either. We catch ourselves being conscious all the time. But what is the thing that is catching the other thing being conscious? It is impossible to pin down. And yet, daily life is infused with this process. It happens over and over again throughout our waking hours. We direct our attention to something we are doing, we begin to lose ourselves in the activity and then something happens, in ourselves or in the outside world, and the self-awareness jumps back in again. Vermeer painted these moments in their variety.

Whoa. That is a very elaborate theory, and I appreciate the effort it took to devise it. But can’t it be simpler than that? Can’t it be that we’re in a constant state of becoming? Not fluctuating between self-consciousness and attention, as Meis posits, but suffused with the constant awareness that life changes. We’re always headed somewhere, or about to learn something new, or about to experience something different. We change, and things change us, and this is sort of a miraculous thing about life. It is also a reminder of its fleetingness, which is why Vermeer – why any great artist – has a touch of poignancy in every celebration.

Meis again:

Why did he paint threshold moments with such attention to the toned-down beauty and soft glory of the image of the camera obscura? Because he was convinced that threshold moments are sacred. And he had discovered painting techniques to create a new kind of sacred painting.

The painting elevates the quotidian to the sacred. With this, I completely agree. Whether that fits with Meis’s theory or mine (or one of your own) is up to you.

And the best way to decide is to head to the museum, stand before the painting, look carefully, and stop thinking.

“Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace,” Vermeer via

After you’ve had your fill at the museum, or if you’re miles away from a museum and have time to fill before you get there, you can read my take on whether a novelist makes magic (the Parks v. Sacks debate). Or read one of our guest poets on the nature of genius (and the nature of not being one). Or just scrap all that and cleanse your palate with some free fiction.

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