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The “Meaning” of Vermeer

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
Johannes Vermeer. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock. Yale. $45.00.

This is the beautiful catalogue to the beautiful exhibition of Vermeer seen in Washington at the National Gallery of Art during the winter of 1995—96—one of the greatest exhibitions of painting ever conceived or mounted in any museum at any time. As I write, five rooms are quietly aglow in the magical light of over 20 of the approximately 35 works so lovingly painted in Delft by Johannes Vermeer during the middle years of the 17th century.

The introduction to the catalogue and its entries are the thoughtful work of the exhibition’s co-organizer, Arthur K. Wheelock, the author of two books on Vermeer. In the introduction, Wheelock helpfully introduces the painter’s art, reviewing some of the basic facts of his life. We know that Vermeer married a Catholic woman and converted, that he fathered many children, that he died in poverty. Even with such details and other facts, which have been assiduously analyzed by Wheelock and other scholars, we scarcely know Vermeer. He is the polar opposite of Rembrandt, whose life and circumstances, his rise and decline in Amsterdam, are mirrored in his work. Vermeer’s art, on the contrary, is utterly private, the painting of solitude, and we might almost say that his “real life” is the work itself—the images of personages who write letters, read, sew, play the virginal or stand transfigured by the radiance that is softly suffused through the spaces they inhabit.

Even those who were not privileged to see the great Vermeer exhibition can profit from this excellent catalogue and return to the painter’s works with new understanding of his achievement. Wheelock is especially helpful in explaining the technical virtuosity of the artist’s craft, the very character of his deft touch. The recent restoration of several works in the exhibition deepens our understanding of this craftsmanship, whether seen in the astonishing View of Delft, all the surfaces of which are as wizardry as the legendary Proustian patch of yellow wall, or in the National Gallery’s own Woman Holding a Balance, which puts us in mind of the 19th-century critic’s assertion that Vermeer painted with crushed pearls.

When the latter work is returned to the gallery’s permanent Dutch collection after the exhibition has closed, the visitor to the museum will be able to assess at leisure the wealth of observations and information Wheelock provides us with in his catalogue entry on the painting, testing these assertions and impressions against his or her own experience of the work. Reviewing the literature on the picture, Wheelock reminds us implicitly that when art historians describe paintings, even by just giving them titles, they tell stories about these works. Vermeer’s painting has been called “Goldweigher” and “Girl Weighing Pearls,” two “stories” that are fictions, given the fact that the balance held in the hand of Vermeer’s woman is empty. In one scholarly account of the picture, Vermeer’s figure is pregnant, while in another explanation, the bulging costume reflects a style of dress.

The “key” to Vermeer’s painting is often said to be the picture of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the woman, which refers to the weighing of souls at the end of time. One scholar, telling a story based on Vermeer’s painting, says that the woman holding the balance is a secularized image of the Virgin Mary assuming the role of intercessor, appropriate in the context of the Last Judgment; another storyteller sees in Vermeer’s painting the image of the pregnant Virgin, who, contemplating the balanced scales, evokes Christ’s sacrifice.

Wheelock does not quite believe any of this, but, like other scholarly observers, he sees a deep spiritual aura in the image, discerning its “radiance of spiritual purity.” He brings to this discernment a specific sense of Vermeer’s moral purpose, asserting boldly that the picture presents “temptations of a material splendor” transcended, for the woman’s balance is associated with the scales of justice in Christ’s judgment. Wheelock affirms that Vermeer’s “essential message appears to be that one should conduct one’s life with temperance and balanced judgment.” Vermeer’s picture, Wheelock states unequivocally, “expresses the tranquility of one who understands the implications of the Last Judgment and who searches to moderate her life in order to warrant salvation.”

This is one way of looking at Vermeer’s painting, but, although Wheelock speaks of the picture’s “essential message,” it is by no means clear what that “message” is, whether the painter has just one such meaning, or whether we can find words adequate to render what we see in the work without trivializing it in the form of verbal caricature.

“A poem,” a poet once famously said, “should not mean but be.” His suggestion is perhaps even more relevant to what painting is, since, forever silent, painting cannot “mean” in the way that a text does, whether the words of a poem or those in the description of a picture. Wheelock is suggestive when, like others, he ponders Vermeer’s juxtaposition of the woman’s balance with the scales of heaven, but does this association permit the description of the painting’s “meaning,” its “essential message”? In a different key, another writer on Vermeer has claimed that the picture suggests an antithesis between the drama of the apocalypse and “the sense of well-being” in Vermeer’s woman, predicated upon “balance, equanimity, and pleasure.” Against the grain of Wheelock’s meditation on salvation, the story he sees in Vermeer’s picture, the meaning he gives to it, our other critic and scholar asserts that Vermeer’s woman is the “embodiment of mortal life and what is given to us in it.” For our other scholar Vermeer’s image tells a different story.

These differences of interpretation, only apparently in opposition to each other, are both suggested by the picture—an image that both connotes ideas of transcendent justice and evokes the exquisite pleasures of this world. Such impressions, not ultimately incompatible, carry us beyond the formulation of a. painting’s “essential message.” Vermeer’s painting does not mean, it is, eliciting a multiplicity of diverse, interrelated responses, most of which are admittedly overstated. If Wheelock approaches what one might persist in calling the painting’s “meaning,” it is when he describes its “exquisite sense of harmony,” and here he stands on common ground with our other scholar, who, dwelling on the picture’s sense of mortal life, not salvation, apprehends its “balance” and “equanimity.” This equipoise, seen in the delicate, pivotal gesture of the woman who balances the scales and in other aspects of pictorial design, is just part of the picture’s “being,” not its “meaning” or “message.” We will return to Vermeer’s painting and his other works time and time again in order to participate in this profound sense of existence that we can find nowhere else—a sense of existence tranquil, radiant, and full, but ultimately mysterious.


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