If you have a favorite book that you read every few years or a certain symphonic work that you return to time and time again, then you know great art follows you around in life. It lingers uniquely in your imagination, reappearing occasionally to connect you in ways that are both personal and cultural.
For me, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has been such a touchstone. In 1995, when a large collection of his works – about 35 are extant – were on tour at the National Gallery in Washington, I traveled south for the show, which had only one other stop – in Holland. In a shocking arts-emergency moment, the gallery closed because of budget problems the day before I was to attend. Then, as if God himself could not bear to deny Vermeer to the masses, one of the gallery’s angels stepped forward and miraculously contributed enough money to pay the staff. And I was in.
That day, museum-goers huddled before each work breathily whispering in languages from every corner of the world. They lingered at each painting, many of them very small, hungry for the certainty of Vermeer’s brush strokes and the mystifying, if not mystical, use of light as it poured onto the yellow bodice of a milkmaid or into the room of an interrupted music lesson. The Dutch blue tones, intricate tapestries weighted as if by color, the tiny illumination of a string of pearls and the depth of shadows and light are as vivid and penetrating to me here today as they were nearly 10 years ago.
But if it is true that art follows you, it may also be true that you follow great art. A few years later, I went to Delft to walk the same streets as Vermeer, to see what he saw, to breathe his same air. This is what happens when an artist gets to you at that cellular level. This has nothing to do with the recent proliferation of popular fiction featuring Vermeer. My relationship with the artist is not about language. It is about lack of language.
Vermeer leaves me speechless. But he never leaves me. Sometimes he even sneaks up on me.
At the end of last year, I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see “Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher,” an exhibition of more than 200 works from the artist’s life. I suspect that many art lovers have been responding to Rembrandt the same way I did Vermeer: It is changing the way they live in the visual realm.
After the gracefulness of Rembrandt, I realize that Vermeer had, in a strange way, led me to Rembrandt. The two men are, after all, contemporaries – though Rembrandt (1606-1669) was older than Vermeer (1632-1675). The elder painter lived longer and far more of his works exist. Nevertheless, there is something aesthetically contiguous about their sensibilities to me, and I am drawn to each out of my own loud, cluttered, 21st century life. They are quiet, deep, concerned, narrative artists. Yet they are not humorless or didactic.
I like to think that, over the years, Vermeer slowed me down, and Rembrandt stepped in.
At the MFA, with a hand-held magnifying glass (for sale at the check-in counter because many of the drawings are miniatures), I approached Rembrandt’s etchings, paintings and sketches as if for the first time. Up close, whole worlds of shape emerged from scribbly lines. From a distance, depictions of old men with beards, women bathing, Christ condemned and Rembrandt’s self-portraits left me in wonder. I was a voyeur to street life and history, to love and despair, to landscapes, laughter and life stories. The emotional exposure left me longing for time, silence, and more of Rembrandt’s wild handiwork.
Toward the end of the exhibition, I came to “The Virgin and Child with the Cat and the Snake,” an etching owned by the MFA. The scene is of a rustic interior, where mother and child lean confidentially toward each other, their eyes nearly fused and a shared, hatchy halo filling the space around their heads. In the background, a man – perhaps Joseph – stares into the room. The nuance and insight, the holiness and humility symbolized the fullness of Rembrandt for me, and I knew I was only embarking on the journey that would lead me again and again to this artist.
It turns out that great art also mysteriously leads to other great art. After the Rembrandt show, I found myself walking down a grand corridor filled with the museum’s collection. The deliberate placement of a painting at the distant end of the hall led my eye to a spot the way a vanishing point leads a viewer to the center of an image. I felt I was stepping into the lines of Vermeer’s camera obscura, lured to a pin dot at the center.
Of course, I followed and there, quite to my surprise, was “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” by – who else? – Vermeer.
“Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher” will run through Jan. 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The single work by Vermeer, which is featured in a show about Dutch genre paintings, is on temporary loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and will be on view through Feb. 22. For information online, go to www.mfa.org or call (617) 267-9300.
Alicia Anstead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.