Moments of real quietude seem so rare in our hectic lives that they stand out like pools of sunlight in a busily shadowed forest. We have to create them, because they don’t come on their own. Or they do, but we think we don’t have time for them and they tiptoe away, sometimes sadly, sometimes smirking at our shortsightedness.
Last week I made a committed effort to make it to the Getty Museum to catch, on its penultimate day there, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which he painted in Delft around 1663 and which resides in the Rijsmuseum in Amsterdam. The gallery was busy, and a small crowd clustered and ebbed around the small picture (it’s only 18 5/16 x 15 3/8 in.). But I forced the conversations and people to recede into the background of my mind and gave my full attention to Vermeer.
I looked. And looked some more. And let the picture reveal itself to me, detail by detail. Here is what I saw:
A young woman’s body is in the room, her blue frock rooting her to the heavy furniture – the blue velvet chairs and a table covered by indigo cloth. But her head is far away, literally and figuratively – in the map, in the world outside the room, in the place where her beloved is…
She is hungry for news from him, but her exact emotions on receiving them are unknown to us. She is literally moved by his letter that just arrived. Her coat, tossed on the table by an open chest — in which she keeps her writing implements and his other notes? — suggests that she rushed into the room, eager to catch what he had to say. She dove into his words while still standing, though a chair is right behind her. Her lips are parted slightly, as if letting out a sigh. Her head is bent in total absorption. But posed in profile to us, she is inaccessible, keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself.
Tracy Chevalier, who wrote a novel about Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, gave a Ted talk in which she suggested her interpretation of that other exquisite woman painted by Vermeer, and her world. Of course Chevalier had that as her goal. I found myself thinking that I could muse on the circumstances of this letter reader, on the contents of the creamy page in her hands, on the ripples it caused in her life. But somehow I felt compelled to respect this woman’s privacy, on which her body language insists, and to savor the visual pleasures of the picture itself.
Vermeer set up his composition beautifully: while the woman’s conical body is at the core of the scene (she is probably not pregnant – her clothes give her that appearance), everything else is off center – the pale rectangles of the wall, the two tall-backed teal chairs, the sandy green map that echoes the color of the woman’s skirt. So while the picture seems visually simple, it is far from boring or static. The two brightest patches are the letter – one page in her hands, the other resting on the table, next to a string of discretely glimmering pearls tied with a blue ribbon. And one more area of light – the white chemise at her chest – is where you’d put your hand to express that something has touched your soul.
Vermeer relishes small details, almost discreetly: to enliven the large patch of the map he gives a blue finial to the rod that keeps it stretched at the bottom. The heavy chairs have lion head decorations and shining brass studs. Yellow ribbons at the sleeves and chest add interest to the woman’s blue frock, though its sky blue hue is itself beguiling. The light ribbon tying her hair at the back merges with a strip of river on the map, which seems to be making an inroad into her head.
The painting’s subject is a quiet, private moment, rendered tenderly and non-intrusively. As I stood before the Woman Reading for perhaps forty minutes, lured by its restrained charm, I became aware of the rare pleasure of spending an unhurried stretch of time immersed in a single picture, feeling my way sotto voce into her room, her world, her mind. Discovering more and less evident particulars by letting them reveal themselves to me, gradually. Allowing myself a contemplative and transformative moment in a life packed with so much business. The inward experience of the painting mirrored my viewing of it.
I tend to be visually engaged with the world, but I also live in my head much of the time. And when I am faced with paintings, I THINK about them more than LOOK at them. I start constructing interpretations around them, fill out their larger context, think of history at that time. Vermeer, in his subtle way, made me slow down – physically and mentally – and just look. Relish that moment. And make it last – on that day and at other pools of light I can create by spending time – making time – for works of art, and for myself.