Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vermeer's Gentle Light

A few months ago I received an e-mail from my old friend Mimmo, who had spent a few vacation weeks touring art museums in the Nederlands. Upon reading those brief notes, a clump of dusty memories of my own stay in the Low Lands suddenly cropped up. Memories of long bike rides, of strolling along the grachten, of drinking jeneever, of lengthy discussions with my cosmopolitan colleagues on math, logic and life. Memories, most of all, of the uncanny light trapped in the canvas of Jan Vermeer.

I always loved his paintings, and always will. His art will be forever uppermost in my heart, just as the austere philosophy of his contemporary Baruch Spinoza (many have noticed the hidden parallelism between these two great Dutch geniuses. Incidentally, they were both born the same year 1623, and died prematurely at almost the same age).

That light is a gentle light. It is the light of reason, not the brutal and coarse Raison of the illuminists and their epigons, not the Ratio, but the light of the divine Intellectus, the light of the spinozan Amor Dei Intellectualis. Things levitate weightlessly in that gentle light, almost dissolving in it. There is no pain, no cries, no tragedy left, only a pervasive lingering melancholy in the very texture of being. And that melancholy is a blessing.

The world is tenuous in Vermeer's gentle light...


Greg Pass said...

Ah, Vermeer, an exemplar of chiaroscuro (to borrow your tongue).

Poore's description mirrors your melancholy:

"Light and shade is best understood as striving for balance over a broad middle tint. The medium tone is the most important, both for tint and color. This controls the distribution of measures in both directions: towards light and towards dark" (Pictorial Composition, p89).

Polymathicus said...

Vermeer was certainly a great master of chiaroscuro, as amply witnessed by his celebrated "Allegory of Painting", although there are other masterpieces where light dominates almost completely (for instance, "View of Delft").

Poore's observations are quite intriguing (there would be so much to say as a commentary...). Let us say that the great Dutch was a little skewed on the chiaro side of the force (and so was Spinoza).
Nothing wrong with that, of course.

Greg Pass said...

And so an exercise presents itself:

1. Take the View of Delft; appreciate it.

2. Now use your hand(s) to cover up the dark clouds at the top; reconsider.

Polymathicus said...

Indeed, I do have to reconsider. I have just done the experiment, and taking out the clouds from the equation dramatically changes the entire painting.

Thanks for the sharp remark:
ever since I read that Proust considered -View of Delft- the best painting in the world (sic!), I have watched it many times, always oblivious to the important role of the clouds.

An unforgivable omission: how could that phenomenal light flood the scene without them?

Greg Pass said...

Not only Proust — in Dali's 50 Secrets, he "grades" eleven painters on their craftsmanship, inspiration, color, design, genius, composition, originality, mystery, and authenticity: Vermeer receives overall top honors with a nearly perfect score &mdash above Raphael, Velasquez, da Vinci, Dali himself, Picasso, Manet, Mondrian, and others.