Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Milkmaid

There are important things that one needs to enjoy when in New York, and it becomes more incumbent on one to make sure to enjoy them when visits to Gotham-on-the-Subway are less frequent. One is a stop at the reincarnated Second Avenue Deli, now located on 32nd between 2nd and 3rd. In the grandest of New York deli traditions, they know well how to charge but they do present you with the absolute best.

And another spot that does both is the Met--the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that is. Granted, they still (in very small print) honor the pay-what-you-like policy, but it gets harder to convince yourself every year that you are still the student who found it easy to pay the least. When they have something wonderful to see, too, one spoiled by the last place with free museums--Washington, D.C.--also becomes more willing to ante up.

What they have--and only through the 29th of November--is a rare visit by Vermeer's The Milkmaid, on its first trip to the U.S. since the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. The Met put together a good little group of ostensibly related paintings, including its own five Vermeers, two of which are outstanding. Since there are only 36 extant in the world, and 13 in the U.S., getting to see any Vermeer you have not seen before is an opportunity to be seized.

Two years ago, the Frick Collection down Fifth Avenue from the Met put its three Vermeers on exhibit at the same time. Four years ago, the Philadelphia Art Museum secured a short-term loan of A Young Lady Seated at the Virginals, owned by a private collector with obvious good reason to remain anonymous. The Art Museum, as it is known there (as are The Orchestra and The University), placed the small painting on display in one of many existing rooms of paintings related to it by style, origin, and time. That was an equally good way to arrange its exhibition. Fourteen years ago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington managed to gather 21 of the 36 survivors, attracting record crowds despite a government shutdown during the exhibition (there is a price for those free musuems). All these shows tend to be short and limited in their travels: the National Gallery behemoth was only otherwise displayed at the Mauritshaus in The Hague.

The Met provided a nice service, along with The Milkmaid itself. One wall contains small repros of all 36 known Vermeers. It's fascinating to compare how often he addressed the same subjects, frequently fully-dressed young ladies, and where the paintings may be found. As always in Vermeers, the light is key to the whole presentation. There is a magical rendition of light from windows in many of the Vermeers that no one seems to have replicated.

Vermeer, despite the regard in which he is now held, was unappreciated for centuries. Marcel Proust, who visited an exhibit in Paris that included View of Delft and Girl With Pearl Earring just before his death, was an early 20th-century admirer, focused on the former painting through his character, the writer Bergotte:

At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall."

There's a feeling of delight in seeing the great Vermeers such as The Milkmaid. We have grown away from appreciating craft applied in small works, trending away from the miniatures of the past as well as the masterpieces of jade carvers and the Middle Ages. Vermeer attracts our gaze on every part of his often small-sized canvases. And it's fascinating that despite their full-clad costumes, Vermeer may have intimated some degree of ardor in his mere selection of the character of a milkmaid--or so say the commentators.

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