Happily Ever After: Vermeer and the Serene

Vermeer Meisje Met de ParelEver read a story where you’re told the main characters lived happily ever after?  Ever wonder if they actually did?  It’s a hard trick for a story to pull off, to make that ‘happily ever after’ seem believable, because audiences are usually quite good at spotting that these characters probably would have gone back to arguing after a couple of weeks.  And even if the audience misses it the first time, the Hollywood sequel will probably remind them of this sour fact pretty quickly (we all surely knew, for example, that the Princess Leia and Han Solo marriage was never going to last).

It’s easy to be cynical about it, but living happily ever after, even after you’ve won your battles and you have everything you want, is actually really tricky.  Few of us are ever lucky enough to find this out personally, but we read about it: look at people who win the lottery, or are even just afflicted by ‘affluenza’.  And when you think about it, that’s incredibly depressing: if even our wildest dreams will make us miserable, frankly, what’s the point? Well, I personally believe that if that’s a question you want to ask seriously, Vermeer is a very good person to answer it.

Johannes, or Jan, Vermeer is one of the Dutch ‘old masters’.  He died in 1675.  If you’re not into the Dutch old masters, they did the paintings of people standing around not doing anything.  Or they did still life: objects lying around, not doing anything.  If you don’t like art, it’s about as boring as art gets.  Even though Vermeer had a Hollywood film made about him not too long ago, this is still slow stuff.  Here’s an example:

Vermeer View of Delft

And yet, people who love Vermeer’s paintings, like me, are seriously crazy about them.  Only 34 paintings survived (we think) and they are nearly all tiny.  And they are all pretty much scenes from inside his own house.  So what is the fuss about?

There’s often a point where I can remember first falling in love with an artist’s work, but I don’t have that with Vermeer.  Presumably it was a slow, subtle seduction, and one day I must just have realised he’d been my one of my favourite artists (of any art form) for a while.

I went to Amsterdam a few years ago to see the opening of the famous Rijksmuseum, but I mainly went to see their Vermeer paintings.  A friend was recently reminding me about the curious paradox of going to see one: looking at this scene of transcendent serenity whilst being packed into a crowd like a football match.  Why is he so popular?

Could it be all thanks to that Hollywood film: Girl With A Pearl Earring?

I haven’t seen it, or read the novel it’s based on, and I’m glad that I haven’t.  Not because I’ve heard it’s bad; I’m just glad that doesn’t colour my judgement.

(Okay, I just cracked and read the Wikipedia summary, and it seems novelist Tracy Chevalier was “reluctant to flesh him out”, and that she wanted to keep him mysterious since very little is known about his personality historically – a good call, I think, and a brave one for any writer!)

In my mind I feel I have a pretty good sense of what he would be like as a person, even though, as with Shakespeare, we actually have very little account of his life outside his works.  But we know a bit about his childhood, and my sense is that he was a tough bastard.  We know, for example, that when he was away from home his mad brother in law apparently attacked Vermeer’s wife, who was in the last stages of pregnancy, and not long afterwards this brother in law suffered an ‘accident’ that historians believe was probably a wound of some kind.  And it seems likely (to me at least) that Vermeer could have administered it.

But I think that raises an interesting point: it’s easy to play detective with an artist and say ‘everything they do is a reaction to their childhood’.  Like they’re Batman.  But, as with Suzanne Vega—who I found myself comparing Vermeer to in my last Eulogize This post and thus decided to write this one—I doubt that’s the case.  I don’t think he’s painting about an escape from a troubled life.  I think he’s someone who fell in love with art, and what art can do, and stumbled on a magical way of doing it, just like Vega did.

That said, I wonder if perhaps both Vermeer and Vega were able to find this intense style because they weren’t distracted by having anything to prove.  It seems they both grew up in rough environments, and so perhaps didn’t feel the need to show off how edgy they were in their art.  And yet they were both educated enough not to feel the need a compulsion to bullshit their way into the ranks of the intelligentsia.

But again, this is all speculation and detective work.  What I think is great about both artists is that their work overshadows their life.  Any celebrity they may have is all about the work.

Vermeer Van Deflt

So back to the original question: what is the fuss about with Jan Vermeer?

I think he is an artist that looks at the problem of how to live life when, on the surface at least, it’s ‘happily ever after’.  And those artists are rare.

Which is a shame, because getting what we want in life has a tendency of making us a bit insane.  Psychologists and evolutionary biologists may wish to correct me on this, but I think our brains have evolved to deal with crisis.  We are natural worriers, and natural problem solvers.  And if you take away all our problems, we tend to make new ones.  Many a success story is sabotaged because people get terrified by the void that opens up where crisis used to be.  It’s like they don’t know what to do with their hands.  They lose all their motivation.  More than that, they lose their ability to judge what’s real.  They go a little mad.

This is familiar territory to many many artists, who show us that with comfort and safety comes decay and self-destruction.  Dutch still life is just one example, with its symbolically decaying fruit.  Not many artists try to look beyond that.  And perhaps that’s understandable, as so few people ever get to be in a position where their circumstances are wholly safe, peaceful, comfortable and worry-free.

Still Life with Turkey Pie

But I think that there are some great artists who show that a fulfilled life doesn’t actually look like that.  It’s not a world with all the bad things taken out, because actually, that just brings out the darkness within us.  A fulfilled life can have pain and suffering, but it can also have beauty, and it’s beauty that gives life its meaning.  This kind of life is not necessarily luxurious; in fact, it’s probably more likely to be fairly simple.  But it’s steady, and it’s stable, and it’s filled with warmth, and humour, and sweetness.  And flashes of darkness.  But also flashes of light.

And Vermeer communicates this in painting like no one else, I think.  He creates a very specific, almost surreal, mood that I’ve come to call ‘the serene’.  I think people struggle to describe this mood, because you reach for words like ‘peace’ and ‘quiet’, but that’s not it – in fact, pretty much any landscape painting has more peace and quiet in it.  What he paints, I think, is a peace of mind.  He shows what the world looks like from the perspective of someone who is profoundly contented with their life.  This is not about the lack of anything; this is about something transcendent.  It’s about those moments when the beauty of the world strikes you.  And I think it’s less about the world than the observer.  About being a quiet, unseen observer.  About your sense of self just melting away.

It’s suddenly occurred to me that, knowing my luck, as soon as this article has been published declaring my grand theory of Vermeer’s vision, someone else will publish a letter by Johannes himself explaining that his paintings were just about a lot of birds he’d shagged.  But anyway, until that happens, let me dream.

I’ll finish with this video clip, just to prove that I’m not the only person who gets really excited about Vermeer.  Here is my favourite art critic explaining better than I can about that Vermeer magic:

Note that this YouTube link starts 9mins 57secs in – or the punchline to the whole article doesn’t work!