#117: LEONARDO DA VINCI AND JAN VERMEER. Books now reach us from all over the world with amazing ease; music recordings of astonishing nuance and sensitivity are everyday occurences; but for all the improvement in photographic and online reproduction, great paintings and sculpture still stubbornly insist that we go to them. It was on a trip to the National Gallery in Washington that I saw my first Leonardo—the portrait of Ginevra de Benci—which provoked the stunned and wondering response Oh—that’s what all the noise is about, and which has remained in my affections as one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen. Years later, on a visit to the National Gallery in London, I saw the large drawing of the Virgin and Saint Anne and was mesmerized by it, alone in that lovely little dark chapel room; my visit was only a few months before some crazy with a shotgun tried to destroy it, and, having seen it since its restoration, I am sure there is a special place in heaven for those experts who so patiently and beautifully brought it back. Years after that, at the Louvre, I braved a crowd eight across and ten deep for my first chance to see the Mona Lisa, which, people will sometimes tell you, is a disappointment. The people who tell you this are suffering from dementia, or forgot to take their sunglasses off.
Leonardo since then has remained one of my heroes and favorites. There are still many mysteries about his character, about his methods, his hand in shared works, the attribution of some of his paintings (there aren’t all that many, though many of the drawings survive). Still the best work of introduction is Kenneth Clark’s Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist (Penguin, 1939). It’s a little dated—he still has to fret a bit about Leonardo’s homosexuality—but it’s the work of a man who knows the period, who has a deep appreciation of the work, and who writes fluently throughout: when he gets to the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, he rises to the occasions—you can all but hear his feet leaving the ground. Clark’s background and depth of feeling puts the work far above most of the more recent books, many of them shallow and derivative. (One recent book promises to reveal the identity of Mona Lisa, as if they’d just discovered the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask.) On the other hand, the newer books of reproductions are splendid. Two compact albums are Leonardo, by Frank Zollner (Taschen, 2000) and Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings, with a particularly good text by Pietro C. Marani (Abrams, 2000). For a larger-scale album, Zollner has also done Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (Taschen, 2013). For Vasari’s life, Oxford has done a good one-volume selection from The Lives of the Artists (1991). Leonardo, alas, never left behind any personalia, nothing on the line of Michelangelo’s sonnets; the Notebooks are more technical than interests me, though Dover has done an inexpensive two-volume edition if you want to read them. Freud’s book on Leonardo is still in print; the less said the better, though Brian Farrell’s introduction to the old Penguin edition told me several things I didn’t know.
In contrast, Anthony Bailey’s book on Vermeer starts, literally, with a bang, or rather five bangs: the morning of 12 October 1564, when a stray spark in the old convent building used as an arsenal set off a quick series of explosions, known afterwards as the Thunderclap. Because of it doors slammed shut 26 miles away in Haarlem and windows blew out in the Hague. It was the defining before-and-after moment in the history of Delft. Among the people killed were Carel Fabritius, known now primarily for his painting “The Goldfinch,” a work of miraculous, perfected charm; that it survived the blast is one of the kindly caprices of art history. Jan Vermeer’s own survival is a very limited matter indeed: thirty-four paintings commonly accepted, along with three sketchy attributions. With the exception of the beautiful, enameled masterpiece, "View of Delft," in the Mauritshuis in the Hague, and the delightful "Little Street," in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, his immediately recognizable subject was the interior, warmly lit, a small room usually with a single person in it, usually a woman (sometimes two or three; an early work, "Diana and Her Companions," is a mob scene with five people in it). The brushwork is invisible, the characters absorbed in their tasks: no artist has ever found a greater plenitude in stillness. We have precious little biographical information on Vermeer; that lacking, Bailey has wisely and helpfully filled the book with a history of Vermeer’s city, its place in Dutch history, and the specifics of the day: the guild systems, the political stakes and tangles, the reluctant tolerance of Catholics, the burden of Vermeer’s vast family, the posthumous scattering of his works and his eventual establishment as one of the masters of Dutch painting. In part because we know so little of him, Vermeer has been christened “The Sphinx of Delft,” but that title also conveys the mysterious calm of his work. Bailey writes: “The painter thwarts our incessant demands for a story-line by freezing the action, by bringing time to a stop…the passivity or stillness he creates, reflecting his own nature, is in its way more dramatic, more active, than any action…. So the woman in blue’s downcast gaze travels along the lines of the letter she has received, word by word, over and over. Vermeer seizes the moment and it repeats itself indefinitely. And in the same way his milkmaid, his figure of Fortitude, tips her jug and the milk falls from it in a silent stream for ever.” Bailey’s book is called Vermeer: A View of Delft (Henry Holt, 2001) and it’s a lovely read.
A passage on Vermeer from an essay by Peter Schjeldahl in The Art World, April 16, 200l: A skeptical friend of mine surmises that our present Vermeer craze reflects yearnings for legitimacy in today's lately expanded upper middle class. This makes sense. You might say that Vermeer apotheosizes material prosperity—not that he was ever well-off himself. (If only because of that horde of kids underfoot, his golden visions of bourgeois serenity had to be vicarious.) I think that Vermeer's ideal was a classless, timeless truth that is returning to the fore in contemporary culture: the essential role that aesthetic pleasure must play in any seriously lived life. Each of us is born with a capacity to see and feel intensely and with precision. Ultimately, Vermeer's appeal is about nothing other than the realization of that gift. Looking at his pictures, we approach the farthest frontiers of a necessary joy…..