A memoir exploring how Johannes Vermeer’s paintings bestow bountiful gifts.
Poet White (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; Vermeer in Hell, 2014, etc.) was stunned when he first saw Vermeer’s The Milkmaid during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “Stillness. Not emptiness but stillness,” he thought as he gazed at the figure of the milkmaid. “A great soul balanced there.” When he discovered that only 35 of the artist’s works are on view in the world, he decided to see them all: in The Hague, Washington’s National Gallery, New York’s Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and London’s Kenwood House, Royal Collection and National Gallery. In this lyrical memoir, the author recounts his travels in search of Vermeer, set in the context of love, loss and pain: a difficult childhood, alcoholism and recovery, the grueling death of his first wife and, most recently, a wrenching divorce. Along the way, he tells of two unpromising dates with women he met online; his love for his young daughter; and his frustration over the custody fight that will limit his seeing her. Vermeer’s “radiant canvases” serve as an antidote to his enervating sense of loss: “The rapturous inner life of each woman and the infinitesimally detailed and self-contained life of the street are each imagined as an undiscovered heaven on earth.” White’s descriptions are sensuous, precise and evocative. He describes one painting as a “dialogue between Vermeer’s favorite colors [that] pervades the entire atmosphere of the room.” A window “seductively refracts the world rather than revealing it, and in so doing makes it seem new and strange.” The figures communicate with one another in “a circular, closed system of glances.” White praises Vermeer for his sensitivity to “anatomies of intimate, unguarded moments,” a sensitivity that White himself brings to his luminous readings of the paintings.
An enchanting book about the transformative power of art.