The wrong things in our world are glamorous:
fast cars, tomato throwing contests, actors – instead of the
right things: going to bed early, long walks observing the sky at dusk, kindness…
It’s not that nothing at all is glamorous, it’s just that we need to direct our admiration
and excitement more wisely; we need to turn it upon the things which genuinely deserve
prestige. Artists can help us. One of the fundamental
things art can do for us is turn the spotlight of glamour in the best – and most helpful
– directions. Artists identify things that we tend to overlook but which, ideally, we
should care about deeply. And through the Serving women, bread, and milk were not especially exciting in the late 1650s,
when Johannes Vermeer painted this picture. [The Milkmaid, 1657-8]. She wasn’t a celebrity; he isn’t showing
us someone who was already highly admired. Yet Vermeer saw in the serving woman pouring
milk something that he felt deserved prolonged contemplation and admiration. He thought something
really important was going on. By worldly standards, it’s a pretty humble situation.
But the care with which she works is moving. Vermeer is impressed by the idea that our
true needs might be quite simple. Bread and milk are really rather satisfying. The light
coming through the window is beautiful. A plain white wall can be a major source of
delight. Vermeer is redistributing glamour by raising
the prestige of the things he depicts. And he’s trying to get us to feel the same way.
The milk maid is a kind of propaganda (or an advert) for homely pleasures. Or consider the painstakingly skilful – and commercial – business of lace-making [The Lacemaker, 1669-1671]: Vermeer
paints the self-employed businesswoman with the usual devotion and care that would be given to a military hero or a great political leader.
Vermeer was himself unremarkable in many ways. He was born in 1632 in the small but beautiful
city of Delft, where his father was a modestly successful art dealer-cum-innkeeper. He stayed there most of his life. He never
travelled away from Delft after his marriage at age 20. He hardly even left his pleasant
home. He and his wife, Catharina, had 11 surviving children and he did much of his painting from the rooms on the upper floor.
(Modeled after Catharina:) Vermeer was a slow painter, partially because
he was not only a painter. He continued the family businesses of art dealing and innkeeping and he also became the head of the local guild of painters. In contemporary terms, his career was not a huge success. He wasn’t especially famous and he didn’t make a lot of money.
He was in fact an exemplary member of what was,in those days, a newly important kind
of person: the middle-class individual. Vermeer was in his teens when Holland (or technically
the Seven Provinces) became an independent state – the first ‘bourgeois republic’
in the world. In contrast to the semi-feudal aristocratic nations that surrounded it, Holland gave honour
and political power to people who were not at the pinnacle of society: to merchants,
administrators, prosperous artisans and entrepreneurs. It was the first country in the world to be recognisably modern.
In this era, a great insight of Christianity – one which is easily detachable from
the surrounding theology – became increasingly relevant: that everybody’s inner life is
important, even if on the outside they do not seem particularly distinguished. Vermeer paints ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ with the same kind of consideration. [The Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1665]
She isn’t anybody famous or important She isn’t rich. The earring
that she wears is nice, but it is a minor trinket by the eye of the fashionable
world. It is the one pricey thing she owns. Yet she’s not in need of justice – she’s
not downtrodden or badly treated. She is (for want of a better term) ordinary. Yet,
she is (like everyone) not in the least ordinary: she is uniquely, profoundly, and mysteriously, herself. The picture which best sums up Vermeer’s philosophy, The Little Street, has become
one of the most famous works of art in the world. It has pride of place in Amsterdam’s
great Rijksmuseum; it is insured for perhaps half a billion euros and is the subject of
a mountain of learned articles. Yet the painting is pointedly out of synch with its status. Because, above all else, it wants to show us that the
ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful
home, cleaning the yard, watching the children, darning cloth – and doing these things faithfully
and without despair – is life’s real duty. It is an anti-heroic picture: a weapon against
false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats
of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things, that
are expected of all of us, is enough. Vermeer did not live long. He died in 1675,
still only in his early forties. But he had communicated a crucial – and
hugely sane – idea: much of what matters to us is not exciting, urgent, dramatic or
special things. Most of life is taken up dealing with things that are routine, modest, humble, and (to be honest) a touch dull. Our culture should focus on getting us to appreciate the average, the ordinary and the everyday. When Vermeer painted his hometown
he didn’t choose a special day; the sky is neither very overcast nor especially sunny. [View of Delft, 1660-1]
Nothing is happening. There are no celebrities around. Yet it is, as he has taught us to recognise,
all very special indeed.