As one who loves both good poetry and fine paintings, it was a great pleasure to recently discover Howard Nemerov's insightful poem on the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). Having died at the early age of only forty-two, Vermeer did not produce a great volume of paintings. The ones that have been preserved, however, are generally extraordinary.
While I'm drawn to Vermeer's paintings for several reasons, I will mention only the most important here, namely, his extraordinary understanding and treatment of light. It is one thing to see the transformational power of light coming from a certain angle; it's quite another thing to be able to capture it on canvas. In this respect, Vermeer is rightly considered an absolute master.
Below are five Vermeer paintings that provided some of the inspiration for Nemerov's fine poem. If you look closely at each of these paintings, especially at the use of light to define the moods of the characters and the scenes, I think you find a special resonance in the poem.
Girl With a Red Hat
Woman in Blue Reading Letter
Woman Holding a Balance
by Howard Nemerov
Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care of daily things.
At one for once with sunlight falling through
A leaded window, the holy mathematic
Plays out the cat's cradle of relation
Endlessly; even the inexorable
Domesticates itself and becomes charm.
If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
Reading a letter, the lady weighing gold . . .
If I could say this to you so you saw,
And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
In a lost city across the sea of years,
I think we should be for one moment happy
In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
Watching the water in the foreground dream
Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.
View of Delft
I love these opening lines by Nemerov: "Taking what is, and seeing it as it is, pretending to no heroic stances of gestures, keeping it simple; being in love with light . . ." Great advice not only for painting, but for life itself.