There are times when I would look at this painting and think of meanings, or imagine what is going on in this woman’s mind, or find connections with other paintings by Vermeer. Tonight, I am only happy that the painting is lovely. The white stretch of wall in the middle is calming. The smoothness of the light irons my own wrinkled moods to the same relaxed, bland expression on the woman’s face. The yellow adds richness. I am glad for the dotted fur. Even the black shadows serve to balance the painting, enough black for white, bright for dim, furry for shiny, colors for neutrals, space for masses. It is all so finely perfected.
Albert Bierstadt’s landscapes have just the right combination of wildness and perfection. I saw two real deer while walking on a trail in the woods this morning, and the scene was so ideal, so picture-perfect. Although Bierstadt and other Hudson River artists idealized the landscape, there is truth in that ideal. It is the true landscape minus the imperfect things, like a clumsy mom turning her ankle and hitting the ground with something snapping in her foot. Bierstadt would never have painted that. I’m pretty sure my foot isn’t broken. I hobbled back to the car. And now I hobble around the house. I’ll be okay eventually.
Some of you might remember my post entitled Where Fiction Fails. I expressed a concern about a lack of strong, beautiful-on-the-inside female characters in fiction. Someone like the Proverbs 31 woman. Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility came up as a possibility, but her spiritual character might not fit my profile.
I attend a Charlotte Mason book study (Miss Mason was a gentle, wise educator in England around the time of Charles Dickens), and a quote from her book Towards a Philosophy of Education posed an answer to my problem. Listen to this:
Perhaps we are so made that the heroic which is all heroic, the good which is all virtuous, palls upon us, whereas we preach little sermons to ourselves on the text of the failings and weaknesses of those great ones with whom we become acquainted in our reading.
The reason fiction fails to produce a perfect lady is because we readers would despise her. Who is my favorite female literary character? Probably Jane Eyre. Is she perfect? No. She’s a little stubborn, becomes too attached to certain people, does things which might not be wise. Hmmm. Those things could describe myself. Perhaps I can conclude that fiction fails to produce a woman of very high standards because so few of us reach such high standards. How could an author make it seem real? And how could a reader sympathize with such a woman? It’s not the answer I was originally looking for, but it is the best answer I can come up with.
Young Woman with a Water Jug, Jan Vermeer, 1660-1662
Everything is in perfect balance, the gap is bridged between in-here and out-there, and details are so meticulously and lovingly accounted for. A little Vermeer-gazing can add some stability to a less than perfect day. It also points to a time in the future when such a moment of perfection will be every moment for eternity.