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The Best of What's Around: Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery of Art
Not far from Alexandria: three of the Dutch artist's extraordinary interior scenes.
In Silicon Valley-speak, the size of the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall is a bug and a feature. The comprehensive and rich collection is on a scale equaled by few other museums. However, it is so large and diverse that a visitor can easily lose focus and perspective. A remedy for the almost disorienting experience of visiting the museum is to spend a little extra time with the works of one or two artists in addition to the usual tour of the galleries.
The National Gallery’s Dutch paintings are especially impressive. Three paintings by Johannes (or Jan) Vermeer (1632-1675) are foundational works in the collection. That the museum has three (and possibly a fourth—the attribution is uncertain) paintings by Vermeer is remarkable; only 36 works by Vermeer (out of an estimated total of 60 paintings by the artist) survive. All are in major museums, except “The Concert,” a masterpiece stolen with 12 other paintings from Boston’s Isabel Stewart Gardner museum in a daring and unsolved 1990 robbery.
Artistic (and political) expression today seem to be in an upward bigger/louder/faster spiral.  Vermeer’s quiet and meticulously composed paintings provide welcome relief from our high volume existence. And, if we take the time, the paintings reward close examination.
A short answer to “Why is Vermeer a big deal?” might be, in broad terms, color, light, composition and perspective. Color refers to the ways an artist selects and uses colors to enhance each other and illustrate the subject. Light is shorthand for how an artist illuminates a painting—which parts are in light and which are shaded and why. Composition means the way that shapes are arranged in a painting and the effects created by the arrangement. Perspective is the vantage point the artist creates for us—the position from which we view the painting. Each Vermeer painting in the National Gallery shows remarkable mastery of these aspects of painting and the subject of each painting seems to be alive and immediately with us.
Significant appreciation for Vermeer’s work began well after his death. Since that time, the scholarship about Vermeer’s career and works has been extensive. This account will not repeat or summarize that work.
Instead, here are brief highlights of three paintings by Vermeer at the National Gallery and a suggestion for a visit. The museum is easily reached from Alexandria. Vermeer painted many more women than men; each Vermeer in the National Gallery portrays a woman.
The Girl in the Red Hat” (c. 1665)
Andrew Mellon, a banker and Secretary of the Treasury to three presidents, conceived and endowed the National Gallery. He bought “The Girl in the Red Hat” in 1925 from a dealer for $290,000 (about $4.6 million today.) Mellon displayed the small (9 x 7 1/8 inches) painting on the piano in his Washington apartment. The painting is on a wood panel, not canvas. In 1941, it became the first Vermeer in the museum.
The girl in the painting is seated and has made a half-turn to look at us over the back of a chair. Her arm rests on the back of the chair. Her mouth is open and her eyes are focused with anticipation as she looks at us from before a neutral backdrop.
Here is what a book published in conjunction with the National Gallery’s almost-legendary 1995 special exhibition of Vermeer’s works said about the colors in “The Girl in the Red Hat:”
The artist’s use of color is exquisite, in both its compositional and psychological aspects. Setting the figure against the muted tones of a tapestry backdrop, Vermeer concentrates his major color accents, red and blue, in two distinct areas, the hat and the robe. The intensely warm flame-red bordering the girl’s broad, feathered hat dominates, advances, and psychologically activates the image. It heightens the immediacy of the girl’s gaze, an effect Vermeer accentuates by subtly casting its orange-red reflection across her face. The blue of the robe is cool and recessive, counter-balancing the red.
The white scarf that cradles her face links the red of the elaborate hat and the blue of the robe. Tiny dots of white suggest her earrings and the underside of the red hat is dark, almost purplish, indicating the absence of light. The left side of her face is lit suggesting that she may have turned to face us from looking out a window.
The painting’s perspective is anchored by the back of the chair between two lion-head chair finials on which the girl rests her right arm. This prominent foreground that makes us feel very close to the girl. The white accents on the finials creates the impression that they are gleaming in the light which enters from the right. The scene is intimate and immediate.
“A Lady Writing” (c. 1665)
“A Lady Writing” was one of the last works by Vermeer to move from private ownership to a museum collection when it was donated to the National Gallery in 1962 by brothers Waldron and Horace Havemeyer, Jr. The oil on canvas painting, 17 ¼ by 15 ¾ inches, was previously owned by, among others, J. Pierpont Morgan.
A lady, illuminated by a window or light to the left of the scene, looks up at us as she writes a letter. She has been interrupted in her work but her expression is calm. She and her writing surface are bathed in light in contrast to the dark background. Her right hand holds a pen and her left hand steadies a piece of paper as she makes a quarter turn toward us. She wears a comfortable yellow robe trimmed in white fur.
Vermeer’s compositional mastery contributes to the painting’s placid mood. Here is a description of how the meticulous composition contributes to the portrayal of a quiet moment:
Vermeer organized his compositional elements so as to enhance the tranquility of the scene. The woman rests her arms gently on the writing table and turns easily toward the viewer, her chair angled toward the picture plane. Other than the chair and a fold in the blue drapery that parallels the woman’s arm, few diagonals exist. Vermeer provided a horizontal and vertical framework for the woman’s form by means of the foreground table and the painting on the rear wall. Not only does the dark form of the painting provide a chiaroscuro contrast for the woman’s head, its size, which extends two-third of the way across the background wall, relates proportionally to the width of the composition. Other proportional relationships further indicate the care with which Vermeer conceived his composition. The width of the wall to the right of the picture, for example, is equal to the height of the table, which is half the distance between the bottom of the picture on the back wall and the base of the painting. 
Women engaged in domestic activities were a consistent subject for Vermeer and other Dutch painters. “A Lady Writing” invites us to look closely at the details, for example, the way blue table covering is folded and lit.
“Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664)
American collector Peter A.B. Widener (1834-1915) left “Woman Holding a Balance” (also known as “Woman Weighing Pearls”) to his son, Joseph (1872-1943) on the condition that Joseph bequeath his collection to a museum. The National Gallery acquired the 15 7/8 by 14 inch painting in 1942.
In this painting a woman is quietly, and intensely, involved in a scene from daily life—she does not engage with us. A high window from the left illuminates her and, again, the background is muted.
Some interpretations propose that because she may be pregnant the woman is a version of the Virgin Mary with balanced scales that anticipate the life of Christ, his sacrifice and the foundation of the church.
Observers have debated what the woman is weighing: the consensus seems to be strands of pearls and a gold chain. “Woman Holding a Balance” was described this way:
The Woman Weighing Pearls…also has the naturalness and the noble simplicity of the classic middle period. Here, too, every detail is significant and indispensable. The light is mild and harmonious. Again, the figure, her mood and her delicate action dominate the interior and fill it with a gentle atmosphere. The subdued centre of the composition is the hand holding the scales, and by very subtle compositional means Vermeer focuses our interest on this action without distracting too much from her whole appearance…The principal clue to the allegorical meaning would be the picture of the ‘Last Judgement’ which hangs behind the woman. Vermeer probably wanted the viewer to reflect on the material treasures being weighed, and the weighing of souls on Judgement Day.
The Dutch nation was an international mercantile power during Vermeer’s life. In “Woman Holding a Balance” Vermeer’s subject tends to the rewards of that economic success.
Waiting for you in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art: the serene brilliance of Johannes Vermeer.
 As legendary rock guitarist Nigel Tufnel explained in the movie This is Spinal Tap when asked why his amplifier loudness settings went to 11:
Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
 Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshhuis, The Hague, Yale University Press, 1995, p. 160.
 Ibid. p. 156
 Dutch Art and Architecture 1600-1800, Rosenberg, Slive and ter Kuile, Penguin Books, 1980, p.203.