Art, Behind the Scenes, Paintings, Voices

Getty Voices: The Power of Vermeer

Getty Voices presents first-person perspectives by members of the Getty community in weekly rotation. This week, Getty Museum curator Anne Woollett, a specialist in Dutch painting, is our guide to the enigmatic power of Vermeer, a new presence in our galleries through the loan of “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. More throughout the week on Facebook and Twitter.

One of the most exhilarating—perhaps even the most exhilarating—experience after months of planning and envisioning a new configuration of paintings in a gallery is the instant when the long-awaited new arrival takes its place on the wall and becomes a catalyst, changing how we perceive perfectly familiar paintings. Sometimes with breathtaking immediacy, and sometimes more incrementally, the relationships between works are transformed, and individual characteristics emerge or recede in response.

On Saturday, when Vermeer’s exquisite Woman in Blue Reading a Letter took her place in the center of our large gallery of Dutch paintings, rearranged for the occasion, the impact was intriguingly complex: she seemed calmly at home, while simultaneously introducing a strong, distinctive new presence.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter / Vermeer

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, about 1663–64, Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas, 18 5/16 x 15 3/8 in. (49.6 x 40.3 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

The highly structured, almost geometric quality of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is even more apparent here than in Amsterdam, where I last saw it in the Rijksmuseum’s conservation studio. We know that Vermeer adjusted the contours of the woman’s jacket and the left vertical edge of the map to achieve the compelling balance between fields of the white wall, strong horizontals such as the map rail, and the solid vertical of the woman in blue herself. Unlike its home environment at the Rijksmuseum, which includes three other works by Vermeer (shown below), the clarity and insistence of the composition has no parallel in the works of Vermeer’s contemporaries hanging nearby here at the Getty.

Vermeer paintings at the Rijksmuseum

The collection of the Rijksmuseum includes four paintings by Vermeer. From left: View of Houses in Delft (“The Little Street”), 1658; The Milkmaid, 1660; The Love Letter, 1669

By comparison, Jan Steen’s The Drawing Lesson, which hangs to the left of the Woman in Blue, seems messy and far less serene than before (appropriate to the subject and the painter of brilliant wit), while the quiet interiority of the elegantly dressed young woman in Gerard Ter Borch’s The Music Lesson resonates clearly with his friend Vermeer’s sensibility.

Observing the striking monumentality of Woman in Blue, a colleague remarked, “the composition is so powerful—almost abstract, it would even look beautiful hanging upside down!”

As the painting settles in for the first week of her six-week stay with us, I’ll be examining the power of Vermeer from a variety of angles (though not upside down)—please join me on on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll share more of my observations and eagerly hear yours.

Connect with more “Power of Vermeer” content from this week’s Getty Voices:

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  1. Robert Drew
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Is this where I write the first line of the letter? I’m invited and invited to write the first line
    and I’ve looked and looked as to where I should submit it—and can’t find any direction
    as to how and where to submit it. So, this is the cloest I have found for “contact”—
    and here is my submission:

    Dear Madam:

    Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

  2. Polly Pritchard
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    My Darling,

    I hope this missive finds you well. I am doing all I can to ensure I will be at your side for the birth of our child.

  3. Kelli Sincock
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    My Dearest Pumpernickel,
    To my frustration, the days have been interminably long and passing with such utter stagnation, but I am replete with excitement to impart to you, my dove, that our time apart is finally and joyfully drawing to an end.

  4. Helen Topor
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    My dearest darling: God forbid that I should counsel you on fashion, but do you think our gossipy neighbours understand the new fashion for wearing high-waisted full skirts under loose jackets, or will they attribute the ‘new shape’ you acquired during my absence to a usurper?

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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