Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Paintings

What Makes an Artist Great? Curator Scott Schaefer on Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer is a beloved artist. Is he also a great one?

Vermeer gave the world only a few dozen paintings, ones that invite multiple interpretations and personal projections. He left ample personal records (we know he died in debt at 43, leaving behind 11 children), but no letters, no pupils to reveal how he thought about his craft. As curator Anne Woollett considers the power of Vermeer this week on Getty Voices, we asked Scott Schaefer, the Museum’s senior curator of paintings, to add his voice to the conversation.

oman in Blue Reading a Letter / Johannes Vermeer as installed at the Getty Center

She has arrived: 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)

Scott has been looking at and thinking about Vermeer for decades; at LACMA in 1983, he had “the pleasure and great honor” of hanging Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in an exhibition of treasures from Holland’s Mauritshuis. Now that Girl with a Pearl Earring is visiting the de Young and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is on loan to the Getty from the Rijksmuseum, I asked Scott what he thinks about Vermeer: Is he a great artist? And if so, why?

Vermeer is a remarkable genius.

I judge artists on how few questions are answered when you look at their pictures. To me, the greater the artist, the fewer the questions he or she answers. When you look at “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” there are so many questions: Is she pregnant? What is she reading? Where is the light coming from? What does the map mean?

None of those questions is answered—we, the viewers, have to grapple with these things. And that’s what makes Vermeer interesting. It’s like comparing Degas and Bouguereau: Bouguereau answers all questions, while Degas asks them. Why are we looking at a woman taking a bath, for example? Aren’t we uncomfortable looking at someone through a peephole?

It’s the same way with “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”—we’re looking at a woman who doesn’t notice us. She’s in a private moment and we’re suddenly intruding on her. We feel embarrassed and flustered; we wonder what’s going on. Why the map? What does the letter say? It’s amazing how many people have come up with opening lines to Vermeer’s letter on The Iris. Some are very funny, but many are particularly poignant and moving.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” is an archetypal Vermeer. It’s what Vermeer is about: a strange interior depicted with an extraordinary use of light coming from a window on the left (always on the left); figures lost in their own thoughts, barely speaking or not speaking at all. It’s a ravishing and beautiful picture.

Questions, not answers, make an artist great: Do you agree?

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One Comment

  1. Deborah Forrester
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The opening line to Vermeer’s Lady in Blue

    17 April, 1664: The English continue to provoke us and I fear war is inevitable but I take a brief leave from my ship the Eendracht to be at your side in time to share with you the birth of our first child.

    Addendum: On June 13, 1665 HMS Royal Charles crippled the tiny ship Eendracht. There were no survivors.

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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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