The Milkmaid (aka The Kitchen Maid) 1658, Oil on Canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Humans are possibly the only animals that dwell on the implications of “choice.” Because I made that choice and not this, I am wealthy, poor, happy, alone. We fret with anxiety over which choice to make, and then brood forever afterward about it.. “Choice” is the concept which ultimately leads us to the idea of a physical multi-verse, one for every road not taken by every traveler that has ever been and more besides. Choice determines drama, music and art. Drama allows us to study the bad choices of others in detail and learn from them. Pinocchio works as a story because he never makes a single good choice, not one, until the very end. And in art, the artist’s choice of what to show us can mean the difference between a very good painting and a piece de résistance.
Vermeer came within a whisker of being forever unknown to us, and it was the picture above that opened the door. The British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote of the painting following his visit to Holland in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He considered it one of Holland’s greatest paintings. But still Vermeer’s renown continued to languish until the French critic Thore-Burger championed his work in 1850 and from there he was finally discovered by the world. He was chiefly admired for his depiction of light, and certainly the quality of the Kitchen Maid will take your breath away. It is simply splendid.
Today there is something of a ring-dang-do, inspired in large part by Hockney’s book, suggesting that Vermeer used a camera obscura to achieve these effects. Hockney is a gifted and brilliant painter, but much of his argument rests on his notion that Vermeer must have used one because he can’t do what Vermeer does himself. Further, someone took measurements in one of Vermeer’s studios which match exactly the proportions of some of his paintings and have taken that as proof. Sadly there is no other evidence to support this opinion, and considering the circumstances of Vermeer’s sudden and unexpected death, and the closeness of the art community in those days in those parts, one would expect to find more substantial proof among his estate and the memoirs of his contemporaries.
I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do lean toward the artist more than artifice. It reminds me of the story Hoffman tells of describing for Olivier his exercises working into his character for the Marathon Man. Olivier listened in awe then said, “My dear boy, how exhausting! Why don’t you try acting?” It seems to me the fuss of setting up one’s models and staying out of one’s own way on the projected surface, not to mention the pure physical real estate and light necessary to get the stable effect you required with a camera obscura are a lot more trouble than just figuring out how to paint what you want in the first place. It seems a purer and simpler choice.
Pieter de Hooch, Weighing Gold, 1664, Oil on Canvas, 61 x 53cm
Look at these choices. The above is a wonderful picture by Pieter de Hooch, Vermeer’s exact contemporary. There is nothing at all wrong with this picture, yet compare it to this one from Vermeer with a similar subject.
Woman Holding a Balance, 1662-1663, Oil on Canvas, 42.5 x 38 cm, National Gallery of Art
For me, there is simply no comparison. And Vermeer makes better choices than mere light and pattern. (de Hooch is over-reliant on pattern in his pictures, I think.)
For another example, look at what Vermeer chooses to show compared to de Hooch in the following.
De Hooch, A Woman Drinking with Two Men, 1658, Oil on Canvas 73.7 x 64.6 cm
The Girl With the Wineglass (aka A Lady and Two Gentlemen) 1659, Oil on Canvas, 78 x 68 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum
Again, there is simply no denying the superiority of Vermeer’s composition. In comparison, the de Hooch is a bad snapshot taken at a Danish Elsinore while Vermeer’s picture is Hamlet. De Hooch shows us objects; Vermeer shows us people. He has made the wiser, more fearless choice.
What we choose to leave out matters as much as what we choose to leave in. When we create, we can accept the limitations of our form, or we can shatter them into a billion pieces and have raucous sex in the shards. It is our choice. There are no limitations beyond those we impose on ourselves by these self-same choices. I leave you with this picture below. See how this parochial dabbler from the seventeenth century, using only a woman, a letter, two chairs, a table, a drape, a book, and a map delivers a novel in a single painting. As Spencer Tracy once said of Katherine Hepburn, “There ain’t much on her, but it’s all choice.” (Actually, he said “cherce,” which made it funnier.)
(Okay, you had to be there.)
Woman In Blue Reading a Letter, 1662-1663, Oil on Canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm, Rijksmuseum,Amsterdam, theNetherlands