Recently I had the good fortune to be in Washington DC, a lovely place to be in the fall, and while there I had the good fortune to visit the National Gallery just as an amazing special exhibition of genre paintings by Dutch masters (Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, Steen, etc.) was showing. The exhibit was a revelation: picture after picture of subjects (usually women) sitting or standing in the light of a window, their clothing and features illuminated in magical chiaroscuro. I gazed at all the paintings with a keen recognition: wow, here's where a lot of my aesthetic comes from. Or wow: these guys shared my obsessions too. (I'm not sure which sentence is the truer.)
The recognition was so keen that I found myself thinking, where are Vermeer's nudes? Of all the paintings in the exhibit, Vermeer's were the ones that moved me most profoundly. All the painters shared similar interests in observing people (again, women mostly) illuminated--revelated by light, sculpted by light. There were many excuses for the paintings: moralistic excuses (some paintings were Christian allegories); exoticist excuses (picture girl with parrot); domestic excuses (here's my sister doing what she always does: tatting lace). But it was Vermeer who most keenly observed the fleeting grace of a face and a figure caught in time. I felt that his paintings were deeply compassionate, deeply loving. And his were the paintings in which the excuse felt most deeply like what it was: an excuse.
Vermeer's most famous painting was not in the show, but it's my favorite just as it is a worldwide favorite. Here is is:
(Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665)
This painting does have an excuse--the exoticism of the earring and costume--but those details are so obviously extraneous to the real subject here, which is the sitter herself and her candid beauty. You get the feeling that here Vermeer threw up his hands and said, "to hell with it! I'm going to paint what I really want to paint, the only true subject: human grace." The result is what we see.
So yes: where are Vermeer's nudes? Was he content to create his domestic scenes of the public-private life of Delft, of women reading letters, playing music, and so forth? Part of me doesn't believe it. The existing paintings, to me, gesture toward hidden possibilities, or probabilities, that this artist, like so many other artists before and since, could not not have exercised the longing to understand the deeper and greater grace of the figure unadorned. I fantasize the existence, or former existence, of a large body of drawings and paintings made in privacy, perhaps with his wife, with whom he had at least ten children. Perhaps he sketched or painted some of those children. Perhaps he worked with professional models, as many of his contemporaries did. Whichever, part of me does not accept the possibility that he was content to paint fabric rather than skin. We'll never know, of course. But I grieve. Wouldn't Vermeer's nudes have been glorious?
I thought of this question too as I looked at the other works in the regular collections, both at the National Gallery and at the American Art Gallery, which I also visited. As so many commentators (feminist commentators especially) have noted, there is no shortage of nudes in art galleries. Recalling my entry some years ago on the commentary of John Berger and his distinction between the naked and the nude (the nude being the much more common objectified woman--the woman seen and eroticized under the male gaze--and the naked being the vanishingly rare subjectified, agent-bearing woman--the woman as she "really" is, with her beauty, certainly, but her true her-ness too and her desire and her self-possession, in the fullest sense). There are many nudes, and the nudes tend almost universally toward idealization or mythicization. Here's Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave (1846):
I think this sculpture is very beautiful, and it is not unrealistic, but compare it with this amazing sculpture that I found in the American collection: Erastus Dale Palmer's June (1865):
Here we have the real hair, the real breasts, the real face of a living, real young woman. How much more miraculous, to me, is this true portrait. This bust portrait hints to me of the kind of nudes Vermeer would have painted: portraits and figures that glory in the true grace of the true human body and spirit.
I hope my latest painting, all the way at the top, shares in this work, as I hope that all of my paintings do.