Masters of light and shadow

I recently wrote about my trip to Fort Michilimackinac in northern Michigan earlier this month. I brought the camera I use for work with me, and I greedily took photos of everything. My father was a professional photographer, and he tried to teach me a few things about how to compose a picture — things I wish I had listened to much more closely than I did.

My dad died six years ago, and I miss him more than I know how to say. Certain things make me feel close to him still, and photography is one of them. Sometimes, when I take a photo I’m particularly proud of, I feel like he’s still with me. And that’s the feeling I got when I snapped off a few of the photos at the fort.

We were inside the rebuilt home of the fort’s commander, where a living history interpreter played the role of a maid. She scurried about the kitchen because in a half hour, tourists would gather outside for a tasting program featuring authentic foods she and others working at the fort had prepared. That’s when I saw the violin hanging on the wall, and even though I knew I was asking a lot, I begged her for a song.

Violins and the fort and I have a long history. We went to the fort after I was in fourth grade, and there was a living history interpreter, a French voyageur, with a violin then, too. I, like children will, blurted out that I also played violin. In fact, I had just completed my first year of lessons.

“Oh!” he said, and handed me the fiddle. “Play something.”

I managed to play the saddest round of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” ever. When I say sad, I mean it. In my robust stage fright, I played it in a minor key. Horrified, I handed the instrument back.

Not a Vermeer!

“Well,” he said. “Maybe the lamb died.” Everyone laughed. I was mortified.

This time around, the history interpreter asked me if I wanted to play something. “Oh, no,” I said. “But I loved it if you would.” So the poor lady, who already had so much to do, had to take a few minutes to play a fiddle tune while I took several photos. And when she was done and I reviewed the images, I was astonished.

If the painter Johannes Vermeer had been a photographer, these might have been the photos he would have taken.

Two very different masters

One of the most common associations people make with the Dutch Golden Age are the master painters. Even people who know next to nothing about art know the name Rembrandt. And even people who never set foot in an art museum may have heard of the Dutch Masters, even if they associate it with a cheap brand of cigarellos.

Still from REM’s “Losing My Religion”

Aside from Rembrandt van Rijn, the next most famous Dutch painter from the era is likely Vermeer. His work has found its way into pop culture. His “Girl With a Pearl Earring” was the subject of a best-selling novel, which then became a movie. And his works have been referenced in other pop culture works, such as REM’s video for “Losing My Religion.”

Comparing and contrasting these two artists makes for an interesting mental exercise. It’s been done by people much smarter than me, so if you want to hear the experts have a go at it, take a listen to this podcast featuring Rembrandt biographer Simon Schama, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” author Tracy Chevalier, and moderated by Tim Marlow, the director of artistic programs at the Royal Academy in London.

I personally think it’s foolish to say one artist is superior to the other (though that’s what they debate in the podcast, to make it interesting). But it’s fascinating to think about how different or similar their lives were, and how that may have come across in their art.

Rembrandt was the ninth of ten children born to a miller in Leiden. The family was well off, and his father apparently had high hopes for Rembrandt’s future. At the age of 14, he was sent to the prestigious university in Leiden, but the kid managed to drop out after just one year because he wanted to be a painter. It happened to be a good move.

“Woman with Water Jug,” Vermeer

Vermeer, on the other hand, came from a somewhat infamous family. His grandfather was a counterfeiter and his grandmother ran illegal lotteries. His father was hauled into court for brandishing a knife during an ice golf (read: ice hockey) game that resulted in a man getting beat about the head. But despite the family’s poverty, Johannes’ father does manage to provide his son an instructor for painting.

As a painter, Rembrandt found success early, and gained the patronage of many notable people first in Leiden and then in Amsterdam. He became wealthy enough to buy a large home in the Jewish quarter of the city, and several young painters paid to be his apprentice. Rembrandt’s fortunes were bolstered by marrying Saskia van Uylenburgh, cousin of one of his art dealers, who brought more wealth into his life. He produced about 300 paintings and another 300 etchings during his life.

Meanwhile, life continued to be hard for Vermeer, who painted at a much slower pace and garnered far fewer patrons. He gained some stability through marriage as well, and even converted to Catholicism for it. History suggests that he was eager to put distance between his birth family and himself, as he named none of his fifteen children (ten of whom survived) after his mother or father, as was the custom. He also produced a maximum 60 paintings, of which about 34 survive (there are some attributed to him whose origin are still uncertain). But his brood was left impoverished when he died a pauper at the age of 43.

Despite his material success, Rembrandt had a much sadder personal life. His beloved Saskia died at the age of 30, and of his five children, only one survived him. He also managed to squander his wealth and went bankrupt, losing his big house along with his large collection of art and curious objects, such as monkey skeletons and Spanish helmets and Turkish turbans. He died at the age of 63.

Bodies of work

Rembrandt is often associated with his subdued tones — the deep browns and ochres and dark reds. He is known for shadows disturbed by sudden flashes of light. In fact, his most iconic work “The Night Watch” does not actually depict a group of men on a night watch at all. It is a citizen’s militia. It only acquired the nickname “Night Watch” because the painting is so dark, people assumed they were about to go out on a night patrol.

Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp,” emphasis on shadow and non-idealized subjects

Vermeer, on the other hand, cannot be separated from light. In most of his paintings, a window is present. I say “a” window most deliberately, as the bulk of his paintings seem to have been set in the same room or two. His signature colors are yellow and blue. And not just blue, but vibrant ultramarine blue, the color derived from lapus lazuli, which came to him all the way from Afghanistan and cost more than gold. Gold! It was worth that much to him, a man on the brink of poverty, that he paid that price just to have it in his art.

Rembrandt’s subjects, more often than not, are looking you, the viewer, straight in the eye. That’s not so surprising, as Rembrandt was receiving many commissions in the form of portraits.

“The Procuress,” Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer, on the other hand, rarely paints people looking out of the canvas directly into the gaze of the viewer. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is an obvious exception. Most often, though, his subjects are doing whatever it is they do on a daily basis — pouring milk or water, playing a lute, reading a letter — without being aware that they are being watched.

Then there is the matter of how the subjects are depicted. Rembrandt is known for showing people as they are. He doesn’t glorify them or gloss over their wrinkles or defects. He accepts people as they are and doesn’t idealize them. For this, he is sometimes called the most human painter of all.

“Woman with Milk Jug,” Vermeer. Note the similarity between this figure and the one in “The Procuress.”

Vermeer, on the other hand, idealizes his subjects. They are perfection. Even when he is depicting people in an unsavory situation, such as in “The Procuress,” the people aren’t made to look grotesque. In fact, the woman accepting the coins is apparently the same woman later depicted in “Woman with a Milk Jug.” Whether this reprise in a second painting is an act of redemption for her, no one really knows. But it seems that the figures are too similar, the wardrobe too alike, for it to be a coincidence.

Art imitates life?

So what does all this say about Rembrandt and Vermeer? Can we draw any conclusions about the two men based on the work they produced? As a writer myself, it’s hard for me to imagine that you can separate an artist from their creation. One depends upon the other.

I like to think that Rembrandt’s painting of people as they are underscores a deeper understanding of human nature as it is. He didn’t feel a need to gloss over the imperfections of either everyday people or the notable leaders of the city. I admit this is my supposition, but I like to think that’s because Rembrandt saw the foibles of people around him and accepted them, just as he knew and accepted his own flaws. He didn’t feel a need to be perfect, and he didn’t want that from those around him, either.

Still not a Vermeer!

Vermeer, on the other hand, strikes me as a perfectionist. I think his slower pace of work is one giveaway to this nature — he wanted to make everything look just right, whereas Rembrandt painted in quick, rough brush strokes. As well, Vermeer used high-tech devices such as the camera obscura to trace the image of his subjects onto his canvas — again, to make sure it looked just so. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Mom, if you’re reading, you see? Your art is just as valid as a Vermeer!) And underpinning all this need for perfection? I think it’s Vermeer’s driving need to prove himself as more than that kid who grew up in a family of scoundrels.

But like I said — none of this is to say one is better than the other. That’s an impossible comparison to make. Both are sublime in their own way.

And the photos I took? Hey, they’re not so bad. I like to think my dad would have been proud of them

3 thoughts on “Masters of light and shadow

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