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A Vermeer in Boston
The Metís Young Woman with a Water Pitcher comes to the MFA
Jan Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
At the Museum of Fine Arts through February 22.

Itís been 13 years since thereís been a Vermeer in Boston. Our only one, The Concert, was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. Only 35 of the 17th-century Dutch masterís paintings are now thought to exist. The nearest are the eight in New York (there are only seven in all of the Netherlands) and the four in Washington. The rest are scattered through Europe. So we are doubly blessed in that we have the marvels of the MFAís current "Rembrandtís Journey: Painter ē Draftsman ē Etcher" and we donít have to travel far to experience a real Vermeer. Letís pray for the tightest security.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher ó itíll be here through February 22 ó has been at the MFA before, in 1970, in a "Masterpieces of the Metropolitan" show. Itís one of the artistís most beloved and elusive images. What does it mean that the woman is opening a window into her room ó one hand on the casement, the other on the handle of a prismatic gilt pitcher? (Is it silver or brass? MFA curator Ronni Baer comes down on the side of silver.) Who is the woman? The artistís wife? One of his numerous daughters? She has a beatific, quietly radiant face, and one of Vermeerís subtlest, most serious and enigmatic smiles.

Yet portraiture doesnít exactly seem the primary intent. The face is not the center of this small (18 by 16 inches) painting. The woman isnít looking at us ó her head is tilted, slightly askew, and hidden by a pure white hooftdoek (a cloth almost like a wimple); her shoulders are covered by a sprucely creased nachtalsdoek ("night rail"). From the chest up, she could be a nun. But sheís wearing a blue skirt and an elegant blue and gold satin jacket (you can even see the white satin lining inside her right sleeve). And what are we to make of the dichotomy of window and map? (X-rays show that the map on the wall behind her once took up significantly more of the painting.) If the woman is not aware of us, she is surely aware of both the life just outside her room and the greater world beyond.

Her dressing table is covered by a rich red Oriental rug that you can see dazzlingly reflected on the underside of the pitcherís basin. From a wooden jewel box on the table, red velvet lining its open lid, a ribbon of pearls comes spilling out. Wood, glass, silver, linen, satin, wool, leather (the back of a chair), the shadow-and-light-struck wall, pearls, human skin ó Vermeer gives us a panoply of textures. Yet the composition is so unified, in proportion and color, it seems more modest than the tour de force it is. Then the more you look, the more you see the way this quiet interior, this tenuous moment, holds a monumental image of balance and calm, of luminous stability, of a life at peace with its various demands. I think of the woman Robert Frost compares to a "silken tent," whose "supporting central cedar pole,/That is the pinnacle to heavenward/And signifies the sureness of the soul,/Seems to owe naught to any single cord,/But strictly held by none is loosely bound/By countless silken ties of love and thought/To everything on earth the compass round."

Baer has had the Vermeer installed in the MFAís Dutch room, with its two little Rembrandt portraits (not part of the extraordinary show down the hall), a Hals, three Ruisdaels (including the powerful Rough Sea and the exquisite View of Alkmaar), and various 17th-century furnishings. She has also added Dutch interior scenes from elsewhere in the collection. These provide an illuminating historical context for both the Vermeer and the MFAís gem of a recent acquisition, Gerrit Douís tiny, touching Old Woman Cutting Bread: a dark, candle-lit scene, with a poor woman serving a meager repast to her two young sons.

An impressive variety of genre scenes ranging in style from vigorously coarse to ultra-fine surround the Vermeer. Thereís a rare domestic interior by Emanuel de Witte, whoís better known for his large church interiors, like the one across the room in which a dog is not showing proper respect for its holy environs. In a David Teniers butcher shop, another dog is licking up the drippings from a bloody carcass. Carousing peasants crowd two spectacular canvases by Jan Steen and Jan Molenaer. Hendrik ter Bruggenís delightfully Caravaggio-esque Boy Singing joins Dirck van Baburenís The Procuress, which is as opposite from Young Woman with a Water Pitcher as a subject can get (though Vermeer, no prude, painted one of his largest canvases on this very subject). It seems that Vermeer owned this painting, and he reproduced it in two of his interior scenes, including the still-missing The Concert.

Although the paintings sit uncomfortably high on the wall, and the problem hasnít been solved of how to light a painting without casting a dark shadow across its upper inch, the arrangement itself is superb. This isnít just a welcome pendant to the Rembrandt show but an important and satisfying exhibit in its own right, and a graphic illustration of the mysterious gap between mastery and genius.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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