Rembrandt’s Night Watch
You are ten years old in The Hague in Amsterdam, sitting on a bench and telling your eight-year-old sister stories. She has refused to take another step in a museum, and your parents have left her in your care. She wearied of culture quickly; halfway through a month in England she went on strike and sat ont he steps reading her book rather than enter Canterbury Cathedral. When your parents return, they usher you both to the high points. The first is Rembrandt’s Night Watch, huge and dark and bustling. It is a world full of shouting, drumming; something important is happening to the grown-ups in the dark.But all you remembered for years was the small sun of the little blond girl in the lower left.
Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring
The second painting your parents show you in The Hague is very different from Rembrandt’s Night Watch but equally luminous. Just one face, lit in the darkness. She is older than you, knows more, and looks at you with her mouth half-opened as though she might be willing to tell you things. She stays with you. This is the poster you put on your dorm room wall in college. You take peyote a friend brought you from New Mexico and lie on your bed watching her, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” playing. She is the sad–eyed lady. She talks to you, telling you wise things you won’t remember.
THE NEW YORK METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Egyptian Collection
This is your first love as a young child. You go with your grandparents and parents. You’re impressed
by the mummies, the intricately carved gray stone sculptures that are so heavy and still. You love the brilliant colors, the sheen of gold. But it is the small things that draw you. Not just the famous cat and bright blue hippopotamus, though they could easily join your collection of toys. But also the tiny figures that you could hold in your hand—how you want to cup their coolness and curves. And the jewelry, the start of a lifelong greed. The scarabs, the multicolored enamel lotus earrings; the rings with square stones; collars with rows of gems or metal; turquoise, deep red of garnets, blue of lapis, and
gold, gold everywhere, cut, twisted, elaborately worked. You can’t have them. You can’t even touch them. But you want and want and want.
All the Vermeers at the Met
When you are older, you make a habit of racing to visit them as soon as your family goes upstairs.Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is the one you remember best. Unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring,she looks down, perhaps out the window. She is so still with that odd symmetry of frozen gesture: one hand on the window, one on the pitcher; the white cap and cape, the patterns on her bodice repeating it.The arms spread as if in flight. Strange in such an interior painting with all the objects to hold us inside:the map, the lion-headed chair, the heavy carpet on the table. Is this the only Vermeer where someone opens the leaded glass window? Is that what causes the tension, the hope for freedom dropping down the centuries? Her skirt as blue as sky.
Woman with a Lute, is your second favorite, the girl’s face a little too round, her chin too weak for your taste at that age. But look, her forehead is lit, the large pearl hanging from her ear also lit, the whites of her eyes. And those metal studs in the dark leather chair. She is gazing out the window, away from her instrument. Again those parallel gestures of arms and hands: one on the strings and one on the pegs. Menace here: the arrow-shaped finial at the bottom of the map is inches from her head, the chair’s wooden lion growls at her across the table. But the window lets sun brush her yellow dress, her milky collar and soft arms, plucking them from shadow.
Portrait of a Young Woman is the same round-faced girl, you are sure. In the same pose as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” but younger, not beautiful, and truly a girl. There’s no flirtation in her gaze, only curiosity. Her mouth is closed, her dark hair high on her wide forehead, a veil high on her head.Nothing hidden, neither fear nor lust, perhaps a bit of playfulness in her slight thin-lipped smile. The black background is flat, the whites of her eyes moist, alive. Her light blue wrap is cotton, though that large lustrous jewel at her ear must be jade or some other precious stone, a symbol of privilege to come. Now she is young, straightforward, and you feel a great affection for her. When you were young,you didn’t feel that affection; you yearned for sex, adulthood, the entanglements to come.
A Girl Asleep doesn’t seem to be a girl; she has full breasts. Her cheeks and lips are rouged, or flushed with heat, her dark lashes feathering the skin below. A sturdy arm resting on the table props her head with a wide hand; her other hand clutches at an ornate mat. Only her earrings are delicate, lustrous globes flecked with light that echo the silver sphere finial of the chair she sleeps in. In the foreground the heavy rug on the table is laden with food: red and yellow apples, covered dishes, a round jug the creamy color of her skin with a cap as black as her widow-peaked hat. All is round and warm and full.But there is something more, something unusual in the world of Vermeer. Two strong verticals behind her must be a frame and a door that opens to another room, wooden cupboards, a darker square that may be a painting on the wall. Is this where the bread is baked, the clothes sewn, the jug filled? Where such calm and abundance is made possible?
The Allegory of Faith is the one you don’t like and don’t even bother visiting. You’re Jewish and, even at a young age, notice the constant bombardment of Christianity. It makes you both uncomfortable and angry: feeling you don’t fit in but also that it’s wrong for the world to make you feel this. To you, the painting is melodramatic and cluttered; it doesn’t seem like a Vermeer. A lady swoons, a hand to her ballooning bust, her mouth partially open, the whites of her eyes flashing. And those ridiculous sandals, so wrong for her seventeenth-century dress and chilly Amsterdam: one plopped on the floor, the other, legs indecorously spread under her white skirt, perched precariously on a globe. Vermeer performs all his tricks here with light and drapery and reflections glistening on glass. But you don’t care. And you won’t describe them here.
Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse
You visited the painting five days a week for two months when you were twenty. Blue water, utterly convincing waves, sailboats. Sun on ladies’ parasols, a man’s white boater, red flowers. A flag echoing red, white, and blue; another, triangular, just red and white. The wind blowing them both and at the horizon blowing the white steam from ships into the white low clouds, massed between a sky with a hint of lavender and the teal blue of the choppy water.Is it the wind that draws you? The spaciousness, the warmth, the fresh air and light. Winter in New York, sleet falling sideways, the sky forever gray. It is a college work term, you are twenty, a teacher you slept with once has gotten you this job at a cultural institution across from the Met. The married teacher you’re having an affair with asked you to stay and work for him instead, but you are idealistic and told him you shouldn’t change your life for him if he couldn’t change his for you. You are too young to know better about any of this. Now you are miserable. Too shy to hobnob with the famous poets at your job, you are left with nothing but secretarial work. You can’t type. You don’t know how to make friends with the other people in the office, so escape each noon to the Met with just enough time to eat your sandwich on the bench in front of this large painting near the entrance. The people in the colorful scene seem happy. They all look at the water, none turning back to you.
INTERLUDE: A DANCE IN NEW YORK CITY
for Sabrina Barreto
You are nineteen. It’s your first summer home from college, full of “sturm und drang,” as your father wrote in a letter you read after his death. You are threatening not to go back, though you won’t tell him why (a failed romance with your first lover). You father tells you about how he had to change his plans and become an experimental rather than theoretical physicist because of the way his mind worked. It’s the best he can do, and it comforts you. Perhaps you feel his intention; you always remember this conversation fondly.
And you also remember another day vividly in this stagnant summer. A dancer friend from college, home in New York City for the summer, invites you to come with her to a performance of Fonteyn and Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet. Your mother does something for you too that you’ll remember fondly. She helps you make over one of her dresses from the fifties into a short, sleeveless sheath. Its fabric is magical: shiny with a small black grid over deep purple with watery streaks of green and blue. It reminds you of your recurring dream of metal grates like those in the sidewalks that open layer by layer to spill you gently into an underwater world filled with fish. Four years later in California you will lend the dress to a friend and never see it again. You believe that she and her two daughters died with Jim Jones in Guyana.
Is all this to avoid writing about the performance, entering that darkened world on a hot, sunny New York day? How to describe it? It’s not a painting that you can look at again and again. It’s hours out of time, a gem-like world of movement, pure. These gestures are not frozen, and your mind cannot repeat them though they live inside you still, unreachable and ever-present, decades later. There is Nureyev suspended in air, but what you remember most is Fonteyn en pointe moving backwards. Not moving exactly, her delicacy and grace tracing a liquid line from one place to another.