Into the Blue: Vermeer at the Getty

Into The Blues
| Photomontage by the author

Sometimes called Jan (by Dutch historians, out of cultural solidarity) or Johannes or Johan or Joannis (out of his parents' middle-class striving), Vermeer lived his life in Delft in the province of Zuid-Holland in the Netherlands. He painted. One of his paintings -- Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-1664) -- is at the Getty in Brentwood, on loan from the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam until March 31.

I went on Friday to look into the blue and went back for a second look on Saturday afternoon.

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Woman Reading a Letter
| Wikicommons Image

The Woman in Blue is the subject of a lot theorizing and romanticizing, something the Getty has encouraged by inviting visitors to dream up a first line for the letter the young woman in the painting is reading. Predictably, the results have been a mash up of Sex in the City, Monty Python, and tenderness.

Although fun, imposing a narrative on this painting -- is the woman pregnant, is the letter from her lover, has she just gotten bad news? -- is particularly fruitless. Vermeer wasn't telling a story, unlike many of his contemporaries, or even allegorizing very much, although allegory had been the fashion in painting for the previous two hundred years.

Vermeer was putting on a piece of stretched cloth (in contemporary terms) colored mud -- a very expensive and lushly ultramarine mud made of finely powdered lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

A long look at the painting shows the ways in which blues have shaded from the light -- light scattered from the sea, perhaps -- into the rod that causes the map in the background to drape and into the shadows and into the leather backs and seats of the two "Spanish" chairs and the cloth on the table and, of course, the billowy blue jacket -- a fashionable bed jacket -- of the women reading the letter.

Given the limitations of place and circumstance on Vermeer's abstracting imagination -- Mondrian, another Hollander, was centuries away -- the Woman in Blue, if it's about anything, is about the color blue, which would have included for Vermeer a reminiscence of the that color in painting -- the color of heaven and the Virgin.

Apart from the color blue, the Woman in Blue is about gazing, for which almost any color might have been sufficient. The Woman in Blue is about the habit of just looking, of exempting the gaze from formal imperatives -- religious edification or historical instruction or bourgeois self-righteousness or prurience or even homey satisfaction with the stuff of everyday life. The Woman in Blue is about sensuousness conceived chastely; it's about desire without end or even an object.

You should go see the Woman in Blue, if you can. And then step out on one of Richard Meier's many terraces that crop up around the gallery pavilions to look at the sea south and west of museum and the sky laid out between Malibu and Palos Verdes. To gaze at the blue all around you.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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