I’d never even heard of this slim little book, Travels in Vermeer by Michael White, until the National Book Award Longlist for 2015 was released a few weeks ago. I suspected I would enjoy an art-themed travel memoir in the words of a poet, so I ordered it right away. And oh my goodness. What a revelation. I feel like I found an soulmate in art and travel.
This book is indeed “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art” (Kirkus Reviews). We join Creative Writing Professor Michael White on his year-long quest for peace, sobriety and healing following the death of his first wife and his divorce from his second. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, but he’s soothed and inspired by the sight of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum.
Michael White’s quest begins here, in front of The Milkmaid, when his scalp begins to tingle. “Why do I feel this sweet sensation of joy?” he asks, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Moose, which after describing the sight of a moose in the middle of a country road, also wonders:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
White knows he must pursue this question, that his redemption and recovery might depend on it. Pouring over a Vermeer catalog on a park bench near the Rijksmuseum (that’s another thing deserving of wonder: the joys to be discovered in museum bookshops) White learns there are only 35 Vermeers in the world in only a handful of museums. He comes up with an itinerary that will take him from the Mauritshuis at the Hague, to the National Gallery in D.C., the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kenwood House, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery in London.
The only thing missing from this book is illustration. I get it, this isn’t a $75 art book for the coffee table, but I’m already picturing an expanded illustrated edition à la The Hare with Amber Eyes. A girl can dream. Maybe if it wins the National Book Award?
As it is, I had to be happy with Google and my iPhone. Each time White came to a new painting, I had to call it up and look along in order to fully appreciate the text. So I armchair-traveled along with White and studied these public domain/fair use images:
After the Frick, Michael White visits the five Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally, he flies off to the last stop on his itinerary, London. Before that, though, White retreats into a contemplation of his two marriages, his battle for sobriety, his almost crushing love for his young daughter and his search for new love after divorce. He is in the perfectly vulnerable place to figure out just what Vermeer and his women are meant to teach him.
Back to the essential question: Why? Why do we love to study these paintings? And what can this do for us, aside from offering momentary pleasure or joy? What is the point? White comes to his realizations (his “aha” if you will) toward the end of the book, weaving his memories and his losses into his obsession for Vermeer. There are paragraphs toward the end that were so lovely they took my breath away.
Here’s a small taste:
When Sophia was still an infant, I remember the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze. She’d stare so seekingly into my eyes for hours – first one eye, then the other eye, and then doze off before beginning again. . . . In those first months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love. How astonishing to see and be seen, to be truly seen for the first time.
. . .
What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? . . .
He goes on, but it’s too beautiful for me to repeat it here. I swear, it gave me goosebumps. All of a sudden, my love of art and travel and literature, my dedication to this silly little blog, it all makes sense. I want (we all want) that “sweet sensation of joy” that such moments bring. I am seeking (we all are seeking) to know the world, to know and be known by our loved ones. And that is what art does.
As White said, “the feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”
I think you should read this memoir for yourself, you might just have “a moment” of your own. Because writing this good is as artful as a painting.
For Further Reading:
Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, http://www.essentialvermeer.com
Katherine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson
Even if you’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should check out her website, which will remind you how creatively she wove a number of Vermeer’s paintings into the narrative. It might make you want to read it all over again.