Saturday, June 6, 2009


Edward Snow's A Study of Vermeer is a book I recommend to anyone who has an interest in looking closely at paintings. Snow has a very good eye and he writes well and (for an academic) clearly. There are a few "deflected gazes" in this book, but for the most part Snow keeps Lacan in the footnotes where he belongs. I was deeply impressed by the book's opening tour de force reading of Girl With a Pearl Earring, a painting that has never greatly impressed me but which will now capture more of my attention on my next visit to the Hague. There follows an interesting discussion of Degas's 'bathers' that leads into some highly arguable interpretations of Vermeer's genre paintings. I find myself agreeing with Snow about half the time, and I think that's about as much as I agree with any good work of art criticism. His interpretation of the Berlin Glass of Wine (a work that blew everything else in its room off the walls at the Met's 2001 Vermeer exhibition) seems much too harsh, as though Snow is attempting to rationalize a 'gut-level' dislike of the painting. And I wish his discussion of Girl Interrupted at Her Music (I'm using the traditional titles that Snow, like most scholars and curators today, eschews in favor of newer, blander ones.) lingered longer on the disruptive force of the girl's Luncheon on the Grass-like gaze out of the canvas. (Where's Lacan when we need him?) Still, Snow's book is well-argued and thought-provoking. It showed me a few things I had not noticed in many hours spent in the presence of these paintings, and I really can't ask a critical book to do more than that. It's a book I enjoy arguing with--high praise.

One such argument arises when Snow spends altogether too much time discussing the minor, early Procuress, surely the worst aesthetically of the canonical Vermeers. Admittedly, his reading is interesting, even poetic (Snow is also a translator of Rilke), but the painting simply isn't good enough to justify extended study in a book that gives far greater paintings shorter shrift. (I should come clean at this point and admit that I'm a member of an extreme minority (perhaps a minority of one) that doubts the attribution of The Procuress. When I saw it in 2001 amidst so many other 'authenticated' Vermeers, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was either an apprentice work by the young Vermeer and other hands or by a different painter altogether. The 'signature' on the canvas doesn't concern me; signatures can be forged...And yes, I am entirely aware that I'm starting to sound like a character in Gaddis's Recognitions. The signature just doesn't impress me because the painting itself fails to impress.)

Overall, I disagree with many of Snow's interpretations and find a few of them clearly and obviously wrong (his reading of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, for example), and yet I still value the book and know I will return to it. When Snow gets a painting right (as in his readings of A Maid Asleep, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Woman With a Balance and The Artist's Studio), he gets it powerfully and compellingly right. And his eye is at times stunningly acute. For example, Snow points out two spatial anomalies in the Studio that I hadn't noticed before, even though I've spent the last 7 years living with a large reproduction of the painting. His book makes me feel both chastened and argumentative. Like Vermeer's works, when it's good it's damn good.

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