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.

1 comment:

gilbert said...

Hi Brian.
I'm halfway through Edward Snow's book and have just finished the section on The Procuress. I've found myself enjoying the book's discussions and how they prod me to think differently about works I'm familiar with (although I claim no great academic insight); while resisting the occasional analysis as unconvincing.
I've been Googling a bit to see if there are any other comments on this, and landed on your page. Your notes on The Procuress particularly interested me.
A couple of aspects of Snow's approach to The Procuress have left me quite puzzled. I've always assumed that the procuress of the title was obviously the second figure from the left. She fits all the usual markers in this genre set-piece; an older woman, often in a hood or headscarf, who leans in toward the merry couple with great interest to ensure that the business side of things is attended to. Sometimes she takes the money, but other works that include this procuress figure, clearly show the girl taking the money (Bijlert, Steen). Apparently x-rays have shown her hand was once painted near the suitor's right arm, possibly encouraging the payment he's making. This identification seems entirely solid to me. The girl in yellow, young, rosy-cheeked and warmly compliant is clearly the courtesan. So I was very surprised to see Snow even suggest that the girl in yellow might be considered the procuress, although he then casts doubt on the idea. Nevertheless, he deals summarily with the older figure without even mentioning what seems to me to be her obvious identity. Only in the notes does he suggest this as a possibility (i.e. the older woman is the procuress), but only as a possibility because he seems to think it's just a feeling he has, not strongly supported by the evidence. Huh? So I've put my book down and made another cup of coffee, just to think a little on this.
I know you posted your comments a very long time ago, but I would be interested in any response to the above.

By the way… I'm also not at all convinced that the pitcher in the same painting is perched precariously on the edge of what would be a tiny table. Something that Snow makes so much of. I've looked at several reproductions and I can't see why the table doesn't continue to the right, out of the picture frame. There doesn't seem to be any clear corner to the right of the pitcher nor an edge coming towards us… it's ambiguous at best. The tapestry edge which is probably about a metre or so nearer to us than the table, confuses the issue visually. If the table continues off to the right then all this business about the precarious pitcher is irrelevant. Unfortunately I will probably never have the chance to see the painting in the flesh again. It may well prove me wrong on this point.