Wattie’s Bog News


Imagine:  A mother of four, sent off to war, gets her face blown off in Iraq, a Purple Heart and her kids don't recognize her any more...

I heard Antoinette Scott, a United States Army Iraq war veteran recounted this experience, her own story, in an interview with Lynn Neary on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in July 2007.  

The harsh cruelty perpetrated on Ms Scott and her family led me to think about women, war and Vermeer. In Johannes Vermeer’s day (1632-1675) you were fortunate if you didn’t get pillaged, plundered or your head lopped off in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) or the First or Second Dutch-Anglo Wars that followed. Or survived the Bubonic Plague. Or became bankrupt speculating on tulips in one of the first grand examples of “irrational exuberance” — Tulip Mania (1636-1637) — that sent the Dutch economy into a tailspin.

In the 1990s, Lawrence Weschler, a 20-year staff writer at the New Yorker was in The Hague writing about the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. He asked the Italian jurist, Antonio Cassese, how he kept his sanity while listening to accounts of unimaginable brutality and  “regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss.” Cassese said he often visited the Mauritshuis Museum to spend time with the Vermeers. “Of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia.... [or had just been] awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution,” he said. Inspired by Cassese, Weschler wrote “Inventing Peace,” an essay in his book Vermeer in Bosnia: Selected Writings (Vintage), on the connection between the 20th-century Yugoslav wars, Vermeer’s paintings, and the violent time in which he lived. “Vermeer’s Delft, in particular, suffered terrible devastation in 1654, when some eighty thousand pounds of gunpowder in the town’s arsenal accidentally exploded, killing hundreds, including Vermeer’s great contemporary, the painter Carel Fabritius,” wrote Weschler.

A couple of great paintings by Johannes Vermeer come to mind: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c. 1657), and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-1664) which coincides with the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Vermeer was a guerilla protest painter in disguise. His work is really all about the insanity of war and the beauty and sanctity of life, family and home. His paintings aren’t just pretty pictures of sweet domestic scenes of bliss bathed in soft northern Flemish light as so many think. When you “read what you see,” as photographer Paul Strand said, you start to read the metaphors in the images. That reading must be done, however,  within the context of the time. When men appear in Vermeer’s paintings, for instance, they are officers with swords who are courting women. This is an important clue to the underlying context of his work, Officer and a Laughing Girl (c. 1665), painted at the end of the first Anglo-Dutch War.

All images have positive and negative space that define objects. This is true of the conceptual content in paintings, too. What’s not said is revealed by its conspicuous absence. Andy Warhol’s Campbells soup can paintings need to be considered within the context of post-war America’s consumer explosion in the 1960s. Although it’s not explicitly shown in the paintings, the time is alluded to, giving it relevance. So, too, with Vermeer — we need to consider the context and time in which he painted.

Reading Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657), painted just after the First Anglo-Dutch War, one wonders who would this woman be reading a letter from? Probably a fiancée or husband who’s an officer in the army or navy. The young woman in the painting is wearing a yellow dress, which was the color of madness. The drawn aside curtain in the foreground is a reveal — Vermeer is revealing a truth.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657

Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie

It’s a green curtain— green, the color of Nature; perhaps something is growing out of a state of immaturity.  Back to this girl’s dress — I’d say she’s pregnant. Holy mackerel, what a reality — pregnant and she doesn’t know if her husband will return from or die in battle. The letter is little solace, since it could be months old and her fortune hangs in the air, a vulnerable position to be in with child. A basket of spilled fruit — the life of the soul — covers the table. Fruit is also a metaphor for sensual pleasures. In this case the fruit has spilled but hasn’t been lost, so there is hope. There is a reflection of the young girl’s face in the open window. Quite simply, she’s reflecting on her sorry reality — of which you are given a clue by the title, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. That’s some reality to be facing.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1664
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1664) was painted seven years later in the middle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. And in the middle of the Bubonic Plague, too. It’s the same woman and she is unquestionably pregnant. Her lips are parted, no doubt hanging on every word in a sad state of mind (the blue dress). A string of pearls is coming out of a cloth bag on the table. Pearls were a female sexual symbol. In this case, because they’re broken in two, it is also a metaphor for trouble or worry due to a loss. Another woman, another war, more heartache and devastation for women and humanity.

I didn’t invent this stuff. Look at Renaissance art — it’s all about faith in God and church dogma, expressed in metaphor, symbolism and allegory. Amazingly, in these image-conscious times we forget how to “read what we see.” We dream in the same language of metaphor found in ancient images and art. Sigmond Freud reminded us of that language in his dream interpretation.

The Art of Painting, c, 1662-1668

Vermeer’s self portrait.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

“It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bare — and, indeed, that they invite — a super plenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory,” Weschler wrote. Vermeer’s serene, peaceful images should be considered in the context of its war-torn, cruel time, along with an understanding of the content and conceit of his messages.

Artists often create their own reality, painting it on canvas - I know this because I live it every time I walk into my studio.  I think this is the heart of Vermeer which Lawrence Weschler notes in his title "Inventing Peace."

Those realities, those readings of Vermeer’s masterpiece paintings make them powerful, timeless messengers of the price of war. Pictures, after all, are precisely the reason this White House doesn’t want us to see caskets arriving home from Iraq. I feel sorry for those women in Vermeer’s paintings, but I feel deeply sorry for Antoinette Scott. As with Vermeer’s women, Scott reminds us that there are forty thousand more like her, wounded in mind and body — the endless costs of endless wars.

Link to Show PreviewOne_Man_Show.html

For more information about Johannes Vermeer visit The Essential Vermeer website.


by  Coulter Watt

Photo credit:

Copyright Coulter Watt 2007.  All rights reserved.

Imagine, Vermeer & War                 July 24th, ‘07