Art, in history and literature

July 7, 2019 at 9:10 pm (Art)

For quite a while now, I’ve been seeking out art history written with an eye toward beautiful prose as well as enlightening insights.

Vermeer, View of Delft 1660-1661

It is as though the town has not yet emerged from slumber or from a trance. The painting is not a record of busy Delft but a symbol of historic Delft….

Light in perfect accord with composition is perhaps the key, but how so? The light toned near shore, almost flesh colored is at the bottom of the canvas while the dark water-filled clouds are at the top. And between these is the softly emanating light from the massed white cumulus clouds – superbly composed, accented silhouette of the town and  the waterway, half filled with dark reflections of the buildings….

If the magic of this painting is ultimately beyond words, it still behooves us to try. We stand on this near shore, and we gaze at something real yet absolutely beyond our reach – beyond our physical reach, I mean. Our eyes, our gaze reveals Vermeer’s Delft as a magical island, one artist’s ideal of civilized perfection: his home, his nation.

Professor William Kloss

In The Captive, fifth volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust’s masterwork, a writer names Bergotte is in an art gallery viewing an exhibition of Dutch paintings. Having just read an article about Vermeer’s View of Delft, he finds himself standing before it, transfixed :

“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall…’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall…'”

“Le petit pan de mur jaune…”

There is seating nearby. He sinks down onto it, then rolls off onto the floor, insensate, and dies.

From Proust: the Death of the Writer Bergotte




  1. Roberta Irgens said,

    A print of this painting is hanging in my living room. I look at it everyday. A pale comparison to the real painting, but still beautiful. Thank you for sharing the beautiful prose.

  2. Susanne said,

    Yes, prose that is as evocative as a picture is a real treat. I notice well turned phrases all the time in the most common writing and it always makes me pause and reflect.

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