I used to boast that I never lived in a city without a Vermeer.—You do now, a friend pointed out, when the one Vermeer in my city
was stolen.It’s still missing.The museum displays its empty frame.But there are eight Vermeers in New York, more than any other city—
and not so far away.Sometimes even more.Once, the visiting Vermeer was one of his most beloved paintings.It was even more beautiful than I remembered.A young girl, wearing a turban of blue and yellow silk, is just turning
her face to watch you entering the room.She seems slightly distracted by someone a little off to your right, maybe
someone she knows better than you.Her mouth is slightly open, as if she’s just taken a breath and is about
to speak.The light falling on her is reflected not only on her large pearl earring
but also in her large shining eyes (“Those are pearls,” sings Ariel of a
man drowned in a tempest at sea,“that were his eyes”).And on her moist lips.There’s even a little spot of moisture in a corner of her mouth.Some art historians think this was not intended to be a portrait, just a
study of a figure in an exotic costume.Yet her presence is so palpable, she seems right there in the room with
you, radiating unique and individual life.Already in the museum is another Vermeer in which a woman writing
a letter has a similar pearl earring.She’s interrupted by her maid handing her a letter—is it from the person
she’s just been writing to?And in a nearby museum there’s a painting of a young woman with
piercing eyes and another enormous pearl dangling from her ear (a
“teardrop pearl”).She’s staring out a window and tuning a lute.Scholars tell us that these pearls aren’t really pearls—no pearl so large
has ever come to light.No oyster could be big enough.So the famous pearl is probably just glass painted to look like a pearl.Pearl of no price.Yet as you look, the illusion of the pearl—the painted pearl, glistening,
radiant, fragile, but made real by the light it radiates—becomes before
your eyes a metaphor for the girl wearing it.Or if not the girl, then Vermeer’s painting of her.
Copyright © 2018 by Lloyd Schwartz
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
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