The National Gallery

by Tyler on January 23, 2001

in The London Semester, Travels

On Saturday we (Tina, Emma, and I) went to the National Gallery on a mission to find Johannes Vermeer’s painting “A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal” for our Humanities 100B class. A virginal (contrary to what some of you may be thinking right now) is a musical instrument that is somewhat similar to a piano, only much smaller and sounds more like a clavichord, or harpsichord.

The painting itself is rather spare; the woman stands relatively expressionless in a true sixteenth century Dutch fashion in front of two other paintings in the background (one of a simple landscape with a striking gold frame, and the other of a chubby little Cupid figure with wings and a bow at his side) with light pouring in from some very large windows to her right (the left side of the painting).

The balance of the piece is calming, but the piece itself strikes me as rather plain. The focal points do not center on her face (as would be expected) but on the gold frame of painting in the background, the light pouring in, her blue shawl, and the chair in the foreground – which all (rather linearly) line up from top left to bottom right. Most of the lines that make up the painting are vertical, with very very few curved action lines, which lends itself to a very still, very calm, very lifeless picture. It is only the light pouring in from the window which bestows any sense of reality to the painting, and is (in my humble opinion) the saving grace which makes this painting worth scrutiny. It gives dimension and shadow and life to an otherwise still and airless painting.

Overall, the subject seems to be less the woman standing at the virginal, and more the light which allows us to see her in her calmly lifeless abode.

But enough about that, the entire gallery was filled with wonderful snapshots of human genius and creativity (as is to be expected, I suppose). One must constantly fight the predisposition to place the talents of humankind on a linear frame of judgment ranging from ancient (inferior) to present (superior); an idea which is supported by the predominantly Western notion of progress. It is striking to see the talents and mastery of humans from a time so long ago recorded on a medium that spans the time between the painter and the viewer. They were indeed masters of their trade. Captured are the textures, volumes, shadows and tones; but more importantly, captured are the smiles and eyes and faces and personalities of human beings so long ago – not at all unlike ourselves today.

I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate: the beauty of these experiences lie in their illumination of history as something that once was and continues to be real and living. There is an underlying predisposition to believe that history WAS, the present IS, and the future WILL BE – that these three things are entirely separate and linear – when in fact they are much more flexible and malleable than that viewpoint would have us believe. History continually shapes and alters what is (making it dynamic, rather than fixed), and the present continually replots and redirects that which has yet to be (the Future).

Tonight we go to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tina and I have booked a trip to Belgium for this coming weekend; what fun!

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