Still Looking . . . Still Vermeer: Columnist wishes Updike could see new Vermeer exhibition

The new (and largest ever) Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam is apparently as hard to get tickets for as a football championship. A World Today News columnist recently said, “I had given up all hope of a ticket for Vermeer, until an attentive, art-loving one NRC reader managed to get my wife and me in after all, even without having to smash a window of the Riijksmuseum.”

Officer and Laughing Girl. 1657-58, oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York: Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.—from the Riijksmuseum press website

The writer lamented, in a column titled “Still Vermeer” (in apparent reference to Updike’s second published volume of art criticism, Still Looking),”If only John Updike, the American writer (1932-2009), could experience this exhibition. I mention him because of all literary writers he has been the greatest connoisseur and admirer of Vermeer. . . . Updike became interested in Vermeer as a schoolboy. He wrote a nice, autobiographical story about it: ‘The Lucid Eye in Silver Town.’ In it, a boy, together with his father, visits an older brother of that father in New York. The boy’s father is a passive man, the older brother is a successful businessman. It is the boy’s first visit to New York, where he wants to buy a ‘good book’ about Vermeer.

“The wealthy uncle listens to him skeptically and starts bragging about four paintings by Degas that he has hanging in his living room in Chicago. ‘Yes,’ says the boy, ‘but don’t Degas’ paintings remind you of colored drawings? When it comes to it to look to things in terms of paint, with a sharp eye, Degas can’t match Vermeer.’

“The uncle says nothing and the father apologizes: ‘That’s how he and his mother always talk. I can not reach it. I never understand any of it.'”

The writer talks about walking through the new exhibit and wondering what Updike had thought of his personal favorite, The soldier and the laughing girl . . . “a painting that seems made for Updike and his ‘lucid eye.'”

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