Monday, October 05, 2009

Seeing

A week or so ago, I wrote about Vermeer's The Milkmaid, now anchoring a mini-show at the MoMA in New York. Whenever I write about a painting, I make it my desktop so that I live with it for a while, at least until the next painting comes along. And so it is with the Milkmaid. I almost feel that I know her. (You can see the painting by following the link above; click to enlarge.)

But what keeps focusing my attention is the stream of milk pouring from the pitcher, a detail I show here. The pitcher is ever so slightly tipped; the milk is precisely horizontal and vertical. And look how the artist has depicted the constriction of the stream just below the pitcher's lip, and how with delicate shading he has indicated the stream's corkscrew twist --- all features of actual liquid streams. This is clearly a man with an exact eye for the world. He has seen what most of us are oblivious to.

Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in about 1658, at the age of 27 or thereabouts. He was born in 1632, the year before Galileo was ordered to stand trial for heresy. He died in 1675, the year Newton published his Hypothesis of Light. Vermeer was the contemporary of his fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small.

Fraancis Bacon had recently emphasized the role of exact observaton in the quest for reliable knowledge of the world: "Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world."

Vermeer's brief lifetime was an age of learning to see. Spectacles, telescopes, microscopes: In all of this the Dutch excelled. I wonder to what extent the widespread manufacture and use of eyeglasses was a driving force of the Scientific Revolution. I like to imagine that constriction of the milk stream in Vermeer's painting -- precisely observed and touchingly rendered -- as the axis on which the Scientific Revolution turned.