About Me

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New York, New York, United States
I am a portrait, landscape painter and a fiction writer. My paintings can be found in private, academic and corporate collections. Traveler's Insurance, Yale University, Aberchrombie and Fitch Inc. Drew University etc. I currently have two novels in print: 'Raining Sardines' (07)and '90 Miles to Havana' (10) published by Roaring Brook Press. Become Social: Facebook:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vermeer's 'Woman with a Red Hat' Part 1

Part 1
Jolted awake by a red hat.
A number of years ago while inching along the crowded galleries at the Metropolitan Museum’s Vermeer retrospective, I was feeling unusually blasé in the presence of his rare paintings. The chatty crowd was busy reading the labels, commenting on a shinny gold goblet, or guessing at the meaning of the model’s  enigmatic look. 
The scenarios he staged to illustrate the ideals of the mercantile class, always in the same corner of his studio and bathed in cool northern light were never convincing to me. They needed more than the expensive props he borrowed from his wealthy clients to get them over. They needed to be embellished, but Vermeer, the hybrid offspring of science and art, was not interested in theatrics. He was a painter devoted to the mechanics and poetry of light, not to the story. His paintings, unequaled for their beautiful rendition of pictorial space, light and surface, never sold very well in his lifetime because he was unwilling to idealize or embellish. To his prospective clients the girl in his painting was never more than a servant wearing someone else’s pearls; the suitor, just the butcher boy posing in a borrowed coat.
On that day I was not interested in the goblet, the ubiquitous map or the gossip about the true identity of the maid. I was interested in what Vermeer the painter could teach me. I was looking for something I could bring back to my studio. But as I crept from painting to painting I could not find an opening, one crack in their highly finished surface that I could peel back to get an idea of what was going on inside. I felt like I was in the presence of exquisite old clocks, too delicate to wind, unable to tick to our time and tell the painter’s story. Vermeer’s paintings were meaningful in his time partly because any depiction of two-dimensional reality was extremely rare. I couldn’t help but wonder how seriously a similar representation would be considered in a world flooded with cheap clocks and vivid, moving two-dimensional images as we have now. So why do I insist on working for months just to add another representational image to the flood of now devalued images? If the thing is to create a meaningful image, why not avail myself of the new technology. Why do I restrict myself to the clumsy brush and recalcitrant, sticky oil paint–the Luddite’s choice, when I could just push the button, download, modify and then print? At least I would save a lot of time on clean up.
Those thoughts were buzzing around my head when the crowd suddenly stopped in front a very small painting and we all leaned in as one. No one bothered to read the label and there were no sly remarks from the crowd about possible soap opera entanglements between the painter and the model wearing someone else’s red hat.
Jolted awake by the full strength vermillion disk of the hat, I flew past the blurry lion’s heads into the surprisingly vast space inside Vermeer’s fifty-four square inch glass room. The breathing closeness of her mouth, the immediacy of her blazing ivory collar, startled and amazed me. This was the opening I was looking for; this precious little clock was still ticking and I had to know why.
See Part Two


  1. This painting has long been one of my favorites in the collection of the National Gallery in DC. One time many years ago shortly after visiting the gallery I saw a woman sitting in a DC restaurant wearing a red hat - she bathed in light from the window and immediately I saw her through the eyes of Vermeer. His sense of light is the story indeed.

  2. Vermeer is one of those artists who can actually change the way you see.

  3. You have me hooked, Enrique! Just what a good writer is supposed to do. Look forward to part 2.

  4. "Every painting should have a little red." I don't know where I heard or read that (could it have been from Emile Gruppe?), but this painting has always been my favorite Vermeer. Would it do what it does if her hat were any other color? That would be a fun photoshop exercise-or has Andy Warhol already popped that around?
    There's a painting that I've always loved in the MFA called "Woman in a Fur Hat," and I think the red makes that one too. Just found a link to that. Note the reference to Vermeer in the text, though it's to "Pearl Earring."
    Enrique-thanks for getting this part of my brain churning. Keep it up.

  5. Thanks Enrique! I really enjoyed your interpretation of this painting. You continue to inspire and enlighten me. Best of luck to you with your work...

  6. Henry, my supremely talented younger brother, is there anything you do not do well? You excelled in athletics as a swimmer and soccer player. You have always been a spellbinding storyteller with a boundless imagination, keen eye for detail and engaging manner. You have combined these qualities with your unquestionnable artistic talent and hard work and have evolved into a highly regarded and prize winning painter and author. You are also a fine guitar player and songwriter. Your cha-cha, merengue and mambo moves on the dance floor are unassailable. As if that were not enough, you are a great family man with two great kids and a wonderful wife.

    Now, as far as your essay, as always, I enjoyed reading it very much. You have a way demystifying the esoteric, simplying the complex and speaking in a laguage that engages even an untrained and unsophisticated slug such as myself and compels him to learn more about the subject matter.

    Are you sure we come from the same family?

    Kudos, mon frere

  7. Imposter, I say!

    Enrique, your well honed writing skills have betrayed you at last. As someone who unfortunately has two older brothers, I instantly perceived the last post, claimed to be written by your older brother, was in fact written by none other than yourself. Anyone familiar with the Big Brother's Guild knows that the only things bestowed upon a younger brother include but are not limited to knuckle sandwiches, Indian burns, noogies, purple nurples, wet willies, wedgies, or Dutch ovens. But, glowing compliments? Come on now. My brothers would rather be flayed alive then give me a look kinder than a sneer. So be forewarned, I will be on the lookout to expose any future posts which have even the hint of a mango about them.


    your appreciative pupil, Jim O.