About Me

My photo
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:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Part 2, Vermeer's Woman with a Red Hat

                   I studied the paint surface and realized a number of things that a picture in a book could never reveal. Vermeer had reconsidered his first pass at the face. He had wiped it back and then scumbled a vague semi- transparent warm to cool skin tone over the shadow area and into the eyes. That feathered rocket ship of a hat was painted in smooth vermillion layers over a grayed alizarin. The few deft brush strokes left intact describe the surface but also slow the eye– kept it from spinning off the hat. The folds of the cloak articulated in three distinct values of blue glazed over a warm dark undertone, compress at the elbow then release the eye to travel up the column like forms that support the head. The yellowish highlights on the shoulder, rendered in liquid brush strokes, sit brazenly on the surface of the painting, but still manage to define the high points of the forms. The cravat, a masterful flick of the wrist in viscous flat lead white, was gently scraped back with the wooden handle of his brush to create the folds by revealing the slightly darker undertone. Vermeer’s touch, his exquisite control of the paint was tugging me in even closer but the spell was broken when the guard tapped me on the shoulder and he asked me to step back.
From a safe tourist’s distance I tried to call up everything I knew about Vermeer’s work so that I could try to understand how this little painting fit in the dynamic of his work.
It’s a well-known fact that Vermeer like many artist of his time experimented with the use of the Camera Obscura. It was not unusual for painters to use the camera as projector to by-pass the difficulties of drawing and composition and then fill in the colors and values from direct observation of the subject. But in the ‘Woman with the Red Hat,’ Vermeer did more than trace a projection. He observed and faithfully painted what the image of a woman with a red hat looked like after the lenses had projected and then flattened it onto the piece of translucent velum in back of the camera. The messy complications of binocular vision and the painter’s task of focusing, gathering the thousand details, then restating them in the right order, had been relinquished to the to the Cyclops eye of the camera. He allowed the camera’s shallow focal zone to resolve the visual field in the painting. That would explain why the lion’s heads are out of focus even though they are the closest object to the painter’s eyes, and the pooling of the highlights. Both effects can be reproduced by selectively focusing with a Single Lense Reflex camera.
In this painting Vermeer manifested supreme faith in the power of science and it’s devices to express objective reality. It was a bold move considering how different it was from what our two eyes insist reality looks like. Vermeer’s choice was ahead of the curve but actually very logical. After all he lived in Delft, the city where the technology for accurately grinding lenses was developed and the revelations of the microscope were leading to a reconsideration of visual reality as perceived by the naked eye. But that was not the only interesting choice Vermeer made in this painting.
Just as I thought I was starting to get a hold on things, a tall woman wearing a red hat, as big Vermeer’s but not as graceful, stepped into my line of sight. I leaned right and managed a glimpse, but then she drifted right too blocking my view. I stepped back to the left, caught a quick peek and there she was again. As I walked away the image of the painting was still ticking. My mind’s eye was clicking along the triangular path between the hat, her blue shoulder and the cravat, drifting over the face unhindered by demanding details, bypassing an area that usually calls for a slow read.
By the time I had squeezed out of the crowded gallery, the image of the hat and the cloak had faded. Only the blazing gesture of white paint under her chin remained.
I breezed through the front doors and as I sat down on the Met’s broad front steps, I was thinking that Vermeer was right to leave her face and eyes impassive and indistinct. They do not inspire us to invent relationships–a narrative, but still we can’t help but be aware of human presence there. Passive, too humble to judge, she watches us as we freely enjoy the painting for its physical qualities– the glow of a color, the graceful interactions of its parts. I pictured Vermeer getting up from behind the easel to stretch his legs, probably intending to sit back down to work into the razor sharp ivory edges, maybe add more information into the shadows of the face, but he didn’t sit back down. He must have seen something that told him that this painting worked. Vermeer, the sensible father of eleven decided to ignore the purse of the patron, the precedent of his own work, and the demands of the narrative. He made the painter’s choice and walked away even though when compared to the high level of finish of his previous work, as well as that of his contemporary’s, it must have looked unfinished to him. He let the paint speak.
Unlike the other clocks in the gallery, Vermeer left this one open so that we could see the gears and springs that move the hands and tell time. We can feel the energy of the painter’s hand driving the precise movements amplified by the compressed space of Vermeer’s tiny room. The sequence of events evident in the painting gives us a glimpse into the painter’s intent and instills a sense of time to our experience of the painting. With this information our brains can synthesize, visualize, and then animate. We can recreate the painting; transform it from an aloof, distant fact, to an immediate performance, taking place in the very intimate space between our ears.
This painting engages us because it speaks to us in a modern language. We have come to accept truth or reality as modified by the lens. Our modern eyes, tuned to high chroma colors, and the hectic motion of our visual world, demand a high-octane fare. In painting, the brush stroke has been set free from the menial task of pulling the story wagon to express itself as pure energy, motion and time. Vermeer’s mining of the novel effects of the lens, expanded the painter’s language to reach beyond the telling of a specific story.
As I watched the woman with the big red hat walk down the steps I wondered how Vermeer knew that the blazing ivory strokes, pure vermillion and the pooling highlights were the beating heart, the tightly wound spring that would keep this little painting ticking into the future.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Juan de Pareja and the Nobleman's Collar

       We were walking through a flock of fat gray pigeons in St Peter’s square when I spotted a ragged boy hungrily examining our entourage as he soaked his feet in the fountain. I recognized that look. Like the hawks circling overhead, he was looking for the easy mark, the fat pigeon that would not put up a fight or give chase. When I was young I too was barefoot, always searching for the crumb, the loose coin in the pocket, always hungry.
            I would guess that our official entourage consisting of an armed court officer, a diplomat, the court scribe and then myself, a Moorish slave, promised a fatter purse than the tired pilgrims, his usual prey. But on the other hand the hungry pilgrims rarely carried sabers. The boy gathered himself, stood up, and then followed us.e 
            The portly scribe in front of me, unable to keep up, had fallen behind, our growing distance from the armed deputies must have tempted the boy. I was sure he did not consider me a threat, as my hands were occupied carrying a large painting wrapped in black velvet. By the way I carried the painting in its expensive covering he would correctly surmise that I would not set it down on the dusty plaza just to chase a petty thief.            
            The boy slowed down to match the dawdling pace of the scribe. He was getting ready to strike. He had decided that the prize was worth the gamble. The scribe would have been my choice too.            
             The thief was now running in an arrow-straight line toward us, drawing his blade. I stepped back to keep the painting out of harms way.
              The boy slipped into the space between us. I saw a dull flash as the leather strap of the purse around the scribe’s neck was cut, and then the he tucked the fat purse into his rags.
            When he turned to run, I kicked him as hard as I could, just for show. The boy stumbled to the ground as the scribe patted himself, frantically looking for his  purse. When the boy leaped to his feet, our eyes met for an instant, and then he ran off into a rising cloud of beating gray wings. I think he was smiling.
             “Thief! My purse!” The scribe yelled. The court officer and his deputies drew their sabers and then halfheartedly ran toward the now circling flock of pigeons.
            “Moor, give chase, my purse!” The scribe shouted in my face, and then grabbed for the painting, but I would not let go.
            “My master has entrusted me to carry this painting to the pope himself.” I stated in a matter of fact tone.
            “I order you to give chase!” the desperate scribe yelled into my face. But I had no intention of giving chase. My responsibility is to my master and his painting. 
            Then, his annoying squeal,  “Why will you not go after him?”
            “Because I do not wish to add to his misery,” I answered, knowing this will infuriate him.
            My master would not punish me for considering the safety of his painting above this scribe’s purse. Why would he side with the scribe after the cowardly and cutting things that he has been saying about this painting.
            “Impudent Moor, your foolish Master has allowed you to forget that you are nothing but a nameless, soul-less slave. The court will hear of this!” He threatened and then pulled even harder on the painting. I jerked it away from him and in a low respectful tone I recited the words my master made me memorize in Spanish and Italian before he sent me out on his errand weeks ago.
            “My name is Juan De Pareja, servant and studio assistant to Don Diego Velazquez, court painter and confidant of The King of Spain, Phillip IV…”
            “Silence, enough! ” the scribe yelled. “The Moor puts on airs! Imagine the King’s own painter rendering a slave in a nobleman’s collar, then having him parade this outrage around Rome.” He turned to appeal to the other members of our party, repeating almost word for word the insult he carelessly spoke in my master’s own studio. “We must put a stop to this. He’s making Spaniards look like fools.”
            When the officer returned from the chase, the scribe pointed his fat finger at me. “I want to make a formal complaint. This insolent slave must be punished. This painting has gone to his head. He must be put back in his place.”            
             “I care not for your court’s intrigue,” the court officer said as he slid his   saber back into its scabbard. “If I present you one second late, for your audience with His Holiness, his wrath will fall heavy on all of us. Now let’s move on.”

                The scribe was right; this painting had gone to my head, but not in the way that he thought. I might be a slave but I am not a fool, yet it is a complicated matter to consider.
See Part 2, next Blog.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Juan De Pareja and the Nobelman's, Collar Part Two

           The lace my master hung around my neck, a nobleman’s collar, was no tribute.  If I listened to the likes of the scribe, I would see it as a joke at my expense, a ruse that I have to play out over and over again in the studios of the great artists of this city. For the past two weeks as instructed by my master, I have entered their studios, set my portrait on their easels, assumed the pose and then recited his speech. The painters’ reactions are almost always the same. They comment on my master’s economy of means, his deft touch in creating a sense of light, and atmosphere.  But then, inevitably, they’ll marvel at his uncanny ability to imbue a fool in a nobleman’s collar, a mere parrot, with a depth of character and nobility of spirit that surely no Moor or slave could posses. I wish my master, the supreme painter of Kings, and Queens, jesters and fools had painted me as I am, a devoted, skillful assistant, sometime confidant, and yes a slave, but not a fool wearing the nobleman’s collar. 
             But I must not be ungrateful. After all, my master chose me above others in the studio to accompany him on his second trip to Rome. He had allowed me to rise in the studio from sweeper to carpenter, then to grinder and mixer of his pigments. But he would not allow me to study the secrets of the craft openly like his apprentices, because I am a slave.
            It was no secret that I collected the odd scraps of paper, linen and the scrapings from his palette. He must have known that when everyone had left the studio, I drew and painted, trying to improve my skills, hoping someday to rise to the status of copyist. I think my master and I are very much alike in this way. He recognizes and respects my efforts to rise in the studio because he is also ambitious.  He would never pass up an opportunity or court position that would raise his stature in the hierarchy of the palace.
             His second trip to Rome was an opportunity to rise in the court as well as a chance to establish his reputation outside of Spain. But in this city of painters, Don Diego, favored painter of the King of Spain, had been royally snubbed and ignored. Although they had been invited, none of the great painters had come to see him. Even the Pope, who had agreed to sit for an official portrait, had not granted him an audience. 
            My master’s pride had been severely bruised, but he expressed his anger and disappointment to no one but me. For weeks he brewed and stalked about his studio in a foul mood until one day he called for me. When I arrived, he immediately asked me to set out his pigments. Then he motioned for me to stand for a portrait, just as I was, in my work clothes, with the hole in my sleeve in full view.
            He painted in silence, as was his habit, using the long handled brushes that were the newest technique borrowed from the Venetian painters. When he stepped away, indicating that he had finished the drawing stage, I set to mixing his full palette of colors from the finely ground pigments he keeps in a locked wooden box.
            When I heard him walk out of the room, I glanced up at the painting and was surprised by the accuracy he had achieved with a just few dabs from the long handled brushes. Just as I was finishing his palette he came back into the studio with a lace collar in his hand. Without explanation he placed the collar around my neck, then instructed me to tie it off.           
            We worked until the light faded and then little longer. When he finally put down his cat’s tongue brush, the brush he always finishes with, he seemed pleased.             “We have worked well today Juan,” he said, and then stepped back to study his painting. “There you are. ” His voice betrayed a pride and satisfaction in his work that he rarely expressed outside of the studio. “ Tomorrow I will instruct you on the errand you will run for me, and soon Rome will know we are here.”
            I was anxious to study the fresh paint but I waited for him to leave. Then I walked around the easel to the spot where he had stood, three meters away from the painting. In the gathering twilight, the smudges and strokes were transformed into rough cloth, hair, and flesh in light and space. As I gazed upon the portrait from a distance, I had the unsettling sensation of having left my body, and then of watching myself approach as I stepped in closer.
            Picking up a long handled brush, I assumed his fencer’s stance at arms length, then carefully danced the brush tip just off the surface of the painting. Mimicking the one, two, three, rhythm of his hand. I tracked his strokes, marveling at his touch, and his magician’s confidence that a semi transparent scumble at arms length would engender the illusion of the cottony texture of my hair from a greater distance.
            I have watched him perform countless times, learned to mimic the movements of his hands, memorized the sequence of steps that bring him to the end of a painting. But still there is a mystery there, something that cannot be explained.
            Once, a court magician showed me how he was going to make the dove in his hands disappear. He repeated the same hand motions and words, but when the dove disappeared I was left teetering at the edge of a mystery, the vast space between fact and illusion. In front of his painting I witness the facts of his strokes, as they conspire to create the illusion of light on form and then essence beyond likeness, but still the mystery remains. Perhaps my master has understood that the mystery starts on the canvas in front of our face but the real magic takes place behind our eyes.
            As I unwrapped the painting in the great hall of the Vatican I did not question my master’s motivations. I understood the lace as a painter’s choice, a choice guided purely by the need to set off the face, relieve the dominant tonalities that would otherwise have drowned the painting in grey- brown mud.
            But I cannot understand his choice of my portrait to represent his talents to the painters of Rome, and ultimately the Pope. He could have used any one of the fine portraits of Spanish clergy and diplomats he had painted, but he chose a painting of a Moor, the long-standing adversaries of the Spanish Crown and the Pope, a gamble so obviously out of scale with his sedate character.
                I can understand his choice if I look at him in the same light as the hungry boy in the St Peter’s square or myself, the moor in the rough cloth of the slave wearing a nobleman’s collar. Maybe, like the little thief, he decided that the prize was worth the gamble. I know I would have.