Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Gallery of Art, and the Louvre, 304 pp., $60.00; $35.00 (paper)
On a May morning in 1921 Marcel Proust ventured from his bed, where he spent most of his time, to see an exhibition of Dutch painters at the Jeu de Paume. Organized to demonstrate the modern sensibilities of certain old masters, it had been lavishly praised, including by his friend Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, who reviewed it under the title “The Mysterious Vermeer.” Vermeer had been an obsession for Proust since he saw The View of Delft at The Hague in 1902 and called it “the most beautiful painting in the world.” In Swann’s Way (1913), Vermeer figured prominently as the epitome of aesthetic perfection and an impediment to human relations. The novel finds Charles Swann stalled in his attempt to write on the painter. Although this project continues to derail his courtship efforts, “in reality” Swann had “abandoned [them] years ago.”
Proust had hoped to write a study of Vermeer himself. Through Swann he expressed the fear that his own masterpiece would remain unfinished—at his death in 1922 the last three volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu were still in draft. So famous were Proust’s reflections on Vermeer that the 1921 exhibition included The View of Delft just so the ailing novelist could behold his favorite painting one last time. As if addressing Proust, Vaudoyer described that canvas in an overtly Proustian way, as déjà vu: “You see again this stretch of rose-gold sand…. You see again this immense sky.”
A photograph survives of Proust’s excursion. The last taken of the writer before he died, it shows him standing erect and elegant outside the Jeu de Paume. Before leaving his bed he confided that he didn’t want to ruin the exhibition by dying in the galleries. These worries found fictional expression. The character Bergotte—a writer and another of Proust’s alter egos in the novel—dies in front of a Vermeer. Lured from his sickbed by the words of a critic, Bergotte seeks in the canvas (which “he adored and imagined that he knew by heart”) a detail he had missed or forgotten: an exquisitely painted patch of wall. He wanders galleries hung with paintings that all seem “artificial” and arrives at the Vermeer, a work “more different from anything else that he knew.” His head spinning, he finds the yellow patch—and finds his life wanting: “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with several coats of paint, made my language exquisite in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Repeating to himself “little patch of yellow wall,” he expires.
It is Vermeer’s most dramatic reception. But the epiphany of the painter’s difference from others in the tradition, and the intuition that this uniqueness is mysteriously founded in paint per se, “exquisite in itself,” have…
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