Every time I turned a corner into a new gallery, there she was. She could have sprouted Psyche’s wings draped with pleated Greek linen and I wouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t at the Louvre that day, or any other day for that matter, to find a woman but I kept seeing her hour after hour. Big baby eyes, tall with high cheekbones, stick thin in summer whites. I guessed arriving from the east, from the Czech or Hungary freely passing through the rusted shatter of the Iron Curtain on to the sumptuous west. A stunning doe-eyed gazelle émigré to the fashion center of the world to cash in on her good looks. She was paired with her mother, frumpy in bulky gray just going to shabby, a face molded in the slow cooking of wartime desperation and the subsequent drear of Soviet life. It had to be her mother given the same bones behind her road map face. When I overheard them talking in the sotto voce half whisper of the museum goers, my guess at the Slavic origin was confirmed. She and her Mum kept appearing as artifacts in the museum, in the Great Hall, in the humanist Dutch paintings, through the swagger of the corridors of Rubens, into the intimacy of the Corot; a special show of his paintings I had earmarked. She was someone you noticed and again and again there she was, her movements slow and studied, careful and conscious of how her body might look against this painting or that long hallway.
This was my third visit to the Louvre on this trip to Paris and I was just going to fill in my wish card, just to see some of the things I’d missed. This quick pop-in with the muse turned into an all day thing; the force of what I had missed became an unshakeable gravity. I got greedy and couldn’t stop myself and as the hours wore on I found I had put away two meals at the packed cafés inside.
Alone, one becomes weightless and the gallery rooms become like aquaria, the air thickened to liquid. The visitors swim along through their own minds made newly open and reflective by the art, the mind quieted by the single-mindedness of peering into still windows of paintings alive with psyche. The pictures themselves become aquaria within aquaria, the visitors moving in a benumbed torpor forming schools shaped by a particular pace of viewing the rooms. It seems the lady in the white dress paired with her gray mother are part of my school.
The guards are like suckerfish plastered to a single spot in the swim tank of each gallery. I’ve asked one, “Où peut on trouver les Vermeers?” Regular old simple French, “Where can I find the Vermeers?” I get the Parisian puff signifying disdain and surrender to the impossibly ignorant. Head shakes and with puffs twice more, from two more guards before one corrects my pronunciation and says, “Ah! Oui! Les Vermeers! Oui.” Repeating, “Les Vermeers!” (to make sure I got it right though my pronunciation was barely a degree or two past his). Up one floor and there they are, in marquetry frames on the new gray-painted walls. The smaller of the two, the little lace maker. A tiny picture, a couple of hands width, meant to be looked at closely so that when one peers in, the whole field of vision becomes limited to just the light falling on her. A world scooped out the dark. Her busy hands and focused attention becomes a vessel for this light. There’s nothing like this around in the rest of the paintings from 17th Century Holland: the rolling cloud landscapes, the gaudy still lives, soft interiors, the heartfelt portraits. After a millennium of depictions of the myths of Jesus, painting took a front row seat to mythologize the poignancy of life lived day to day. They are beauties, these Dutch pictures to be sure, but the two Vermeers in this gallery have the lights turned on in a very different way. The light is like heavy syrup. As a counterpoint, the light reflected up from the lace maker’s yellow frock shines up under her chin giving uplift, balancing the burden of light from above. From across the room they glow. In a break from his contemporaries his paintings did not dwell in the details, though they are precise, their precision is in the light. You feel it like a breath drawn in to nourish the blood of the spirit. Then you see the red threads spilling out like fresh arterial blood, spilling out from under a velvet black pillow right in front of a prayer book. Then the eye goes to details like her little finger demure and just barely pulled out of the way of the other flying fingers; she’s fashioning a splendid love offering. Miraculously in a picture of nine by seven inches, the lace maker is a messenger from a religion without dogma spelling out the message, “Everything’s gonna be all right.” “Everything’s gonna be all right.”
My unbidden companions are looking at the other Vermeer, The Astronomer. Charts and geometric overlays abound to explain everything about the clockwork of the universe. Our astronomer is seated in his study, the stage for the bulk of Vermeer’s works. He painted more than 25 pictures in just that set up, with light pouring in left to right down on his subjects through a window. The plaster wall backdrop glows with daylight. In paintings of the Milk Maid, Woman Reading a Letter, Girl with the Pearl Earrings, and the pregnant Woman with a Balance are all in the same room with the same light. In that same light The Astronomer is on to something, caught in a moment, one hand on a globe of the heavens, zodiacal images, of swirling beasts and heroes, place holders for the movements of planets, the other hand gripping the exotic Turkish rug spread on his table. His arms open, he makes a basket welcoming the light into his chest and face, as he half rises out of his chair struck by inspiration. The Astronomer depicts one of the relentless discoverers at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and the model was probably Vermeer’s friend Van Leeuwenhoek, a genuine world changer who showed us paramecia and red blood cells.
I stop to let things sift and to replenish. I have a coffee and a Croque Monsieur. There they are, under a tall window, light pouring on to the two women, in white and gray, heads leaning toward each other across the pastel mauve square of the Formica café table. The woman in white holding her cup two-handed is paused in listening, the pinkies pulled back just a touch like the lace maker. I make a little sketch. Her movements are so poised I think now, maybe she is a dancer and not a fashion model. The space between the two of them makes another basket holding light. All morning I have been making a theme of hands: the hands of Canova’s Psyche in white marble, the hand of the astronomer forever spread ready to touch the globe, Da Vinci’s hands in the Mona Lisa herself. They all seemed poised feeling the space touching without ever touching.
Then, of course, there are the hands of M. Bertain that hyper-real portrait by Ingres of the newspaper magnate, a corporate carnivore whose hands look like efficient talons spread on the black twill covering his knees.
I have been in this tank of pictures swimming around for hours and I’ve about done with it. Maybe a quick dip into antiquities before I go back to the noise and diesel smoke air of Paris. Outside. But first into the un-refurbished part of the Louvre, its carved wood paneling, marble-pattern floors and tall arched windows, looking onto the Paris horizon, recalls its first iteration as a palace. I have been here for over eight hours. The Steele of Hammurabi is here, carved with the laws of his pronouncements. I had looked at it in every survey of art class and in picture books of civilization. It is an archetypical place-keeper in the encyclopedia of human achievement; I am looking at this very sculpture. Here it is, written down codes of conduct, in low relief, on this phallus of black stone channeled by Hammurabi himself talking to an invisible sun god.
Hammurabi is shown with eternal radiant waves flowing out of his shoulders: this from four thousand years ago. Another glass box, standing in the center of the room, is spread with little pillows of dry clay writing tablets. The translations in French are typed on cards yellowing in the still air. I’m reading, slowly translating from the French what I can of the everyday accounting for goods traded and letters regarding legal matters. Through the glass twelve feet away are the model/dancer and her mother. The daughter is translating the card next to the tablet on the far side of the case. I can hear her words but I understand nothing of it except the sound is in a rhythm that is all sweetness coming from a pouty mouth almost fish-like in a guileless face. It’s the look the fashion designers want to see oozing out of the tops of their creations. Now, I’m sure she’s a model.
The two heads lower to look closer, examining the marks in the dry clay; rows of triangle flags made with a cut reed-end as a stamp into the wet clay. She continues to translate in a soft breathy whisper-voice. As they bow, the white dress falls away from her chest just a bit so that she brings a hand up to press the bodice chastely back in place with just the first two fingers. I am looking through the glass, it is so affecting; her face, her voice, then her hand touching, touching like a white marble hand caught forever in time. Her hand is like all the hands I’ve seen today, becoming the focus of a painting I’d call The Girl, Her Mother, Visiting Antiquities. They leave and I look at what she was translating, a clay tablet, circa 2200 BC, titled, The Oldest Love Letter in the World… It begins, “My little ewe, may the heart of Marduk bring you eternal light…”