From art meaningful to art meaningless. Jan Vermeer: “A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window” and James Whistler: “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl”.


The bohemian king of XIX-century Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, with his utter disrespect towards regular society, will be today juxtaposed with the forgotten genius of XVII-century Golden Dutch Age Johanees Vermeer.

I’d like to mention that with publishing this post, I want to pay off, for not living up to the expectations, of all people, who visited my site, so as to find here writings on art. Therefore, I start a new category, which I named in contribution to the word, written long time ago under the name of my blog.

As an architect I am aware that architects search for inspiration for architecture rarely in architecture itself. It may seem strange, considering for example artists, who steal each others’ idea, practically all the time. And I don’t mean that we are in any way bitter, as somebody once assumed on Archinect. It’s just that architecture aesthetics requires a load of imagination to make it vibrating.

Unlike other arts, which, especially nowadays, enjoy utter freedom of expression. The freedom, so vivid in our today’s Parisian gypsy.

The Golden Age

Common theme obviously unites our artists, but presentation of a young girl is, in fact only an excuse for hiding behind canvases strikingly different worldviews.

Jan Veremeer, oil on canvas, from approximately 1658, “Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window”, we, people of modern, or even postmodern times, find ourselves completely enchanted by the distant magic, of seventeenth-century Netherlands.

First thing, which comes to my mind thinking of this period are frames from “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and its timber-made stands, and a crowd of customers wearing leather, dark hats, pointing a pile of fish, lively bargaining lower prices.

The reasonable distance from other, Christian lands of Europe, and the paradigms of the contemporary humanists, led Dutch people to developing their own, revolutionary set of customs.

The societal revolution amazed the travelers from the whole Europe, especially its marital relationships, when husband could publicly praise his wife, or even just showed her friendship. The tenderness of that time in Rome or England was unprecedented, but this sophistication was pleasant for the Danes, who might think of themselves as the innovators.

The bohemian king

Lighter approach to societal customs is also common to Paris of 1960s’. The beginning of La Belle Epoque was saturated with academic style of painting, which was strictly dependent on a set of rules, ordering artists to strive for the refined “effect fini”. However, simultaneously, the first signs of secession also started to come up, and artists like Whistler, Monet and Baudelaire were making their art, among the happy circles of Parisian boheme.

In this time Whistler, finished his “Symphony no. 1. The Girl in White”, and hence the phrase “art for art’s sake” found itself another place for existing.


Henri Fantin-Latour, “Homage to Delacroix”, 1864

Through artist’s eyes

As I indicated at the beginning, Jan Vermeer for a long time sustained in the dark corner of history, and number of his painting (relatively small anyway) was being accredited to other artists, like Rembrandt or Pieter de Hooch. Therefore we don’t possess such a vast archive about him, as we do, in the case of Whistler.

What we can firmly assume, however, is that he was certainly aware of the uniqueness of his country’s society. On his paintings we can see how laboriously he expresses his rapture, through perfecting every small detail, in the lion timber chair, and the red, heavy curtain, and the densely patterned Turkish carpet, captured in extremely low perspective.

How opposite this attitude seems to be, when looking at the pale, blank face of the Whistler’s White Girl. We see her being totally undergone the artist’s sense of aesthetics. We can’t see any element of the personality, of the girl, who was paradoxically also Whistler’s lover, but tortured mercilessly by the painter, through long sessions of tiresome posing and making more and more changes of his artistic vision.

Seeing music

In fact, Whistler’s tenderness is directed somewhere else. The reference to music is the key for discovering, the essence of his art. As the artist was a faithful music fan, he tried to capture sound in a visual experience. I described this , actually quite an often theme, appearing in many generations of architects, in the post, on the fifth chapter of “Experiencing Architecture”. Both, previous artists, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later ones, like Mark Rothko, shared penchant for these themes.

Over two-hundred-year difference bordered an obvious difference between the technique of the artists. Except formal requirements like the prize of paints in Vermeer’s time, the idea what artists should strive for. in his art, has changed dramatically.

One deceived nature, the other one deceived a man

The famous Greek tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius’s contest, and their goal to create paintings utterly deceiving viewer’s eyes, so-called trompe l’oeil, was a still-going mindset of the Dutch artists. And although Vermeer’s art goes much further, than merely copying nature, his sensibility in depicting everyday objects sustains an indisputable value of his works.

Looking at Vermeer, we can sharply feel, the weight of the objects, the mass of the suspended curtain and the timber-made window beneath it. The sense of weight is for us intuitive, and many artists penchant for playing with it, for example like Whistler who does it, by making its model resemble more a specter, than a real human’s flash and bones. Velazquez’s visible brushwork strongly influenced Whistler, by making its paintings composed of, in terms of space and mass, obscure, vague shapes, that vibrate before our very eyes, calling to mind tightly stretched strings, or… simply music.

Dense patterning is shared by both artists, either in Vermeer’s Turkish carpet or Whistler’s colorful strokes, put on the distorted in perspective floor. However, while the decision of using it by Jan Vermeer, comes simply from “memesis-ing” Dutch interior decorations, Whistler’s dancing patterns is, as mentioned before, originated purely from artist’s sense of aesthetics.

Art for art’s sake

A peculiar example of van Gogh, the artist who sold merely 2 paintings in his lifetime, and was glorified after his death, presents the problem of dialogue between artists and society.

Of course, not always discussion between society and artists can be possible, and the fault lays as well on the one as on the other side. We, architects, know profoundly, how unpleasant may be explaining a stubborn client the point of curving a wall or building a column diagonally.

Many masterpieces were originated only because artists were given the freedom of expression, although there are also creators, who are able to enter into debate and through the power of art can influence society, just like Frank Gehry changed for ever the atmosphere of Bilbao, or like Picasso depicted the cruelty of war in his “Guernica”.

Decay of art

Vermeer’s highly detailed richness of textures, light and color resembles wealthy Dutch period, in which art run along craftsmanship and beauty of deceiving viewers’ eyes were comprehensible to everyone. However, the inevitable law of entropy proceeded and led culture towards rejecting this noble art and praising ugliness, primitiveness of the contest, in which wins the one, who si able to stun the audience more.

James Whistler’s art is placed somewhere between this process, and I believe that, if an experienced eye focused really, really strongly on the cracks, in the paint of Symphony no. 1, between its shadows it might see, the picture of society digested by its own negligence.

List of references: (access 20/10/2013) (access 20/10/2013)