A WOMAN HOLDING A BALANCE

Years ago in the mid-west we often heard about an artist, originally from Vincennes, Indiana, who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. When he was drafted into the United States Army in 1953 he served in Germany and was able to visit many of the great European museums. After returning to the States and finishing up his education in Chicago, George Deem moved to New York City where he became interested in synthesizing both art and art history. This is where and when he began a long series of paintings as mash-ups, or pastiches of famous works of art: variations on themes by Caravaggio, Chardin, Balthus, Edward Hopper, and especially Vermeer. The interior of an old time school house became the setting for many subjects such as the “Hoosier School” of 1987 and the “School of Vermeer” from 1984.

George Deem
“School of Vermeer”
1984
Oil on canvas
86.4cm x 106.7cm
Garland and Suzanne Marshall Collection,
Clayton, Missouri.

I first began visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC during my junior and senior years in high school. Over the next four years I continued and intensified those visits on the weekends when I was home from art school in Baltimore. It is hard to say where I would begin, but on every one of these visits I knew definitely that I would always end in the rooms that housed the Dutch paintings, and especially the four Vermeers in the collection. When I first saw both “The Girl with the Red Hat” and the “Woman Holding a Balance” it was an instantaneous lesson in light and color.

Both of these paintings glowed, as if from the inside out. Each figure being bathed in light. The light and the reflections coming through and effecting all of the objects were simultaneously subtle and intense: from the feathers around the edge of that red hat, to the highlights on the finials on the back of the chair; and then to the pearls, pieces of gold and other objects collected on the table and being weighed in a balance.

Woman Holding a Balance
Vermeer, 1664.

“The picture within
the picture is The Last
Judgement
, subdued
as wallpaper in the background.
And though the woman
holding the scales
is said to be weighing
not a pearl or a coin
but the heft of a single soul,
this hardly matters.
It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.”1

Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Holding a Balance”
c. 1664
Oil on canvas
15 5/8” x 14”
The Widener Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Many years later, in 1996, we would visit the historic “Johannes Vermeer Exhibition” also at the National Gallery. Although it was a horrible winter, with many blizzards, and a major government shutdown, we flew in to National Airport and stayed in Arlington, a short Metro ride over to the mall. We arrived early, stood in line for a few hours in the snow, and made friends with other like-minded visitors, each of us taking turns running to a nearby coffee shop for warm-ups. Even a couple of reporters from USA Today!2

Although I have now seen almost all of his work both in the United States and Europe, there are certain paintings that will always stay with me. “The Little Street” and the “View of Delft” have directly influenced my work, and I often see echoes of these images in everyday views anywhere from Bloomington, Indiana to Brussels, Belgium, whenever I find myself just walking down the streets.

Several contemporary writers have been influenced by this same imagery. Not just popular novels and movies, but the subtle subjects that appear and re-appear in the work of this artist. Two such poets are Linda Pastan above and Joseph Stanton below. In fact, both have taken on this very painting, the Woman Weighing Gold, or Pearls, or Holding a Balance, as it is often referred to.3

Contemporary painters such as James McGarrell and George Deem have also responded to Vermeer’s work. Both of them have revisited these historic images during certain periods of their careers.

I first encountered James McGarrell’s paintings at the Smithsonian National American Art Museum after they had been featured in the American contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1968.4 Later I came across his variation on Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” at either the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington, or the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York.

George Deem, after moving from Chicago to New York in the 1950’s realized how important his study of art history had been, and began to mine several of these sources. Above is an example of Deem’s synthesis of these paintings, several subjects combined in one interior. Below is a series of studies for these interiors: “Seven Vermeer Corners” depicts the emptied out rooms of these paintings, with the interior of the “Woman Weighing Pearls” shown in the bottom row, second from the left.

George Deem
“Seven Vermeer Corners”
1999
Oil on canvas
50” x 86”
Wellington Management Company Collection,
Boston, Massachusetts.

Vermeer’s A Woman Weighing Gold

“Motionless with musing,
the woman weighs her delicate ounces
of earthly treasure.

Behind her,
framing her head
in a squared halo
is another weighing:
the last judgements—
Dies Irae,
the damned cascading down,
writhing,
toward
their fiery demise.

But the woman’s body,
swelling with new life,
eclipses most of this excess
of painted dying.
What little we can see of it
is distant and shadowy,
memento mori
as muted afterthought.

The woman’s seeing is turned inward
to the treasure building there,
an interior glory,
mystery beyond measure.
She is the balance of the moment’s
precarious presence.

Vermeer belonged to his theatrical era,
but his drama’s action rises
in a bravura quiet of gesture and tone.
What he would have us see is entirely known
yet impenetrable
reality distilled to its contours:
a subtle seizure of daylight.
Vermeer’s conceit here
is metaphysical,
so we must weigh with care
his elaborate composure.”5


1 Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 38.

2 Schwiesow, Deirdre R.; “Vermeer fans brave nature, politics to see exhibit;” USA Today; Arlington, Virginia, 7 February 1996, Volume 14, No. 101, p 4D.

3 Wheelock, Arthur K., and Frederik J. Duparc; Johannes Vermeer; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague; Yale University Press. New Haven & London; 1995; p. 140.

4 Gaskey, Norman A.; The Figurative Tradition in Recent American Art; 34th Venice Biennial Exhibition; National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; 1968; pp. 93-98.

5 Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum: Poems on Art; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 20.

WHISPERS OF EDWARD HOPPER IN THE GALLERIES OF THE IMAGINARY MUSEUM

I first met Joseph Stanton in the Conference Rooms at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in October of 2004 during a series of discussions related to both the fine and liberal arts.[i]  Speaking as both a poet and art historian, Stanton approached Edward Hopper’s work from a critical point of view, while not forgetting the narrative lyricism contained therein.

Stanton’s collection of poems titled “Imaginary Museum” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition.  He has created a museum of sorts that includes several ‘wings’ housing the various collections.  Both, Eastern and Western cultures, as well as references to Pieter Brueghel and Edward Hopper are featured amongst the galleries of this museum.

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Approaching a City”
1946
Oil on canvas
27 1/8” x 36”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Approaching a City                  

“The way into the city is a darkness
that opens to a shadowed underground.
There are thoughts we approach but do not express.

With so much ahead we try to think of less,
knowing how clocks will turn us round and round.
The way into the city is a darkness

that remembers what we cannot confess:
that shadows shape what our lives have found.
A thought we can approach but not express

suggests that the future must be a guess –
a lie we must pass through or go around.
Yet the city’s inclination to darkness

should come as no surprise and no distress.
The light that strikes against wall and ground
is a thought we approach without express

prospects for joy or grief or tenderness,
keeping in mind the sky’s pale-blue surround.
There is no way into the city’s darkness,
which we have approached but not expressed.”[ii]

There are many examples of ekphrastic writing that are inspired by, but not necessarily literal descriptions of works of art.  For example, many works by Agnes Martin have inspired writers over the years, however this is in a very general sense, and often not related to any one specific work.  On the other hand, Edward Hopper’s painting of the “Nighthawks” has been the source for a great deal of writing, very specifically.  So, I recently asked Joseph Stanton about this and about his personal writing process.  Here is his reply:

“To answer your question, I focus very intensely on specific artworks, but I do not force myself to write about them in any particular way. Often I spend many months looking at reproductions of artworks to which I would like to respond without writing much of anything.  Also, because I teach art history, I live with my thoughts about the artworks in multiple ways. My procedure in such a case is to read and/or reread everything I can find about the artworks and the artist . . . . Sometimes I come up with a poem, sometimes I don’t . . . . Most of the research of course does not end up in the poem; sometimes none of it does . . . . The excesses that do not end up in poems or articles are enrichments to my teaching. In my role as an art historian, no amount of information or reflection on artworks is wasted. It is all grist for the mill.”[iii]

hopper1
Edward Hopper
“New York Corner, or Corner Saloon”
1913
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
Stanford, California

New York Corner              

“This saloon faces
a murderous expanse
of intersection.
Let’s drink
to that.”[iv]

Above and below are selections from the Hopper Collection of the Imaginary Museum.  We will be saving the “Night Hawks” and “The House by the Railroad Tracks” amongst others for later installments.  These current examples are indeed a set of whispers, less popular works perhaps, but clearly ones where the voices of both the poet and the painter are coming into focus.

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Drug Store”
1927
Oil on canvas
29” x 40”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

Drugstore                                 

“A drugstore window
in 1927:
jarred red light and blue
islanded in the silent street –
one war ahead, one war behind.”[v]

hopper3
Edward Hopper
“Rooms for Tourists”
1945
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 42 1/8”
Yale University Art gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Rooms for Tourists                   

“Sometimes
all we need to know about
cozy, bright rooms is
that we have been
left outside.”[vi]

hopper4
Edward Hopper
“Cape Cod Evening”
1939
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 40 1/4”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Cape Cod Evening                    

“The moment’s center
sees a dog poised in tall grass,
ears tuned to autumn’s
stiff breeze:  he sniffs bitter air
as if it were just weather.”[vii]

hopper5
Edward Hopper
“Solitude”
1944
Oil on canvas
32” x 50”
Private Collection

Solitude                             

“The sadness of horizon
is a matter of perspective,
the point being the vanishing
where lines converge
only because we see them to.

That vision is delusion
saves us from nothing.
Seeing’s myth
conceals a truth:

though there is no point
to vanishing,
we will all vanish anyway.”[viii]

 


[i] The Eighteenth Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, sponsored by the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York.  The topic of Stanton’s paper was “Retrospection on a Gallery of Hopper Poems” and looked especially at Hopper’s paintings as narratives.  20-22 October 2004.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 93.

[iii] Stanton, Joseph; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail communication with this writer on 27 November 2018.

[iv] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 94.

[v] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 97.

[vi] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 107.

[vii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 109.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 110.