I most clearly recall what she said about Johannes Vermeer, as we stood before his enchanting Girl with the Red Hat. That story has haunted me for almost half a century.
Why it haunts me I won’t say just yet, but soon. When Vermeer’s story comes to mind on nights that sleep eludes me, I feel acutely the fragility of life, the ephemeral nature of everything we seek and create in this world.
The girl in Girl with the Red Hat stared at us from that small canvas, the sensuous details and the illusion of light creating a vision as liquid as reality, mesmerizingly dimensional, and Amalia said,
“Vermeer may be the most masterful painter who ever lived. He was a perfectionist who worked hard but painted slowly. Maybe sixty pieces. Thirty-six have survived. Twenty-nine are masterpieces.
His life was hard. He was poor, though he worked other jobs in addition to painting, desperate to feed his family. Fifteen children. Can you imagine me and fifteen Malcolms? I’d be insane. But wait, no, it’s not amusing. In those days, the sixteen hundreds, many died in childhood, and Vermeer grieved over four of his own.
He, too, died young at forty-three, admired by other Dutch painters, but penniless and in his own mind a failure. His widow and eleven children, whom he’d loved as much as life, were left destitute. For two hundred years, his work was forgotten … two hundred years. But tastes change.
To generations of the willfully blind, true beauty can remain unseen in plain sight, but beauty sooner or later asserts itself—always, always, always—and is at last recognized, because there’s so damn little of it. He died a broken man, but now till the end of civilization, his name will be spoken with respect by many and even with awe by some.”
Kids—and perhaps not just kids—are suckers for stories about underdogs who triumph in the end, even if they have to die first, and Vermeer became a hero of mine that day.