And it was only by chance that I found out. I was drifting through the pages of the Los Angeles Times, for reasons too unimportant to describe, when I saw her face – glowing through the dirty ink – and read that she would be taking up residence in Pasadena, at the Norton Simon Museum. She will be accepting visitors from November to February, and I will certainly be one of them, basking in the light that was created nearly 350 years ago.
I saw her half-sister once, long ago. They share fathers: they were painted by the same man, Jan Vermeer – the painter who would capture and hold life as carefully as he would a butterfly. I remember pushing through the crowd so I could look into silent, speaking eyes; so I could melt into the gleam of her pearl earring; so I could feel the cool, cobalt textures of her turban. Her face was simple, like beauty, but it was also as multi-faceted as a diamond. For centuries her admirers had been dazzled by her mystery.
And now another child is coming to visit. I've seen her before, in books, in my thoughts – I'm well acquainted with the ribbons tied into her hair, with her plush jacket. The folds and creases are edged with gold: the alchemist has shared his art with the painter. I've traveled across the plains of that jacket, experiencing the progression from dark to light like the heat of the rising sun against my face.
I know her pearls, her slim arms, the patient and gentle smile. This is no Mona Lisa smile: final, fatal, a dead end. You've received all she is willing to give. This golden girl is just beginning to welcome her guest – her plain face is warming to the friend who has interrupted her letter-writing. You haven't surprised her, but you have been recognized. She greets you with a soft familiarity; she smiles, she pauses and waits for you to take a seat.
Vermeer specialized in capturing these quiet moments, preserving them in light like flies in amber. A girl in a crimson hat suddenly glancing over her shoulder; a woman reading a letter, both hands holding it tightly; a maid pouring milk – the stream pouring from the jug like a skein of white silk…and a girl caught in the middle of her writing: these are acts that have happened hundreds of times in any country, in any century. Silent, exquisite, they are seconds of life that are substantive, yet ethereal: they hold onto their three dimensions until you venture nearer. Then they dissolve into color and light, an emergent world that is on the brink of disappearing. This is a world that balances on an eyelash, which can vanish in a blink of an eye.
So when I do see her, I do intend to stand close, so I can see how time was made to stand still, how light was channeled to define life – how it was so magnificently understood. But I shouldn't want to stand too close, lest her smile waver, her warmth fade and her world dissolve into mindless geometry.