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May 6, 2002

Merely Vermeer

By Eric Rangus


Celeste Brusati is never far away from her clicker. Whether she is wandering the dimmed, tightly packed Carlos Hall conference room, or seated at the table discussing her perspectives on the slides beamed on the wall to her right, Brusati keeps her clicker handy so she can work the slide projector.

Slides are an art history professor’s best friends. They can introduce master works of art to a class of students with a simple … click.

The slides through which Brusati is clicking on this particular Thursday afternoon are of paintings by Johannes Vermeer, the prime subject of Brusati’s art history seminar, “The Art of Johannes Vermeer.”

Each week for three hours, Brusati leads her small group—just four students and a pair of auditors—through a tour and discussion of Vermeer’s art.

Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter who, while much renowned, remains quite mysterious. He completed fewer than 40 paintings. Because of that minimal portfolio, Brusati is able to introduce her students to all of them, and discuss each in depth in class. Students also view examples of other Dutch artists for comparison. Despite his relative lack of production, Vermeer is one of the most admired artists of his time.

“I think he is an artist who doesn’t embrace the common language,” said Brusati, Lovis Corinth Research Professor in Northern European Art. “Instead, he calls it into question, or at least uses it in a way that invites the viewer to ask some questions.”

Not much is known about Vermeer’s life—his religion, for example. Was he a Catholic or wasn’t he? He married one, but did he convert? His works definitely have religious undertones, but from what perspective did he see things? Pro-church? Anti-church?

One thing that’s clear is that Vermeer’s symbolism and allegory are much more subtle than his contemporaries. A slide Brusati showed her students—of a Peter Paul Reubens painting in which the Roman god of war Mars is centrally featured, surrounded by fire—is a good example of this.

Vermeer didn’t title his paintings, either; the rather straightforward names they have now (“The Milkmaid,” “The Music Lesson,” “The Allegory of Painting”) were all attached by others. The artist’s work may be so subtle, in fact, that his symbols may have been personal ones, understood by only one or two people, Brusati said.

Brusati’s students read nine books on the painter—although the one she wrote on Vermeer in 1993 is not one of them. The perspectives of the authors often are contradictory, and bouncing from one interpretation to another is part of the students’ journey.

Students have had to write two papers and design a virtual exhibition of Vermeer’s work. They had to provide a layout of their proposed exhibition and explain the concept behind it. The order in which the pictures were to be hung, as well as floor plans of the viewing space, were the primary components.

This month Brusati, associate professor of the history of art at the University of Michigan, is finishing up her year-long stay as Corinth professor. The professorship was created so that Emory’s art history department could host a visiting scholar whose expertise covers northern European art, an area in which no current Emory faculty member focuses.

Brusati certainly qualifies. A faculty member at Michigan since 1990, she previously taught at Yale and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught dozens of graduate and undergraduate courses on Dutch art.

Brusati’s work is connected to that of Emory’s previous Corinth professor, Walter Melion. His research concentrated in the late 16th and early 17th centuries of Dutch art. That was a time when painters were beginning to explore different representations of their subjects—the art of reflections, for example.

Brusati’s focus on the mid-to-late-17th century deals with the artists who are heirs to the language that began the generation before, men like Vermeer and Samuel von Hoogstraten, a painter and art critic about whom Brusati wrote a book in 1995.

Vermeer’s subjects often are presented in luxurious settings with lots of tapestries and pleasing if not ornate furnishings. This is a bit misleading.

“The idea that’s we’re looking at ordinary, everyday objects is not exactly correct,” Brusati said. “You’re looking at lemons that were exotic fruits in the 17th century, as opposed to things you can buy at the market now.”

Some of the objects depicted in Vermeer’s work, like porcelain, could not have been made in Holland during that time period, Brusati said, and would have had to be imported—probably at a great cost.

“The students are looking at things that may have been worth more than the paintings they are depicted in,” Brusati said.

As part of her time at Emory, Brusati delivered two lectures: “Vermeer’s Pearls: Reflections on Pictorial Illusion and Disillusion,” in November, and “All Eyes: Fictions of the Eye-Witness in 17th Century Dutch Art.” Each was followed by a colloquium in which Brusati was able to discuss her opinions in a more informal setting.

“The lectures I gave here were extremely helpful,” Brusati said. “I’ve gotten to push my own thinking forward and instigated a lot of conversation with my colleagues. Also it showed me were their work and mine [intersect]. That was important.”

Brusati said she has enjoyed her time on campus. “I’ve led such a charmed life this year,” she said, “teaching one course a semester and not doing much administrative work. And this is a very congenial department.”

Her graduate students in Ann Arbor, though, are never too far away. They frequently contact her by e-mail and often send faxes of dissertation or thesis chapters.

Brusati had planned to work on an introductory text on Vermeer during her time here but has since changed her focus a bit. She has moved her research into an investigation into pictorial and textual discourse of art in the 17th century, of whichVermeer was a crucial part. The idea is not to look just at what was painted in the 1600s, but what was written about those paintings during that time.

Brusati’s second line of research while Corinth professor is that of “the beholden” in Dutch art. Her thinking involves the perspectives of both the eyewitness (the person viewing the painting) and the beholder.

“Until recently, vision has not been regarded as a cultural phenomenon,” she said. “There’s art, and then there’s observation. What’s very clear in the 17th century is an understanding of the artificiality and the pictorial nature of vision.”