Another painting that stuck with me was Vermeer’s The Astronomer. It was inexplicably in one of my early science textbooks. I have no idea why I remembered it or liked it so much. It must speak to the true quality and beauty of the work. In any case, decades later, when I was going to visit the Louvre with my wife, I somehow learned that it was in their collection and made a note to be sure and see it in person.
We made our way to the museum early in the morning to beat the crowds and set about ticking off our list. We knew there was too much to see in a day, and we had plans to get to the Orsay in the afternoon. We saw the Venus de Milo. We gave the obligatory regard to the Mona Lisa. (A painting I have vivid memories of seeing before at the Smithsonian Institute, even though it was apparently never lent to the Smithsonian.) We saw one of the suicide of Cleopatra where, for some reason, the painter had the cobra biting her right on the nipple! (Was that to induce more squirming, or just more breast obsession?) We even came across Liberty Leading the People.
Then we made our way up to the old Dutch masters. We saw Rembrandts and paintings that looked a lot like Rembrandts and then, we found the spot reserved for The Astronomer. It was a blank wall. In its place was a sign, with a 5 cm x 5 cm black-and-white photocopy of the painting telling us that it was on lone to a museum in Chicago! I think that was the moment that would cement my opinion that the Orsay is a better experience.
I got another chance to see this picture that had inspired me so much last week. Nearly ten years after our last visit to the Louvre, we took the kids. And this time we were assured that The Astronomer would be there. They had a whole special exhibit dedicated to Vermeer with paintings of his from all over the world on loan to the Louvre!
We did the general exhibit first, and we took our time even though we were, again, headed to the Orsay later. We walked past every painting. We lingered at some. We didn’t see them all (I didn’t notice Cleopatra) but most. Then we headed to the Vermeers. And that was when we discovered you had to have a reserved time-slot. The next available one would not be until 1:30!
Everyone knew of my quest to see The Astronomer, so we stuck it out. We waited two hours to get our shot. And it was worth it. I don’t know what makes fine art fine. Why do we all decide that a man’s work, unknown outside of his town during his own life, not discovered until a century after his death, is better than most other works of art? Why does a man, sitting in a room, or a woman pouring milk, or a girl standing in a colorful dress, inspire such universal admiration?
Maybe that is the real take-away for me from school and its textbooks, from fine art and its mysteries. Not answers, but the curiosity to inspire questions and quests.