The most fashionable room in Amsterdam is too small to fit all its visitors. Crowds gather at the doorstep, peering through the half-drawn curtains at the checkerboard tiles, the red-and-gold wallpaper (or is it a tapestry?), the painting of a sailboat and billowing clouds. The room is never ready to receive them. There are papers thrown across a chair, a basket of laundry on the floor, a pair of slippers and a broom blocking the doorway. The hostess is oblivious to the presence of her guests. She’s always either looking up from her love letter — unaware that everyone else knows that that is in fact what she’s holding — or about to look down at it, staring anxiously and unseeingly into the middle distance.
The most fashionable room in Amsterdam is too small to fit all its visitors: it’s 44 cm high, 38.5 cm wide, and at most 2 centimeters deep.
It’s a painting — Vermeer’s The Love Letter.¹ Or, rather, this is one of the three most fashionable rooms in Amsterdam: the other two are similarly sized and house, respectively, a kitchen maid tilting a pitcher of milk (The Milkmaid), and another letter-reader (Woman Reading a Letter).
To make space for the crowds, Pieter de Hooch’s more spacious chambers (further extended by light-filled, half-open doors) have been annexed to those of Vermeer and converted into makeshift waiting rooms. What a sad fate for a painting — to be prelude to the real thing, a surface for impatient eyes to glaze over! To be the graceless cousin, too large for grandeur!
Vermeer’s rooms aren’t real rooms — but that’s not the biggest obstacle to their holding visitors. The real obstacle is just this: the rooms are too small and too quiet. They take in guests one at a time.
How absurd! Of all the paintings in the Rijksmuseum, the ones which draw the largest, loudest crowds are the ones celebrating silence and intimacy. Vermeer painted the quietest corners of the world. Now we all want to clamber inside with our friends, chattering as we go. He celebrated the ordinary and the overlooked. Now we all want to see the overlooked things too, made extraordinary by his brush.
I am deeply disappointed. The paintings might as well not be there. For me, beauty lies in the space between stepping back and coming right up to the surface of a painting. I appreciate with my legs as much as with my eyes, and the crowd paralyzes me into blindness.
I wonder how many people share my disappointment. How many, feeling the contrast between the crowd’s excitement and the paintings’ muteness, infer that Vermeer is simply overrated? How many are content to slide across the surface of the painting, glad to bask in the reflected glory of certified greatness? How many have never enjoyed a single silent, intimate moment like the ones in the paintings, never gasped at a ray of sunlight falling on a piece of bread?
For a quarter of an hour each day, Vermeer’s chambers get a respite from visitors. At 4:45, after the second announcement that the museum is closing, I am overcome with awe. Finally, the paintings can be heard. Their silence is audible.
But that’s just it — I’m listening to the works without even looking at them. I can’t really even tell if it’s their silence — or if it’s the aural afterimage of the departed crowd. I’m just reveling in the appropriateness of the setting, happy that the art gets to breathe for a moment. Even here, the crowd has left its mark.
I’m just reveling in my own powers of appreciation. Look at me, a connoisseur returning here at the end of the day!
I sit on the bench in front of the paintings. From this distance, I can appreciate just how small they are — a bit short of the dimensions of the standard student canvases I fill up during a three-hour class. Woman Reading a Letter is nearly square, and from this distance I can finally admire the composition — the simple, perfect geometry of the woman’s blue coat.
How many people, when they visit Vermeer, learn something about the charm of the ordinary? How many let themselves renounce not just big grand ballrooms but big grand painters? How many don’t mind the inability to see a famous painting, settling for the drama of this instant, the commonplace beauty of the crowd’s doomed quest for appreciation?
Not me — really, not me. I want to impress you, and to amuse myself in the waiting room, but what I want more than anything is a moment of communion with the famous painter.
Finally, the liquid the Milkmaid is pouring starts… not flowing. It’s so perfectly frozen. It implies so much movement. You can almost see the pitcher tilting — and it’s that “almost” which is the most delicious.
Finally, I am here. Almost.
 The image in the header is a plan view of The Love Letter recreated by Philip Steadman in his Vermeer’s Camera as part of an argument for Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura.