I could say, “I wanted to see the Vermeers,” but, in truth, I needed to see them. And so, early on a chilly December morning, I passed through rural highways in West Virginia and Maryland until suburbia gave way to our nation’s capitol. Driving in D.C., never my favorite as someone now used to the traffic of a college town, felt completely worth it once I was texted that I was next in the virtual line to see the National Gallery of Art exhibit, “Vermeer’s Secrets.” This limited exhibit featured NGA’s small collection of Vermeer paintings, known forgeries, and a portrait attributed to his studio but not the master himself. The Gallery made use of an array of technology to interpret and study these masterworks in a new way.
As much as it should have awed me to see a man’s face under Girl with a Red Hat, or the many shades of yellow in the coat of Woman Writing a Letter, I found I was most captivated by the simple act of standing quietly in front of Woman with a Balance. Until this moment, this wouldn’t have registered with me as an arresting painting. A master’s work, yes, but not one that spoke to me in a compelling, individual way.
This, I think, may be one of the best arguments for going to see works of art in person. I had seen the work previously, both online and reproduced in books, but this work did not speak to me in either case as it did when I stood in front of it, unmediated. The voyeuristic quality of Vermeer’s image stood out to me in ways it had not through other means of viewing.
The woman is placid, absorbed in her work. Her eyes are downcast at the delicate balance in her hand. She takes no notice of those who view her. She is intent, but not frustrated. I notice the brilliant blue of her jacket, the crisp white of the fur that trims it. Objects to be weighed, objects whose value may be uncertain, are arranged on the table below the balance.
How do we really determine value?
For her, it’s the objects to be weighed, perhaps. Or maybe the religious art behind her, or the interplay of heavenly worth and that of the world, which is to say commerce. Light shines through the window, highlighting her and shading the elements to be valued.
For me, it’s about what’s worth holding our attention. And, after being in the presence of this small portrait, a thought has been nagging me—namely, that these interconnected ideas of worth and attention have relevance to the work of health humanities.
In their article “Health Literacy and the Arts: An Intersection Worth Exploring,” Ruth Parker and John David Ike write, “the arts require us to pause and reflect.” In this way, the arts also require us to embrace ambiguity, which is what Woman Holding a Balance teaches us. We can’t know what her thoughts are about her task, what motivates her or what she hopes to gain from her activities. We simply glimpse her in process, and we glean our understanding from context. As we activate our curiosity, the painting requires us to be thoughtful in a way that stimulates our imaginative capacities.
As I stood before Woman Holding a Balance, I contemplated measurement. Using a health humanities lens, I can consider all the ways that medicine depends upon measurements. And yet, for all the measurements one might take—height, weight, blood pressure, and so on—and for all the useful things those measurements can tell us, the picture they produce is incomplete.
If art fosters visual literacy, how might these acts of observation engage us in a more sophisticated understanding of culture and context? Perhaps this is what caused me to linger as I did in front of Woman Holding a Balance. For all the rich and vivid detail, for Vermeer’s use of light and shadow, there is more unknown about her than known. Perhaps this can also be a lesson to those of us working in health humanities, that art is a tool which helps us grapple with perceptions of ambiguity: “For clinicians, arts exposure interrupts the automaticity of much of clinical practice and requires a viewer to wrestle with ambiguity and uncertainty” (Ike, et al.).
I am not a clinician, yet Woman Holding a Balance required something similar from me. What it sparked was wonder, a quiet contemplation of what I was taking in, a recognition of what I could know and what I could only speculate. The focus on the interplay of observational skills and imagination is as important to a writer as it should be to a health practitioner. Our shared space, as we stand before art, is built on our ability to ponder, to consider others’ experiences, and to focus our attention on what we can perceive in order to better wonder about the world.
When I use my faculties in service to wonderment, it causes an expansion of compassion. How could it not? Woman Holding a Balance does not depict distress, yet I still felt compassion as I was staring at her, frozen in her moment of contemplation. Compassion creates an understanding beyond the intellectual, something more human and more intuitive. I find myself admiring this woman as she’s engaged in a simple task. I can’t quite explain why I find beauty in her, as she’s not conventionally beautiful. It’s the less expected beauty that feels more potent, perhaps. I’m drawn to her in a kind of quiet surprise, like the turn in a poem, which can almost be missed if one is hurrying along and not paying attention.
Perhaps what I love most about my time in front of this painting is what I cannot capture fully in words, that which cannot be directly translated to you. Maybe, if you stand before her, you will feel similarly—or perhaps your experience will differ vastly from mine. Maybe another portrait will help you find the kind of transcendence that art invokes. That’s rather the point, too: that, in its presence, the same piece of art can incite very different reactions and interpretations in the people who observe it.
I think about the pre-health undergraduates I’ve instructed over the years, and how so many of their courses required them to “solve for X.” Whenever they confronted art in any of its various forms, they had to let go of that orientation, if only for a moment. Their awareness of ambiguity and their ability to contend with it grew as the answers they sought became less definite and more contextual. In front of the portrait, I am like them, teasing out what I can by looking closely. As Parker and Ike have it, “The arts can teach us how to listen, increase our awareness of humanity’s interconnectedness, and inform us of our identity: who we are, what we value, and who we aspire to be in the future.” Perhaps this is why, walking out of the exhibit, I felt as though I’d seen a version of myself.
In some essential way, Woman Holding a Balance and I are interconnected. I cannot be her and she cannot be me, but in some way, we have been part of each other. I am left to wonder who has snatched a view of me, concentrated on some task, unbeknownst, just like that woman so fiercely fixed on her measurements. I feel the slight smile draw across my face. Then, I move on to other wonders.
Image: Woman Holding a Balance from National Galleries Exhibit (photo by author)
Ike, John David, Postlethwait, Rachael, and Parker, Ruth. ‘Nurturing Context: TRACE, the Arts, Medical Practice, and Health Literacy’. 1 Jan. 2019 : 93 – 104.
Parker, R. M., and J.D. Ike. 2017. Health literacy and the arts: An intersection worth exploring. NAM Perspectives. Commentary, National Academy of Medicine, Washington, DC. https://doi.org/10.31478/201707e