My husband and I visited the Frick Collection in New York two weekends ago. Cloistered on the Upper East Side of the city between 5th and 6th Avenue, right off of Central Park, The Frick is home, among other things, to a small collection of masterpieces of European paintings and sculptures. Housed in the New York City mansion built by Henry Clay Frick in the early 1900’s, the collection is displayed throughout the library and study, drawing room and gallery, and visitors have the privilege of viewing the paintings much as Mr. Frick did himself. Standing inches from a Rembrandt or Whistler or Turner in someone else’s living room is an amazing thing indeed, so I savored each minute in the collection, taking my time wandering from room to room, simply trying to absorb all the beauty and majesty around me.
The last time I was at at The Frick was in 1995, the summer after my graduation from high school. My mom took me to New York, just the two of us, and she indulged me by not only going to art museums to my heart’s content, but by listening to me talk about the paintings I loved and why I loved them with all the conviction, passion, and “wisdom” of an 18 year old’s heart. Thanks, mom.
It was interesting to me to wander around the museum this time, looking at the paintings with the eyes of a 37-year-old as opposed to the eyes of an 18-year-old. As an 18-year-old, I was captured by the Romantics, loved Renoir (I still do), and did not have much time to waste standing still enough to look at other people’s portraits. I wanted to see paintings of action, drama, and romance. But as a 37 year old, I couldn’t get enough of the portraits. I stared in the face of an aging Rembrandt whose face looked creased and marked by the crevices of time and sorrow. I stood and pondered at ceiling-to-floor portraits of women painted all of their finery, some sitting inside to show their sedateness while other posed outside with the wild wind whipping through their hair.
But the portrait that intrigued me the most was by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and is called Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665). The painting is on loan to The Frick and shows a young girl, head wrapped in the soft colors of a blue and yellow turban. Her body is angled away from the viewer but her head is turned back and her lips are parted, almost as if she is trying to say something to those on the other side of the frame. On her right ear, she wears a large pearl earring that hangs just above her collar. The translucence of her skin, the position of her head and her glance backwards, the parting of her lips, and the luminousness of her eyes all arrest your attention, compelling you to take a second look. But the most compelling part of the painting is the background. Nothing surrounds the young woman except a sea of black. I do not think I would have been able to articulate exactly what was so compelling about this nameless young woman and her beauty, but the commentator I was listening to on my viewer’s guide said it well. I had to rewind it at least 4 times to get down the whole sentence: “Vermeer’s decision to position his figure against a darkened, uninhibited background leaves us nowhere else to look but at the luminous young woman.”
His words were profound. They struck a cord deep within my soul, perhaps because of all the hard news we have received lately about suffering in the lives of friends and family. It is not the beauty of her dress or skin that make this young woman stand out. Nor is the mysterious expression of longing on her face. Nor is it her single pearl earring. It is the darkness surrounding her. The darkness is what forces us to notice the beauty of her face. It is the darkness that compels us to take notice of the brightness of her skin and countenance. And it is the darkness that causes the luminousness of the pearl to shine forth.
As much as we chafe against it, isn’t that what a background of darkness does to all of us? It forces us to stare at the person, consider what she is made of, and take into account her beauty, or lack thereof.
As an 18 year old, I wasn’t much concerned with my portrait. I wanted romance. And action. But now, now all I can think about is my portrait. My legacy. That which will be passed down to the generations who come after me. I am not concerned with perfection or outer beauty or my skin’s translucence, but what I do desire is for Christ within me, the hope of glory, to shine ever brighter within me when darkness is the background the artist has chosen.
So many women have modeled that for me this fall: Shannon, Kathe, Robin, Kristen, and Kathy.
Have you ever considered your portrait? Have you ever wondered how others perceive your face when darkness hits? If not, I suggest you do. Take a moment to consider…and to ask. Ask the Artist Himself to paint less of you and more of Him. More of the glory of the One who has come, who is Light in the presence of the greatest of darkness, who is God with us, Immanuel, even in the blackest night.