Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (Detail), ca. 1510 -15; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go the museum website.
We often think of "surface" as a word that demeans; it is the opposite of depth. But an intense focus on things can be a way to explore their form and meaning: it can be a celebration of life. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month, I first spent time in the amazing exhibition of Indian painting, which I wrote about here, looking at those small, marvelously detailed paintings, full of careful attention to the smallest things of the world. So when I did my usual tour of the permanent collection of Northern European paintings, what caught my notice was the intense focus of those painters on the surfaces and textures of ordinary things, leading me to this photo essay. In his complex nativity, David of course made the figures of paramount importance, but he did not neglect the humble: the grain on the ground alongside the basket filled with cloth, the small plants growing between the stones of the walls. To me these details seem prayerful.
Hans Memling, Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara (Detail), early 1480s; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
The Netherlandish painters did not only look at the ordinary objects of life; here Memling has painted a shimmery fabric with an elaborate pattern. Every part of his painting is seen with a uncanny clarity.
North Netherlandish Painter, Christ Bearing the Cross (Detail), ca. 1470; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
In this very complex painting, what I decided to photograph was this delicately rendered round headdress, with a braid, tied in red, emerging from it; touching small tendrils of hair escape. When I look at these paintings, I can't help but think that to these artists, at this time, the careful rendering of every small thing is their way of praising God's creation.
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (Detail), ca. 1662; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
Two hundred years later, there is a great deal of secular painting, made for bourgeois households. Vermeer is an artist who transcends his ordinary subjects through an all enveloping light and a sense of form that is weighty and eternal. A brass basin and pitcher are perfect in light and color, giving us a sense of their objectness without being fussy. Two years ago I wrote a blog post after seeing the small exhibition at the Met surrounding Vermeer's The Milkmaid, which you can read here; at the time I was most thrilled with the way he painted the wall in that painting; it had such physical presence that I felt my body react to it.
Sebastian Stoskopff, Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell and Chip-Wood Box (Detail), ca. 1630; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
Other northern painters (Stoskopff is French) approached still life with precisely rendered surfaces, so that we can feel their differences: the smoothness of a glistening shell next to a very different kind of smooth surface of a wooden box. I love the small details of metal, which I assume are holding the box together.
Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and Writing Quill (Detail), 1628; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
A vanitas still life points to life's brief span. But how carefully Claesz paints each different texture, so we can look into the glass' refection and feel a wisp of feather about to drift off from the bony skull.
Georg Flegel, Still Life (Detail); oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
Flegel's still life delicately renders some good things in life (not an image for my vegetarian friends). I marvel at the lemon. Its bright juiciness alongside the reflective glass and clay pitcher makes me happy. I come close to thinking of some of these paintings as magic, as they transform paint into a visually graspable thing.
Gerard ter Borch, Curiosity (Detail), ca. 1660-62; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
I couldn't write a blog post on surface and not include ter Borch, whose female figures are usually clothed in sparkling satin gowns; they shine from the dark interiors with an internal light.
Jean Simeon Chardin, The Silver Tureen (Detail), 1728; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.
Finally, Chardin, a very different painter, who opened up his brush stroke, softening edges, giving tremendous life to his objects, while being true to the surface of each. I love this juxtaposition of the hard refective shine of the silver tureen behind the soft fur and hairs of a rabbit. An approach to the world that is attentive and deep can come by looking very closely at things.