No One's Perfect

Vermeer's Secrets and Keeping it Real

It was March in The Hague, Netherlands. It was still cold, and grey, but the day had all the promises of being a good one: the rain had finally stopped, Squirrel woke up excitedly to a rainbow spread over the North Sea, and the wind had died down enough that the seagulls could actually fly in straight lines. It was one of those mornings that made you believe that everything was going to be alright. 

It had been a great trip so far. We had done all the things the kids wanted: the aquarium, indoor playgrounds, huge sculptures on the waterfront. And despite the completely inhospitable weather, because we were near the sea (and from Boston), we were happy. I was especially happy because we were going to do the only thing I had set my heart on: seeing The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer at the Mauritshuis. I was, and am, fascinated with his technique, the way he made light out of paint, and this was on my bucketlist. And yet, instead of being the best day ever, it ended with this:

This picture by my then 3-year old was definitely more realistic than anything Vermeer could have painted. Here’s the artist’s statement: “There’s mommy, angry, and my broken heart, and me crying.”

I like to call this masterpiece “Girl with the Broken Heart.” 

Because despite me making a scavenger hunt in the museum, despite me getting the kids excited about art, letting them eat my lunch, and carrying the smallest around while she fell asleep and drooled on me, when my arms and back were aching and I asked her to stand on her own two feet for three minutes while we waited for the bus, she started to shriek. 

Every parent knows that screech. In fact, we witnessed it a mere five minutes before with another family who disappeared into an elevator.  (The screech did not.) For those who don’t have kids, let me describe it to you. It’s the kind of scream that starts in the belly, with a rumbling, like a rope in a very ancient well pulling up out of the murky depths an ambulance, an air raid siren and a feral cat all tied together.

That shriek lasted for about three hours, on and off, despite our best efforts (including drawing your feelings, ergo the above picture). Part of it was because 3 is the worst age. Ever. Part of it was because my older daughter whispered in her sister’s ear that “When mommy is angry with you, she doesn’t love you.” So when I expressed my feelings, that I was indeed angry, my youngest child’s heart did break. 

Parenting realism at its finest, folks. 

About That Girl and That Gaze

One of things about art is that when it’s hung up on a wall, it suddenly becomes removed from real life, the reason why it came into being. Case in point: the Girl with the Pearl Earring. You can see her up close on the Mauritshuis website or you can explore the museum virtually with the Google Arts and Culture (web or app). One of the facts that you will learn is that the girl is called a “tronie,” because she is considered an imagined person. She’s not one of the elite, a painting commissioned by the rich and powerful for immortality. She wears a Turkish turban, although she is not Turkish. As Google Arts and Culture points out, she has no freckles or moles or anything to suggest she’s real (as if Photoshopping didn’t exist way back then, too!). And most interestingly, everyone reads this painting of a young girl as if its a love story.  They seem to be, at the very least, in love with her. (Come on guys! She’s clearly like 14 years old! And she’s called “The Girl”!)

I do admit there is something about the Girl with the Pearl Earring that is absolutely captivating. The turn of her head. The dark background. It’s a moment frozen in time. As a parent, it seems incredibly…familiar.

Not much is known about Vermeer. He doesn’t seem to have studied with any artists. He didn’t achieve notoriety during his time. It took him a very long time to complete his paintings. And he had 11 children. Yes, 11. 7 of whom were girls. (Who feels better about their homeschooling situation now?) 

Yes, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is a portrait of love. But I like to believe (I have zero art history cred here) that it’s a portrait of parental love toward a spirited teenage daughter just seconds after she’s been told her to clean her room. Or help her mother with the dishes. Because we all know that look from our own children: that turn of the head as their body is already leaving the room, that immense displeasure. 

And as a parent, in that small moment before your kid storms off, full eye-roll, there’s both the swelling of the pride in their strength juxtaposed against your anger. An anger that in the moment makes everything else fade away. An anger that makes the very air you breath turn black until it’s just you and your child, your helpless authoritarian edict versus their youth, ferocity and independence. 

This is the look of a daughter who has broken her parent’s heart. 

What Does the Girl Mean for You and Your Kids?

Right now, we’re all in the same boat all over the globe. We have high hopes of keeping up with curriculum, our children well-behaved and learning interesting cocktail conversation fodder, like the fact that the red paint in the Girl’s lips is made from a bug: the same bug that colors your food, like skittles, and your lipstick. 

Seriously. Go check the label for cochineal extract, carmine, or natural red 4. 

Porphyrophora hamelii (female), Arazaph, 2011.09.26 (17) | Vahe Martirosyan | CC BY 2.0

But if there’s something that Vermeer has taught me, it’s that nothing is perfect. Yes, his paintings look like photographs. When I saw his painting The Little Street, the bricks looked so realistic, I didn’t even realize it was a painting. But then you get up close. What you think are intensely detailed contours are just brushstrokes, a play of color that defines a child’s hat on the Little Street. A dab of white that makes a pearl earring. And if you get really close, you’ll see the cracks in the paint. So viewing it is a lot like following your favorite Instagrammer: don’t look too closely or you’ll see it’s just a ruse. 

The Hack

There’s a secret to Vermeer’s perfection. And it’s likely optics. More specifically lens and mirrors. Penn and Teller – yes, those guys – produced a movie a few years ago called Tim’s Vermeer. In it, Tim Jenison, an inventor and entrepreneur with an obsession for all things Vermeer paints his own replicas by painstakingly recreating not just the camera obscura that he believe Vermeer used, but also the room in intricate detail. The full movie can be rented on Amazon and it’s well worth it. Here is just a quick clip that you must watch because seeing is believing. After watching it, you may start to realize that no one is that good at painting. Or at anything, really. And if anyone seems perfect, then they must have a hack.

Insert the Obligatory Kid Activity Here

If you’re one of those amazingly ambitious parents whose Instagram photos are perfect, and you’ve got this whole Work-from-Home-AND– Homeschool-AND-create-healthy-meals” thing down, you can gather together all your mirrors and build something similar with your kids. There’s several YouTube videos of people doing the same experiment with the same results.

Or, if you prefer the end of days scenario and you’re done watching Contagion on Netflix, this following video might be a good way to transform a room into a large camera obscura using all those cardboard rolls from your toilet paper, duct tape, and the lens from a flashlight. It is cool, and since you’re not leaving your house anytime soon, and we’re all practically zombies after trying to teach common core math, you may want to try it out.

Or You Can Just Be You

Let’s be honest with each other, though. We’re not perfect. Not even close. And that’s ok. And we’re all just trying to do the best we can: trying to keep the kids from going all Lord of the Flies while also keeping up morale. And it can be hard to do when you’re bombarded with lists of cool activities to do with your kids, like building a small nuclear reactor, or painting their bedroom ceiling like the Sistine chapel, while taking conference calls and hiding the chocolate that doesn’t have bug parts in it. 

So take a deep breath. Then call your kids close together (mine have decided that social isolation means they must have only one body part touching me at all times) and read to them. I recommend downloading two of Peter H. Reynold’s books from Amazon. The first is The Dot, which is about a little girl who doesn’t think she can draw (an allegory, I’m sure, for all those parents out there who feel like they can’t homeschool, or can’t cook. Or those kids who can’t do math). 

The second book is IshIt’s such a lovely story about not having to get things right, but right-ish. Sure, that may not help when you’re correcting your kids’ homework – “But Mom, 5+4 IS 10ish!” –  but it will help when you serve them dinner tonight. Because when you throw a loaf of bread and some cheese at your kids tonight, you can be confident that it’s dinner-ish enough.

Psst. This post contains affiliate links to Amazon books. You won’t pay any more, but we would get an itty bitty commission to help run things. Or buy more wine.

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