Smack in the middle of all the political clatter in Washington, D.C., stands a solitary, serene woman in a pale blue satin jacket, reading a letter. She's from the 17th century, and her visit marks an important anniversary for the National Gallery of Art.
She was painted by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer around 1663. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the Gallery put on the first Vermeer retrospective ever, featuring 22 of only some 35 Vermeers known to exist. The show was a hit — despite some pretty serious hurdles.
Arthur Wheelock, who curated that exhibit, says the paintings made a huge impression, even on folks who couldn't make it. "I even got a letter from a prisoner in Leavenworth who obviously could not come, but ... just knowing that this was there somehow made him feel better about life," Wheelock says.
Twenty years ago, lines formed well before dawn — even though the gallery didn't open until 10:00 a.m.
But in the middle of all the Vermeer excitement the federal government shut down, the result of a battle between Democratic President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. And then right after New Year's, a huge blizzard hit Washington. The gallery was closed for 19 days out of a three month exhibition.
When the doors finally reopened the crowds rushed in and then fell silent, in front of the paintings.
"It was the quietest show I've ever been in," Wheelock recalls. "People would just stand and reflect. The sense of reverential experience of being in the company of all these great treasures."
Now, one of those treasures is back at the National Gallery, to mark the anniversary. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is visiting from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. She stands in profile, bathed in Vermeer's pale yellow Northern European light. On the table in front of her, a strand of pearls and the first page of her letter.
"I think she's standing there doing her morning toilette, getting dressed, and the letter has arrived," Wheelock says.
She's stopped everything to read it. Vermeer captures an exquisite moment of concentration. What does the letter say? Who wrote it? Why her trace of a smile? Vermeer never tells. Perhaps it's from someone very far away — maybe on one of the trading ships making the Netherlands so rich in the 1600s. Perhaps it's someone she loves.
"I'm sure anybody in this room looking at these paintings wou ld come up with their own little story," says Wheelock. "That's one of the wonderful things about Vermeer. He allows all of us to engage in our own personal way."
A visitor might feel a bit intrusive. It's such an intimate scene. Might looking be an invasion of her privacy?
"I think we always approach Vermeer quietly because we've not been invited in," Wheelock says. "Generally there is some object — a piece of furniture — separating us from her. So we are kept at a distance."
Caught up in her gorgeously painted moment of concentration, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter remains at the National Gallery until Dec. 1. The museum staff is hoping for neither snow nor sleet nor government shut down this time!