When I see the name Vermeer, I think of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter (1632-1675) who focused on the play of light in interior scenes depicting middle class life in Delft. His most famous painting is “The Girl With the Pearl Earring.” That painting became the subject of the 2003 movie by the same title, thus propelling the painting itself into contemporary consciousness. Another well-known painting of his is called “The Milk Maid,” and employs the same mesmerizing shade of blue as found in the head scarf worn by the girl with her pearl. Vermeer’s paintings are displayed in museums all over the world, but the Riijsmuseum in Amsterdam houses the most under one roof. Vermeer was fascinated with the play of light across people’s faces and around the locations where they sat or stood or worked. Interestingly enough he most often painted women–reading or writing or playing musical instruments or adorning themselves with beautiful jewelry. While that last choice conformed with traditional roles for middle class Dutch women of his time, the rest clearly did not. And even in “The Girl With the Pearl,” he invests his subject with an inner complexity far more evocative than the brightness of the pearl.
So, imagine my puzzlement about a week ago as I was walking my usual early morning route down one street of my neighborhood for about two miles before going over one block to return on the next street over. I noticed a group of workmen in their bright yellow vests working on and in a large hole they’d just dug, a process that had involved tearing up several sidewalk slabs and dumping the concrete shards into the street for later collection, I assumed. As I looked past the actual workers at the massive machine that had clearly done the digging, I saw written on its metal face in giant letters “VERMEER.” For most of that morning’s walk, I worried over that name on that imposing and ungraceful contraption, remembering most of what I’ve just written about the evocative Dutchman with the same name. At one point, the title of a book written long ago by a man who taught in the English Department at the University of Minnesota where I used to teach came into my mind: The Machine In the Garden (1964). Its author, Leo Marx, wrote convincingly about what it meant to American literature when the Industrial Revolution came across the Atlantic from England and rapidly erased whatever idyllic notions might have been floating around in the American psyche about this country’s being Edenic. He’d have understood my dismay over the name on the large yellow and black machine that could chew up concrete as it it were mashed potatoes.
Once I was over the shock of this expropriation of the painter’s name, I Googled “Vermeer machine,” and got lots of entries extolling the virtues of their main contribution to present-day urban life. The thing parked in my neighborhood was called a Vermeer vacuum excavator, and the Vermeer people, located in Pella, Iowa, were eager to tell me why their version of this item was the very best way to handle close and deep work in our cities. Certainly the hole in question was both small and deep and had been made no wider than the sidewalk slabs it demolished. So clearly Vermeer excavators do what they advertise themselves to do, just as Johannes painted image after image of comfortable Dutch people carrying on most often in their small rooms .
I don’t have any simple moral to offer; I just know a few days later when the Vermeer machine had moved to the next block to make the next cavity that is going to house 5G installations, I chose to picture the profile of that elusive girl with her little pearl, letting my painter take pride of place over the digger carrying his name.