Ekphrasis – 5

Carmen Maria Machado

You return to the crate, vowing to forget the noise. The top panel slides off more easily than you had expected. You pull away a few layers of bubble wrap, grip the ornate frame, and free the painting.


As the oil-painted canvas rushes past you, you see darkness and flashes of white. The effect is dizzying, and you clutch the painting to your body as you steady yourself. When the spell passes, you turn and lay the painting delicately on your worktable. You reach over your head and pull the cord.


Light spills over the canvas like water out of a ruptured dam. The frame is ornate, full of deep curls and forms.


De rouw ruimte”—you don’t speak Dutch, but Lucy called it “The Morning Room”—is a sight to behold. The canvas is six feet long and four feet tall. You feel suddenly dwarfed by its size. You wrote your thesis on de Wit and so your mind immediately begins fitting this painting, unseen by anyone else in the art world except you and Lucy and a few others, into what you know of him. He was a contemporary of Vermeer’s, a close friend, even, and you can see this most clearly in his early work, when he entertained a similar style—though there is a debate about whether Vermeer was imitating de Wit or the other way around. Paintings of de Wit’s from the 1660s show a similar aptitude for scenes of domesticity and academia illuminated by single windows. He also, in his early years, had the same love of brilliant cornflower blues and butter yellows.


But the mystery of de Wit—the reason you struggled to write your thesis, the reason Vermeer is so much better known—is that after Vermeer’s death in his early forties, de Wit descended into a kind of malaise that lasted for decades. And his paintings, though they are referred to in de Wit’s extensive journals, went missing. They have shown up periodically, in estate sales and auctions and, once, at a church bazaar in Pennsylvania, where the previous owner described it as “an ugly thing that I couldn’t wait to be rid of.” And when they are discovered, they are troubling, especially to people who fell in love with de Wit’s beautiful portrait of a mother nursing an infant, or another of a young boy contemplating a thick book. It is as if the light that illuminated him was put out, a candle’s flame smartly snuffed. The paintings are large and dark—shadowy figures barely rising from a black canvas, images of executions and funerals, and one of a sea serpent swallowing the boat from which Christ walked on the water. You have wondered if the size of the paintings, so much bigger than his previous ones, would work against their shadow—the serene paintings should be larger and more airy, you have always felt, the darker ones smaller and thus more claustrophobic—but the effect of this one is unmistakable. The darkness is like a gaping maw in the earth, the kind that nothing will stop you from tumbling into.


A wave of dizziness passes through you. You look down at your watch, and the numbers blur and then focus. You wonder if you should take a break and get some air.



If you continue to look at the painting, turn to page 12.

If you decide to take a break on the roof before tackling the painting, turn to page 7.