A Story of Needlepoint and Vermeer

The Rijks

I saw my first Vermeer when I was around ten-years-old. It came together over the course of countless months as I watched my grandmother needlepoint a myriad of colors stitch by stitch into a piece that she christened My Little Milk Girl.

At some point, after my grandmother died, the little milk girl came to live with me. For years, it hung in our den in Colorado. For years it was unattributed.

In those days before Google, we knew what we knew—and no one in my family knew Vermeer. It wasn’t until perhaps thirty years later that my mother-in-law recognized the enormous banner hanging from the roof of the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam during one of our boondoggles.

“Julie, look! It’s your grandmother’s needlepoint.”

She was right. We went inside and saw Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. In that moment, I connected this man to my grandmother. By extension, I became smitten by Vermeer.

The Milkmaid

Over the years, I would seek out the artist in museums in Dresden, Vienna, Dublin and Washington DC. In 2017, I saw the Vermeer exhibit at the Louvre in Paris and in 2019, the Vermeer in Buckingham Palace—the only Vermeer held in a private collection.

Eventually, I decided that I’d see all the Vermeers in the world. At only 36 attributed works (37 if you count the one stolen from The Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston), it’s not an insurmountable goal.

A few months ago, the announcement of the latest Vermeer exhibit was splashed across headlines in the United States. Twenty-six Vermeer paintings would come together at the Rijks in what was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. I bought a ticket immediately; it sold out in days.

I’m writing this on the train back to Paris from Amsterdam. This trip began three days ago in Delft, the town where Vermeer was born and, forty-three years later, died. At the Vermeer center there, I bought a notebook with The Milkmaid on the cover and recounted the story of my grandmother stitching it to the grandmotherly cashier.

She laughed, and said, “My mother stitched that exact same picture.” That evoked such a wonderful memory for both of us that we reminisced and giggled until I eventually moved on.

A while later, I recounted the story to a woman in the new church in Delft (editorial aside: the new church which was built in 1378). She said, “My mother never needlepointed a Vermeer, but she did do a Rembrandt. The Man with the Golden Helmut.” Then she leaned over and said in a stage whisper, “As a child, it always scared me to death.”

Again we laughed; again I moved on.

Fueled by some weird crazy-coincidence buzz, I asked a random young man if anyone in his family had needlepointed a Dutch master. He looked confused. “Not at all,” he replied.

Then he added as an afterthought, “But my grandfather painted an exact replica of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. It hung in a museum for a while.”

“That’s enormous! And maybe a better story than a needlepoint!!” (To be precise, The Night Watch measures 12 by 14.5 feet)

I decided to stop my random survey with these three perfect exchanges. Plus I had work to do.

Over an exhausting three days I visited The Anne Frank House, The Van Gogh Museum and The Rijks in Amsterdam. (It feels wrong to throw The Cheese Museum into that mix, but I did that too.) I walked for hours through the charming villages of Delft and Leiden. I detoured to the massive tulip gardens called Keukenhof. And I explored The Hague.

Breakfast in Delft
Lunch in Leiden
The Hague

It was exhausting; it was exhilarating. But more than that, it was reflective.

I spent much of the time thinking about my grandmother—and about Vermeer. My needlepoint Vermeer didn’t survive the downsizing purge, and that’s fine. It’s like my grandmother; I don’t need to touch it to remember it.

I thought about my life pre-Google—those days when I didn’t have the distraction of every single fact beckoning from my cellphone. A time when we knew what we knew.

And I thought about a generation of women who did needlework.

In short, I thought about my life. What I’ve done and what my grandchildren will remember. It won’t be my needlework. My childhood creations are gone—also purged.

My grandchildren will most likely remember me associated with food and cooking. Or eating and Paris.

It’s crazy, this thing that becomes a life. While you are concocting it, it feels like a tangle of disconnected strands of yarn—a mishmash of colors with no obvious pattern.

And yet, in those quiet moments of reflection, you see just how perfectly it all fits together. And when you step back, you realize that each of us, in our own unique way, has managed to stitch a masterpiece.

This one is back home in The Hague …

Categories: Life in Paris, Ruminations, Western Europe

Tags: , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Your link to see more of your story seems to be broken!

  2. (I may be repeating my comment due to technical difficulties, but…) Ahh I am so disappointed to be missing that exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. And you went to Delft! My heart still says “home” when I see the pictures. I would have loved to show you around. Our former apartment was right in the old center. I’m so glad you went!

  3. You will never cease to amaze me…..
    And, to be honest, I like that about you a lot!

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