Below is what Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had to say, or thought we might learn, from Johannes Vermeer’s painting, The Little Street (1657-16580). The last paragraph, about the values of the Netherlands, is very true to the modest accommodations to foster happiness that we experienced from the friendly and reasonable people we met in Amsterdam.
I had a small plastic bottle of water in my purse when David and I went in to the Van Gogh museum. As I went through the security check, the woman checking bags saw my bottle of water. “You can’t drink that in the museum,” she said. “Okay,” I replied, happy that she did’t make me get rid of it. “Well,” she went on, “you can drink it on the stairways, just don’t drink it near the paintings.” Then when David and I got on the tram to catch our train at the Central Station on Sunday morning, the man collecting fares waved David’s money away. “It’s only two stops,” he said.
On this wall, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.
This is bad news. The extreme frame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response – and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This painting is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes – and doing these things faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty.
This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. The picture asks you to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to your life.
If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values, it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world’s understanding of happiness – and its message doesn’t just belong in the gallery.