Man goes to Rijksmuseum – and changes his life

Having spent his whole life grumbling, in 1949, the English essayist and critic J. B. Priestley wrote a book called Delight patiently describing all the things he had most enjoyed. One of them was going to the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam:

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“It was in the hot June of 1914 that, a youth of nineteen, I paid my first visit to the great gallery of Amsterdam. I went there to see the Rembrandts, and I stared at them respectfully and, when called upon to do so, made sounds suggesting wonder and admiration and joy. But nothing really happened inside me. I was at least twenty years too early. It was on that occasion, however, that I discovered Vermeer, and with him–I think for the first time–a delight in the marriage of paint to canvas. Before then, although I may have enjoyed pictures here and there, I doubt if I had ever appreciated the magic of painting. This was one of those fortunate encounters: Vermeer and I were ready for each other.

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I discovered that a painting of something, anything–a brick wall, the corner of a room–could fill me with a strange joy, which might haunt me for days, if only because the artist had begun to shape and color my own vision of things. I think I came to understand then–and I feel sure many people never understand it all their lives–that we shall do well not to look from things to pictures but from pictures to things; or, in other words, that we who are not painters should not narrowly check their vision with ours but should allow their vision to shape and color ours. So in that June, the last of the world which had not known war, odd bits of brick wall or occasional glimpses of rich-toned interiors were for me enchantingly touched up by Vermeer. And this, to say the least of it, was fun. Yes, fun. The green-gold pastures of the visual arts are so cluttered up with, and trodden down by, solemn donkeys, braying away, so saddled and bridled with culture that their hides are sore with it, that we are inclined to forget that these arts ought to be fun. And I never visit a gallery without wanting to cry to the sad spectators ‘Stop tip-toeing! Have some fun! Find some delight in this place–or march straight out!’”

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