Office Treasures: Seeing Vermeer

Their CVs tell one story, but the things professors surround themselves with tell another
Diana Bianchi
There are 36 Vermeer paintings in galleries and museums around the world, and Diana Bianchi’s goal is to see each one. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 8, 2013

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In the latest installment of an occasional series, we visit the office of Diana Bianchi, the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Diana Bianchi has loved the paintings of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer since she was a child. Growing up in Manhattan, she admired them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has four Vermeers, and the Frick Collection, which has three. She was drawn to the light and color, the hyacinth blues and yellows the painter applied to canvas.

There are 36 Vermeer paintings in galleries and museums around the world, and Bianchi’s goal is to see each one. She’s close—31 and counting.

A geneticist and the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine, she travels frequently for scientific presentations. Along the way she makes sure to see a Vermeer if it’s at all within range of her destination. She ticks off a few: all four Vermeers in Amsterdam, the three at The Hague and others on display in Berlin, Edinburgh, Vienna and London.

In tribute to her favorite artist, Bianchi has a gallery of postcards of Vermeer paintings above her office computer. On the back of each is the place and date she saw the painting and the name of the exhibition.

What began as a genuine love of the artwork expanded into what Bianchi describes as an interest in “the mysteries of his life.” Little is known about Vermeer: where he got his training or how he managed to support his 10 children and cope with ongoing financial woes.

Bianchi also views the paintings with the eye of a physician-scientist. After noticing that the subject of the painting The Procuress had polydactyly, or a double thumb, she began to wonder what other medical findings she might discover in his brush strokes. She and a Dutch collaborator, Sicco Scherjon, also a physician, took a closer look at two paintings, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and Woman Holding a Balance, and decided the subjects are pregnant, even though art historians say the women are merely wearing the billowy fashions of the time.

One of Vermeer’s best-known paintings, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, reveals yet another medical condition, Bianchi says. The young woman’s head is wrapped in a scarf, and she has no eyebrows or eyelashes. Bianchi and Scherjon suggest that she may have had alopecia, a disease resulting in the loss of hair on the scalp and other parts of the body.

Bianchi continues her quest to see all the Vermeers and is working with her collaborator to write a paper on what medical findings are revealed in the paintings. Genetics, she says, “is about patterns of recognition and attention to detail. It’s the same with art history—it uses the same skill set. Painters are trying to represent nature, and scientists are trying to better understand nature. I’m interested in that interplay.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu