When I first entered medical school in Boston in 1969, I fell in love with a painting by Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. For some unknown reason it just captivated me. I purchased a large print, found an old frame, and for many years it hung over my bed and eventually ended up in my study when we got a house in Seattle.
What was it about this painting that drew me to it? In the more than 50 years that followed, whenever I went to a highly regarded museum, I would look for the Vermeer’s and never be disappointed. One great disappointment occurred when thieves stole two of Vermeer’s paintings that were on “permanent” display in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum down the street from Harvard Medical School. The museum had minimal security at the time, offered free chamber concerts, and was a haven for me when I had free time over lunch. Beautiful music and paintings by my favorite painter.
Vermeer is considered one of the greatest Dutch Masters from the Dutch Golden Age along with Rembrandt. His output was rather modest and today only 35 paintings are universally attributed to him. Vermeer lived a relatively short life (1632-75) and was only “modestly successful” during his lifetime—ending up earning more as an art dealer, which allowed him to support his quite large brood and left his wife impoverished when he died. Over the centuries, his paintings have been widely appreciated for their unique beauty. And today, Vermeer is well-known and acclaimed as one of the greatest of his time.
When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam announced it had assembled 28 of Vermeer’s paintings for the largest exhibit ever, I took notice. And so did hundreds of thousands of others. Within a couple of days, the tickets available for the 16-week exhibition were completely sold out. The demand was so great that the Rijksmuseum figured out ways to extend the hours. Some colleagues in Amsterdam told us to just log on to the tickets site regularly and hope to “hit it” just as new tickets were released. We did and ‘voila’! we got our tickets overlapping with a project for The Lancet in London that allowed us to consolidate a trip to Europe.
The exhibit was a dream come true—something I never expected to experience in my lifetime. While seeing firsthand Vermeer’s great paintings was an immediate source of pleasure, what I learned about his techniques taught me an important lesson about aging. A lesson that confirmed what I had observed in watching patients, research subjects, and family and friends as they aged—the importance of “light” in how to age well through “Enlightened Aging.”
The exhibition narrative was more than the story of Johannes Vermeer’s life and times. For one thing, it highlighted how his ability to use “light” in his paintings was a breakthrough, perhaps the main reason why his paintings are so beautiful and engaging. Vermeer (and likely some of his contemporaries) used more than just canvas and paint. They found new ways to literally find the light by using recently developed camera obscura and camera lucida techniques along with mirrors to create effects that allowed them to find and use light in painting. After all, this was an age where optics became more advanced, including Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s development of the microscope, an important advance in medical research.
The same month we visited the Vermeer exhibit we also went back to Boston for my 50-year medical school reunion. As expected of a group of Harvard Medical School graduates all around age 75 or more, this was an accomplished bunch. This is a group of individuals who have contributed to medical science, teaching, care of their patients, and communities in many ways. Being together was inspiring and, of course, we had a lot of fun reminiscing and rekindling friendships.
Having just been exposed to Vermeer and the unique way he found light to create beauty made me reflect on just how important finding light is in life—especially as we transition into older ages. Most people will eventually leave a profession that typically has been a source of light—inspiring us to serve, discover, always learning to keep up with knowledge advances, and to just do a better job. Our professions also provide a wealth of social engagement.
Most of my classmates had found or sustained the “light” that lit up their life. Some continued finding light in their professional work, building from the specialty and research work that had been decades in the making. Others went from Deanships and other prominent leadership positions back to their earlier specialty areas. Most were gradually slowing down and gracefully planning to completely retire in the near term. A few had completely retired.
Another common feature was that almost all engaged in regular physical activity—less active than previously, but still part of their routine. Families, other loved ones, and volunteer activities were a great source of meaning and fulfillment. Fortunately, only a few seemed not to have found light. My casual observation was that the few included those who persisted in trying to convince others, without success, that they were right and others in the medical field were wrong. They were unable to accept scientific reality. And there were also a few who seemed unable to accept certain disabilities and conditions and make the best of their situations—the proverbial making lemons out of lemonade just never happened for them. They seemed to embrace a sort of darkness rather than finding or keeping light in their lives.
I loved the reunion. I also gained from appreciating that the beauty and magic of Vermeer paintings involved light and especially finding light in new ways. I think that part of aging is keeping that light that’s helped us throughout our lives, but also finding light in new ways as aging inevitably changes us. It’s there—like Vermeer we can find it and age well.
Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, is the author, with Joan DeClaire, of Enlightened Aging. He is the founding principal investigator of the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, ongoing for about 30 years. ACT recently was awarded a $55.6 million expansion grant from the National Institutes of Health.