Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675),
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), "The Milkmaid," 1658-59, oil on canvas, 18 x 16 1/8 in., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Closer to Johannes Vermeer
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
through June 4, 2023

The Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands, is the only venue for the largest-ever retrospective of the brilliant painter Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), who lived and worked in the Dutch city of Delft. Amazingly, this is the first time the 225-year-old museum has dedicated a show to Vermeer, so it’s only fitting that it’s the largest one ever, presenting 28 of his known existing 37 works.

Vermeer is admired globally for his tranquil, introverted interior scenes, his unprecedented use of bright, colorful light, and his convincing illusionism. Unlike his contemporary Rembrandt, Vermeer left a remarkably small oeuvre, and luckily the Rijksmuseum owns four of the 37 works known, including The Milkmaid illustrated here.

Visitors to Amsterdam this season are enjoying the thrill of seeing so many together, especially since this is likely the last such gathering. The staggering insurance values and laborious planning of transport, security, and climate control — not to mention the difficulty of convincing owners to lend their treasures in the first place —make the mounting of such blockbusters extremely difficult today. (Just for example, Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum opted out because its Vermeer appeared in six exhibitions from 2000 to 2008 and now is too fragile to travel.)

Works never before shown to the public in the Netherlands include the newly restored “Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window” from Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. And Americans should be proud that New York City’s Frick Collection has loaned all three of its Vermeers, marking the first time they have been shown together outside New York since their acquisition more than a century ago. Two of those paintings have undergone extensive examination at the Rijksmuseum. Alas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art across Fifth Avenue could not lend two of its four Vermeers due to conditions imposed by their original bequests. And of course Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum cannot lend its example because it was stolen in 1990.

For years now, a team of curators, conservators, and scientists from the Rijksmuseum have been collaborating closely with colleagues from the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the University of Antwerp to conduct research on Vermeer’s paintings. Their findings have shed light on the artist, offering new insights about his social position, living environment, and contact with fellow artists and citizens.

Modern technology has contributed profoundly to this progress. For example, intensive scanning of “The Milkmaid” has revealed two previously invisible objects: a jug holder and a fire basket. (Vermeer himself painted over them later.)  Experts can now also see some underpainting, and indeed underpaintings have also been detected in other works such as  “Woman Holding a Balance” at Washington’s National Gallery of Art (NGA).  The conventional understanding that Vermeer painted slowly and with great thought — without planning ahead — must therefore be revised. His end results may appear contemplative, but his working method was rigorous and far-sighted.

Unusually, a debate has emerged about the authenticity of another of Washington’s pictures, “Girl with a Flute”; the Rijksmuseum says it’s by the master, but the owner recently mounted a fascinating exhibition concluding that it was, in the words of NGA curator Marjorie E. Wieseman, produced by “an associate of Vermeer.” This, then, is one of three paintings that the Rijksmuseum-led team has “upgraded.” (The other two are in private collections.)

Gregor J.M. Weber, head of fine arts at the Rijksmuseum and co-curator of the exhibition, says, “Vermeer’s painting technique has always had something of a mystery.  How did he accomplish this miracle of light and color? With the discovery of a first sketch in black paint, we get a much better picture of his working method.”

His co-curator, Pieter Roelofs, the Rijksmuseum’s head of paintings and sculpture, adds, “The mystery of Vermeer, also known as the Sphinx of Delft, has clung to the artist for more than 150 years and has become part of his reputation. Connecting what we now know about his personal life with his work brings us closer to him.”

These two scholars have edited the 320-page catalogue that accompanies the show, and Weber has also produced a 168-page biography (Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection) that exposes the huge influence the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church exerted on the painter, who was raised Protestant before converting to Catholicism. Located next door to Vermeer’s home was a “hidden church” (Dutch Catholics could not then worship in the open), as well as a Catholic girls’ school where his daughters were educated. Weber has discovered a drawing by the church’s priest,  Isaac van der Mye, who was also a trained artist, that clearly reflects the characteristics of a camera obscura.

For those who can’t make it to Amsterdam, don’t worry: the Rijksmuseum’s digital experience,  “Closer to Johannes Vermeer,” is available on its website. There the British actor and art lover Stephen Fry explores the artist’s work and life, encouraging users to zoom in on tiny pigment particles via ultra-high-resolution photographs, or to compare recurrences across the paintings, such as pearls or the color ultramarine.

And for those who find themselves in The Hague during the exhibition’s run, don’t be surprised to find something fun on the wall at the Mauritshuis, where “Girl with a Pearl Earring” usually hangs. Now anyone can upload their own take on that famous painting to the museum’s website; the best ones will be displayed on a screen there and also on Instagram (@mygirlwithapearl).


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