In its current iteration, the world’s most sold-out Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum will never happen again. The unprecedented loan of three works from the Frick Collection makes this a fact. This ambitious gathering of 28 paintings from the elusive artist’s 37 known works is triumphant yet humble.
Embracing Vermeer’s powers of observation, descriptive captions have been placed elsewhere for distraction-free viewing of his detailed landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes which occupy eight rooms, book-ended by an introduction and two magnificent timelines of his life and his works (reproduced to scale!). The Girl with a Flute is also ‘attributed here to Johannes Vermeer’, sandwiched between Girl with a Red Hat and The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The opportunity to compare works is a blessing. Oftentimes, the main characters are not the softly-painted figures engaged in simple activities like reading letters, drinking wine, or making embroidery. Rather, it is the constant reappearance of the same studio props used to dress his characters (fur-trimmed yellow coat), to set the scene (lion-topped Spanish chairs, patterned tablecloths, marble floors), and to direct our attention along his carefully crafted leading lines (heads near corners of frames and maps; strong diagonals, straight edges, and bright, repeating colours; curtains forcing our gaze centrally). In doing so, they feel connected to each other in Vermeer’s fictional world where time stands still. Like a photographer, he composes voyeuristic vignettes with extraordinary exactness for the sake of a good picture.
These props are so rich with detail on a material level, revealing more about Vermeer’s technique than one might think. In early works like Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Christ’s mantle looks like an abstract painting with its prominent blocks of paint; the shimmering gold dish in Diana and her Nymphs is such a strong focal point, you could reach out and touch the water; and the kneeling attendant’s dress sleeve is such a masterclass in rendering silk.
But Vermeer’s real secret is his pointillist technique. This is very noticeable in his View of Delft on the boats and the brickwork. It’s why his paintings have a fuzzy quality to them, especially faces. He’s capturing the glistening effects of light down to the minutest highlights and reflections for practically any surface, from glassware and metals to woven fabrics, bread, and fruit. The rest is thin watery glazes layered to emulate anything from furs and paper to the characteristics of diffused light (often cascading from the left).
Due to this being a truly once-in-a-lifetime survey of the artist’s works, the groupings and juxtapositions leaned towards common sense rather than groundbreaking connections, some of which I feel are worth highlighting.
(Works with * are not in the exhibition).
View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague) joined The Little Street (Rijksmuseum) as Vermeer’s only two surviving landscapes (he made three of his hometown). These rare scenes of the outside world showcase his proficiency in capturing the effects of light and providing pockets of visual interest. In The Little Street, the same diagonal leading lines and straight edges are used to direct our eyes towards the woman in the alley.
Four of his earliest paintings demonstrate his development from a history painter – Diana and her Nymphs (Mauritshuis), Saint Praxedis (Kufu Company Inc., on long-term loan at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo), Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) – to depicting scenes from everyday life in The Procuress (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), which could have paired well with A Maid Asleep* in their volumetric use of a large patterned tablecloth. The sudden shift from rhythmic multi-figure compositions to introspective moments is astonishing as one moves into the next rooms.
Two paintings get their own rooms: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) with its newly-discovered Cupid painting in the background, and The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum). Both serve to illustrate his first ventures into painting interiors and domestic scenes, and they easily rank among the artist’s best works. The former is the earlier work of the two, and one can see how the cluttered setting begins to simplify over time. The Milkmaid could probably have paired well with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher* (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
From here, one crosses a balcony connecting the two branches of exhibition space, overlooking a view of the exhibition’s original entrance and exit.
Windows and figures gazing out feature prominently in Vermeer’s domestic interiors. Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), Officer and Laughing Girl (The Frick Collection, New York), and Woman with Lute (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) have been selected to illustrate this point. However, this is where the lack of other loans is particularly noticeable, as Woman with Lute pairs beautifully with The Guitar Player* (Kenwood House, London), which is too fragile to travel.
Vermeer’s singular portraits are some of the most elusive in his entire oeuvre. Whereas his sitters are typically passive within the picture plane, these portraits show them gazing out at the viewer, creating a tense, arresting moment in which we feel we have interrupted them somehow.
Early visitors to the exhibition (as I did) saw the fabulous juxtaposition of The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis) with the Girl with a Red Hat and the contested Girl with a Flute (both National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), all of them adorning pearls. This is the perfect battleground for discussing the attribution of the latter to Vermeer, which the National Gallery of Art has recently downgraded to a work by his studio. The Study of a Young Woman (Girl with a Veil)* (Metropolitan Museum of Art) would also have fitted perfectly among them and, furthermore, they are all dated similarly to about 1664-67.
In the same room is The Lacemaker (Louvre, Paris) and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (The Leiden Collection, New York), who looks out at us like the others. The former is unusually lit from the right, the same as the two Washington portraits; however, I also feel it makes a good pairing with the seated lady in Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.
Some of Vermeer’s paintings overlap in terms of subject matter, which can be seen in the largest room of the exhibition.
The presence of music exists in no less than nine paintings, about a quarter of the artist’s surviving corpus (six are in the exhibition). Sitters can be found playing guitars, harpsichords, virginals, citterns, and viola da gambas. For this section, A Lady Standing at a Virginal, A Lady Seated at a Virginal (both National Gallery, London), and The Love Letter (Rijksmuseum) have been grouped together. It is disheartening that the natural pair of The Music Lesson (Royal Collection Trust, Windsor) and The Concert (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; stolen in 1990) could not join them.
While the National Gallery pictures have been interrupted by our presence, in the case of The Love Letter, however, a maid hands the cittern-player a letter from a mysterious source, presumably a love interest. This piece of storytelling naturally connects three more paintings in the same room: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam), A Lady Writing (National Gallery of Art), and Mistress and Maid (The Frick Collection). In a manner similar to Vermeer’s use of maps, letters suggest the existence of an outside world beyond the crafted interiors his sitters inhabit.
Here, one can recall the similar pose of the protagonists in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which would have made for a strong visual comparison that still fit the overarching theme of letters.
The Amsterdam painting was made about five or six years later than the Dresden one and uses a smaller canvas, thus giving the model a greater sense of volume. The figures are roughly the same size and their features also look quite similar; some suggest they may be of his wife Catharina Bolnes.
Another connecting element would have been Girl Interrupted at her Music (The Frick Collection), which contains a Cupid painting in the background, like Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and A Lady Standing at a Virginal. In other words, it was hypothetically possible to bring all three Cupid pictures together in a single room, while still fitting the themes of letters and music!
In 2017, the rediscovery of the overpainted Cupid picture in the background of the Dresden painting made headlines around the world; apparently we knew about it back in 1979 when an X-ray was taken of the canvas but wasn’t certain if Vermeer painted over it himself or a later hand.
Vermeer is known to have owned such a painting – ‘Een cupido’ – which is recorded in the possession of Vermeer’s widow in February 1676, hanging in the upstairs back room next to his studio. Cesar van Everdingen and Jacob van Loo have been proposed as possible creators.
The Cupid pictures aren’t represented identically, however, despite the winged figure being essentially the same. In the Dresden picture, his foot is resting on a mask, a possible suggestion that he is trampling on lies and deceit, so that only true love remains. This is not the case in the National Gallery picture, which reveals that Cupid is holding a tablet.
The image derives from an emblem book of 1608 – ‘Amorum emblemata, figuris aeneis incisa’ – by Otto van Veen, which showed a series of pictures of Cupid enacting different mottoes about love. They were based on quotations from poetry and philosophy, and the motto for the Cupid holding up a tablet or card was ‘a lover ought to love only one’.
Instead, Girl Interrupted at her Music joins The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) in the next and final room of reunited works. Both are remarkably similar in costume and set design, and involve a gentleman perching over a woman in red. Alas, the third painting in this thematic threesome – Girl with a Wine Glass* (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig) – could not join them.
The greatest blow to this exhibition was the inability to reunite The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt) with its slightly earlier pendant The Astronomer* (Louvre), leaving the former to fend for itself on the wall. Both pictures are rare examples of a man taking sole pride of place in Vermeer’s paintings, unaccompanied by a female sitter.
Finally, the unlikely grouping of Girl with a Pearl Necklace (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery of Art), and the Allegory of the Catholic Faith (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) creates an interesting narrative reflecting on one’s vanity towards worldly possessions like money and jewelry, and one’s devotion to the Catholic faith. Woman Holding a Balance serves as the intermediary, weighing jewels on a balance while a painting of the Last Judgement hangs on the wall beside her.
Compositionally, the natural pair to the Allegory of the Catholic Faith is The Art of Painting* (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) in their use of a vibrant tapestry curtain to reveal the scene to us. Similar devices can be found in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, The Love Letter, and Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid.
A single monographic exhibition can only do so much, and the Rijksmuseum have clearly done an impressive job to make this exhibition as accessible as possible to general audiences. It is a show that can easily be enjoyed without context or reading a single label, because the groupings just make sense on a visual level. It is a triumph in its simplicity, something very few blockbusters have been successful in doing.
Personal count of Vermeer paintings seen: 35/37
More information about Johannes Vermeer and his paintings can be found on the digital resource Closer to Vermeer.
The exhibition texts can also be accessed here.
Vermeer runs until 4 June 2023 at the Rijksmuseum, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en