THE BIG REVIEW | Vermeer – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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


REVIEW | The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance – National Gallery, London

The Ugly Duchess at the National Gallery is a shockingly good display. The highlight is undoubtedly the reunion of Quinten Massys’ An Old Woman with its pendant pair An Old Man (private collection). But the latter is also joined for the first time with its smaller oil-on-paper version (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), made either as a preparatory study or a record of the panel painting.

The exhibition is fleshed out with grotesque drawings by and after Leonardo da Vinci. One of these of a grotesque old woman directly inspired Massys’ painting; we are presented with two contemporary copies of the lost original, hung next to the iconic painting itself. The reunions end here and they are glorious.

But the better works, in my opinion, are the pieces selected to provide context for illustrating the theme of beauty and satire in the Renaissance. My personal highlight is the other Massys painting in the room, also of an old woman (The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp), who looks absolutely terrifying, almost skeletal. The Ugly Duchess looks comical compared to this ghastly depiction. It shares a wall with Durer’s engraving of a witch riding backwards on a goat, one of the earliest known depictions of a witch represented as a hag.

Two sculptures of old women enter the fray here: one Italian maiolica and a German one carved from pearwood. The former looks like a satirical joke, particularly when you notice her toothless smile. The latter is a much more realistic and moving depiction of a naked body suffering from the physical effects of old age.

On the other side of the room, Jan Gossaert’s double portrait of an elderly couple is joined by a similar engraving from the great Israel van Meckenem. However, the latter depicts an old woman consorting with a young man, a satire of lustful old age and unequal love; money has in fact changed hands here. The same theme has also been explored in a grotesque drawing by Leonardo (Royal Collection Trust, Windsor).

This display is admirable for its cross-cultural analysis of Massys’ elusive, hybrid painting, and does so effortlessly in a small space. It’s hard to say which is better: the rare reunions of related works, or the noteworthy comparisons being shown to us.

The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance runs until 11 June 2023 at the National Gallery, London, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

REVIEW | Drawing on Arabian Nights – Courtauld Gallery, London

An easy display to miss, Drawing on Arabian Nights at the Courtauld Gallery is a thrilling analysis of Europe’s obsession with Orientalism and the impact of the folk tales in Edward Lane’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights (ألف ليلة و ليلة) on 19th-century artists. An illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights executed by the Dalziel Brothers is also on view.

I found the drawings of interiors and urban spaces by John Frederick Lewis particularly lovely, an artist who actually in Cairo for a decade. They really evoke the spirit and vibrancy of the area. His character studies are also shown alongside those by Jean-Étienne Liotard and David Wilkie. Glyn Warren Philpot has a nice interior scene too.

The section focusing on the fictional odalisque was especially fascinating for me. This stereotypical conception of a sexually-submissive, exotically-dressed female in a harem was a false idea that gripped the 19th-century artistic imagination, as shown here by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. On display is the Courtauld’s graphite study for Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (Louvre, Paris), arguably the most iconic picture of this subject. Shown alongside is Manet’s etching with aquatint of the same subject. Neither artist had travelled outside of Europe.

There’s also a more modern component to this section, encompassing a watercolour by Robin Philipson and a mixed media piece by Yasmine Seale, a poet and translator of a new edition of the Arabian Nights. It’s a little out of my depths here.

Check the free display out in the Project Space on your next Courtauld visit this month!

Drawing on Arabian Nights runs until 3 June 2023 in The Project Space, Courtauld Gallery, London, https://courtauld.ac.uk/

REVIEW | Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection – Hermitage Amsterdam

For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to see the proper extent of the New York-based The Leiden Collection, the largest private collection of works by Rembrandt and Dutch Golden Age artists. Celebrating 20 years of collecting this year, it’s a collection I’ve admired greatly for its devotion to making private collections accessible to all. They also lent their Vermeer to the Rijksmuseum show.

By a stroke of luck, out comes Rembrandt and his Contemporaries at the Hermitage Amsterdam, a fabulous showcase featuring 35 works of exceptional quality and taste. This is a collection that prides itself on collecting works that speak for themselves and so, with a simple layout, each artist gets their own room/section, negating our competitive obsession to search for the ‘better’ artist.

The space given to each painting is generous, fostering a truly contemplative environment to appreciate each and every brushstroke. Lighting is dim and often enhances the luminous qualities of divine light and candlelit scenes (notably those of Godefridus Schalcken). The former entails a strong comparison between Ferdinand Bol’s Angel Appearing to Elijah and Carel Fabritius’ Hagar and the Angel, the only privately-owned painting by the artist (we know of 13 so far, rarer than Vermeer!).

Easily the most exciting object is Rembrandt’s smallest known painting and his only grisaille in private hands. Once owned by Andrew W. Mellon, who had a special travel case made for it, this tiny, signed, oil on paper, bust-length portrait of a bearded man bears all the characteristics of the master’s energetic draughtsmanship, thick brushstrokes, and effects of light. Although it appears like an oil sketch, it seems Rembrandt considered it worthy as a final product.

Minerva in Her Study is another important highlight, and I was glad to have requested to see Ferdinand Bol’s close drawn copy at the Rijksmuseum a couple days prior.

One of the surprises to come out of this show is Rembrandt’s last pupil, Arent (Aert) de Gelder, whom a lot of visitors had seemingly never heard of. His aesthetic followed Rembrandt very closely, but the oncoming softer styles of the 18th century lead to a curious mix of manners in how he depicts clothing, some bearing harshly scratched lines, others sensitively painted as if using pastels.

This is an exhibition that demands very little from the viewer, except for patience and an open mind. It reveals that the Dutch Golden Age wasn’t just the Rembrandt style and his followers. Instead, it was a mix of hugely successful individual approaches to portraying historicising subject matter, some bearing his trademark dark lighting (Gerbrand van den Eeckhout), others as colourful as a tapestry (Willem van Mieris), or both (Caspar Netscher)!

As a bonus, a corridor upstairs helpfully illustrates the network of painters connected to Rembrandt himself, and those outside of it (his contemporaries), including maps of Leiden and Amsterdam with their addresses! This is a wonderful inclusion that quickly shows how small these city-wide networks and assimilations really were.

Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection runs until 27 August 2023 at the Hermitage Amsterdam, https://hermitage.nl/en/

REVIEW | Peter Doig – Courtauld Gallery, London

Peter Doig at the Courtauld Gallery, London, is a short and sweet presentation of new works from the artist, many of which were begun in Trinidad and reworked in his London studio years later. Underpinning these works are the memories and observations from Doig’s experiences as an Edinburgh-born artist who lived for many years in Trinidad and Canada.

There’s not much to ride home about, but there are lovely pieces which convey some of that Caribbean atmosphere, featuring beach-goers, musicians, and hammocks. The Canadian links creep through in works like the Alpinist, which Doig derived from an old postcard and dressed in a harlequin’s costume, a reflection on a subject frequently explored by historic artists like Picasso.

There’s also a rare London scene of Regent’s Canal with a Munch-like aesthetic, and the monumental self-portrait at the beginning of the show makes a super strong impression. The overall contrasts in colour palettes between each painting is actually quite fun, sometimes with unusual colour combinations.

Downstairs, Doig’s etchings inspired by his poet friend Derek Walcott are exhibited for the first time in a free display. They were produced in response to Walcott’s collection of poems Morning, Paramin (2016) that were each inspired by Doig’s paintings. The range of visual effects created by etching with aquatint is impressive; some are perfectly dark without texture, some are closer to watercolours, and the subject matter is incredibly diverse. These come across as very experimental works across multiple dimensions.

Collectively, both shows offer unexpected delights in how Doig approaches his surroundings and reflects on the past. There is some semblance of a travelogue in these paintings and etchings that is refreshing, plain, and simple, and they feel transparent in a way that much of contemporary art is not.

The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Peter Doig and Peter Doig: Etchings for Derek Walcott both run until 29 May 2023 at the Courtauld Gallery, London, https://courtauld.ac.uk/

REVIEW | Choosing Vincent – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

I didn’t expect very much from the Van Gogh Museum’s Choosing Vincent: Portrait of a Family History exhibition, but it quickly became one of my Amsterdam highlights.

The exhibition takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the lives of four key members of the Van Gogh family: the artist Vincent, his brother Theo, sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and the artist’s namesake nephew Vincent. The aim is to educate visitors on the historic family decisions and dilemmas that eventually led to the formation of the Van Gogh Museum, which celebrates its 50th anniversary later this year.

Understandably, the most important dilemma was Jo’s, who inherited the Van Gogh estate and hundreds of works following her husband Theo’s death in 1891. Should she continue Theo’s dream of promoting her late brother-in-law’s art, or simply walk away? Her decision ultimately led to the largest ever Van Gogh monograph in 1905 at the nearby Stedelijk Museum.

Jo’s son Vincent also had a key decision to make as he grew older. After his mother’s death, he chose to dedicate himself to the preservation of the collection, rather than pursue his own path as an entrepreneur in engineering. In 1927, he made the ultimate decision to stop selling works off, and global institutions and exhibitions benefited from loans over the decades. And then in 1960, Vincent created a Foundation and started work on creating a purpose-built museum to house his namesake’s collection, eventually opening in 1973.

In addition to seeing Van Gogh’s birth certificate, drawings, paintings, and other archival materials, one gains a sense of Vincent’s inspiration from prints, Theo’s growing art collection, and the selfless philanthropy of the family. There’s even a cute selfie corner at the end.

This temporary exhibition really ought to exist as part of the permanent collection. It’s honestly perfect.

Choosing Vincent: Portrait of a Family History runs until 10 April 2023 at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en

REVIEW | Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance – Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is an eloquently considered exhibition that wondrously conveys the atmosphere and decor of a living, breathing Renaissance city.

From monumental public sculptures and fountain pieces to devotional reliefs lined wall to wall, it offers a surprisingly immersive experience conducive to understanding the functions of sculpture in this period, some bathed gorgeously in natural light; this is the first time the museum has opened up the skylights of this space since its renovation in 2017.

Rather than attempting to overload us with as many Donatello masterpieces as possible, the exhibition guides us through a life cycle of his works, with a seminal section devoted to the design and production techniques of works in different media, highlighting Donatello’s early training as a goldsmith and then in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti.

This includes an important video and accompanying display recreating marble and terracotta reliefs in the exhibition, the samples of which can be touched by the visitor for a tactile understanding and recognition of different surface textures.

Wood appears to be the only unrepresented medium, which would have encompassed such works as the Penitent Magdalene (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence), the wooden Crucifix (Santa Croce, Florence), and St John the Baptist (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice).

Due to the museum’s exceptionally representative sculpture collection across the board, an alter-narrative of contested attributions is embedded within the larger framework of Donatello’s enduring stylistic legacy, not just in his own time but also his revivalist phase in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Even with the museum’s conservative attributions, 19 autograph works by Donatello alone are featured in the show, not including their own cast of the famous bronze David, nor his collaborative works with Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (the capital and pulpit for Santo Stefano, Prato) and Desiderio da Settignano (the so-called Martelli Baptist in marble), and also not including the terracotta Forzori Altar given to Donatello and his workshop.

Even if we take these attributions at face value, it’s fascinating to see the range of compositions he at least (probably) designed. As for the unrepresented parts of Donatello’s production like the Gattamelata equestrian monument in Padua, St George (Museo Nazionale del Bargello), and lost Dovizia, these have been cleverly highlighted using other media. The museum’s other casts of Donatello’s work have not been used; it would have been quite nice to have a kind of hall of fame at the end, space permitting.

This exhibition is full of beautiful groupings and the sections elegantly fleshed out, with dedicated sections for drawings (including one attributed to Donatello himself), two archival documents in Michelozzo’s hand of his and Donatello’s portata reports (Catasto declaration listing the household’s location, names and ages of dependants, assets, and debts), and a unique contribution discussing later imitations.