For once, its curators say, the “chance of a lifetime” may be right: so many works by Johannes Vermeer, the luminous 17th-century Dutch master, have never been assembled in the same place – and little chance they will. be again
Of the fewer than 40 paintings that experts attribute to the artist, 28 have been acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Opening next week, his first Vermeer retrospective has sold more advance tickets than any show in the museum’s history.
“Vermeer stops the clock,” said Taco Dibbits, director general of the Rijksmuseum. “It gives you the feeling that you are there, with that person, in that room, and that time has stopped. And we all miss the time, especially today.”
Vermeer was born in 1632 and is the most enigmatic of the Dutch masters. Apart from his canvases, he has nothing left: no letters, no writings, no diary. Trained as an artist, his work was hardly recognized during his lifetime, mainly because, in a strongly Protestant country, he converted to Catholicism when he married at the age of 21.
Museums and private owners in seven countries lent masterpieces to the show, including almost every atmospherically lit domestic scene – a maid pouring a jug of milk, a girl sewing lace, a woman at a virgin – for which Vermeer is best. known.
London’s National Gallery has launched Young Woman Seated at a Virginal; The Louvre in Paris supplied The Lacemaker; and the National Gallery in Dublin lent Woman Writing a Letter With Her Maid. Other works of art came from Berlin, New York and Tokyo.
Some have not traveled far, of course: the Rijksmuseum’s four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, are on display, and perhaps the artist’s most famous work, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was just down the road at Mauritshuis in The Hague.
But because of the great fragility of the paintings, most of which were completed between 1655 and 1670, their value, and the fact that they are now the prize possessions of many of the museums in which they are housed, they rarely travel.
“It’s incredible to see,” Dibbits said. “This is an artist who did 45, maybe 50, pictures. We know of 37 of them, and to get 28 together … When you have a party, you hope that everyone you invite will come. Well, almost everyone who could, yes.”
The initial spark for the show, he said, came when the Rijksmuseum’s curatorial team realized that the Frick Collection, in New York, whose three Vermeers have not been allowed to travel for more than a century, would close in 2023 for renovations.
It took “a lot of hard work”, but in the end only nine known works by the artist will be missing. One was stolen from a museum in Boston in 1990; two, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, cannot be loaned due to the terms of their bequest; and another, from the Louvre, is on loan elsewhere. Most of the rest are too weak to travel.
The exhibition is not without controversy. Late last year, the Rijksmuseum said that, after intensive scientific and comparative research, it was confirming that three works were attributed to Vermeer whose authenticity had been questioned by some experts.
Most surprising was Girl With a Flute, which the National Gallery of Art in Washington said as recently as last October it did not believe was a genuine Vermeer, but was likely an unspecified associate.
Dibbits said: “Look, there are differences of opinion about Rembrandts, with over 300 paintings to compare. When you don’t have much work to go on, you can draw different conclusions from the same data. Allocation is not a hard science.”
He said a recent exhaustive study showed that beneath the details of Vermeer’s paintings were broad, vibrant strokes that defied previous ideas about how he worked.
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The research also revealed the profound influence of the Jesuits on his art. A recurring theme in Jesuit literature was light, optics and focus: considering the order, for example, the camera obscurathe forerunner of the camera that projects an image onto a surface from a small hole on the other side, as a tool to observe God’s divine light.
One of the camera obscuraIts effect is to direct the light to one point, while obscuring and distorting the rest; precisely the effects that can be found in many of Vermeer’s tranquil interiors atmospheric lighting. This, Dibbits said, was clear evidence of Jesuit connections that were “not only religious, but artistic”.
Vermeer runs from 10 February to 4 June at the Rijksmuseum, whose groundbreaking exhibition of slavery – the source of so much of the wealth that generated the Dutch Golden Age – will be on display this month at UN headquarters in New York: timely recognition, Dibbits said, on “the continuing impact of slavery on world history”.