“The greatest and most enigmatic artist of all time.” This is how Taco Dibbits, the general director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, characterizes Vermeer. It’s also difficult to disagree. Leonardo, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Van Gogh are among the most well-known names, but has any other famous artist received as much attention in recent years as the Dutchman Johannes Vermeer of Delft?
The year’s biggest victory for the art world was achieved by Dibbits. He is aware of it. The largest Vermeer exhibition of this or any previous life will be on display at the Rijksmuseum for the next four months.
On the precise number of paintings Vermeer left behind, scholars vary. The National Gallery in Washington estimates 34, whereas the Rijksmuseum insists on 37. Whichever it is, it has never happened before to have 28 of them in one location. Over 200,000 advance tickets have already been sold for the massive show, which opens Friday.
It’s really exciting, says Dibbits. “I’ve had this fantasy about having every painting in one place. 28 people are here, which is something we never imagined.”
Even this figure is up for discussion. The National Gallery recently determined that “Girl with a Flute” was painted by an unidentified follower rather than the master himself. The Rijksmuseum, however, vehemently disagrees with the re-attribution and has cheerfully borrowed the painting for their exhibit from the National along with three other Vermeers. Pieter Roelofs, the head of paintings and sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, mocked the situation by sarcastically informing a Dutch newspaper that after “Girl with a Flute” crossed the Atlantic, it just turned back into a Vermeer.
Vermeers’ artwork frequently appears in books, posters, and postcards with flawless reproductions. However, “Girl with a Flute” is a fairly little image in real life. It is displayed side by side with “Girl with a Red Hat,” a significant and pivotal work in the development of the artist, on a specific wall of the Rijksmuseum.
The re-attribution is a component of an intriguing and thorough Vermeer study project that includes the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in addition to the Rijksmuseum and National Gallery. The techniques used are remarkable; they are akin to non-invasive archaeology and were developed by NASA to map minerals on Mars and the Moon. Vermeer’s precisely painted surfaces have been scrutinized by museum scientists and conservators who have also examined his underpainting and, in a few instances, his original sketches. They are all in awe at the findings.
You feel as though you are peering over his shoulder
Up until this point, Vermeer has been regarded as a systematic, magnificent, and mystical painter of light and radiant moments of Dutch middle-class life. His images of ladies reading or writing letters, a housekeeper pouring milk, a woman playing the lute, and a tiny child sporting pearl earrings are among the mesmerizing household situations he depicts.
Dibbits exclaims, “Vermeer captures those fleeting moments of profound joy where time stops still.” “The pieces come together. There is this total calmness and this connection.”
According to common thinking, Vermeer painted slowly, perhaps producing no more than two or three works over two decades. However, the latest research also raises the possibility that he was eager, impulsive, and quick to attack the canvas with big brushstrokes in drafts and under the paint.
Ige Verslype, a conservator at the Rijksmuseum, is overjoyed. She claims, “We see the earliest creative moves of Vermeer.” “We can imitate his style of painting. It appears as though you are watching what he is doing from behind him.”
For instance, Verslype recreated “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” about ten years ago. This time, it has spent three weeks in the lab, on and off. There have once more been revelations.
Verslype praised the painting, which was created in the 1660s, for having “a very sensitive tonality.” “And that’s because of the way he built it up with a first layer that was greenish and brownish, and then on top he utilized, in every layer, the blue pigment ultramarine — not just in the blue chair and the blue tablecloth, but also in the walls, in the shadows, even in her face and hands.”
The most expensive pigment used at the time was ultramarine, which is derived from lapis lazuli. Vermeer must have had a good painting career despite having a brief one based on his frequent use of it. But soon after his passing, he was forgotten. Nearly two centuries later, a French art critic rediscovered his work.
The price paid for “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals” at Sotheby’s in 2004 now serves as the auction record for a Vermeer, coming in at $30 million. The majority of Vermeer fans concur that it was a nice but not exceptional piece of work. Steve Wynn, the owner of several casinos in Las Vegas, bought it and eventually sold it. It was lent to the Rijksmuseum exhibition by its present owner. What a magnificent Vermeer would fetch at auction today is anyone’s guess; it would undoubtedly exceed $100 million, and it might even double or triple that amount.
Overdosing on Vermeer
Rijksmuseum conservator Anna Krekeler stands in front of “The Milkmaid” and describes what was revealed by the scans, including the items Vermeer overpainted: a rack of hanging jugs behind his subject’s head and a sizable fire basket for drying garments on the floor. To make the picture simpler, he painted them out. His attention is solely on the maid and the endless jug of milk she pours onto this refrigerator magnet and many others.
Vermeer is being better-understood thanks to specialists like Krekeler, yet we still know very little about him as a person and an artist. He was a young man of only 43 when he passed away there in Delft, the Dutch Republic, in 1675. He was the son of an innkeeper. In addition to the four children that predeceased him, he left behind a wife and 11 living children.
More than just about any other living art historian, the director of fine arts at the Rijksmuseum, Gregor Weber, is an expert on Vermeer. His most recent studies have looked at a variety of topics, including how the painter’s conversion to Catholicism and his subsequent interactions with Delft Jesuit priests influenced his art. This exhibit is the curator’s retiring show at age 66, he claims. However, he has had an obsession with the painter since he saw two Vermeers hanging on a wall at the National Gallery in London when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy.
He remembers, “I guess I fainted a little.” “This artist has such a radiant presence. I was genuinely shocked.” And ever since? “Vermeer has kept me occupied. an eternity, “He answers. At the age of 18, Weber constructed a camera obscura (also known as a pinhole camera) at home to see if Vermeer had ever used one.
Together, we take a trip through the exhibit. His passion is evident, and his words flow freely. Weber says with a smile that it appears like he discovers something new every time he examines a Vermeer.
The curator describes how Vermeer perceived things differently from his contemporaries and how he comprehended the viewer’s gaze while standing in front of the smallest of paintings, “The Lacemaker” (measuring 9.5 inches by 8.25 inches). Vermeer focused his attention on the lacemaker and the extreme concentration on her face as she manipulates the fabric with her hands. Red and white lace threads are painted in a blur in the foreground. According to Weber, they are abstract and “like melting wax.”
Weber thinks Vermeer gave the composition and subject matter a lot of consideration. But according to recent scientific findings, he occasionally painted quickly. The background artwork “In my opinion, he painted it within a week,” the curator adds, noting that the paintings “are fresh, colorful, and rapid.” in a month, further paintings.”
We have so little left to appreciate, though. The typical Vermeer experience is limited to one, two, or three paintings in any given museum, with a maximum of five. The exhibit at the Rijksmuseum is completely different and almost psychedelic. We leave feeling overwhelmed, as if we’ve “Vermeered,” or overdosed on Vermeer.
Almost too many paintings exist to see them all in one trip. It is necessary to gradually process the experience, reflect on it, and then repeat it.
The Rijksmuseum will host “Vermeer” from February 10–June 4, 2023.