When a large-scale exhibition of works by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) opened at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum on February 10, all 450,000 tickets were quickly sold out. The museum is showing 37 or so existing works by the Delft painter until June 4, 2023.
This is the first time that several Vermeer paintings are on display together at the same time, and it may be the last, given how expensive the works are. It is also possible that the show has attracted more viewers. After the initial batch of tickets sold out, the museum extended its opening hours and offered more opportunities to view the works of the Dutch master. Those tickets also sold out quickly, and the museum’s website even briefly crashed. Now, the museum is offering a free, interactive online exhibit called “Closer to Johannes Vermeer.” It is narrated by the English actor and writer Stephen Fry and allows visitors to get closer to Vermeer’s life and times, even if they cannot see the works in person.
Crazy about Vermeer
The facades of two red brick houses stand out against the cloudy sky. In a narrow passage between them a housekeeper leans over a container, framed by a door. She is scrubbing; The water is still sparkling in the drain. Meanwhile, two children are playing on the curb, while a woman sits in the open doorway of a house and sews.
In addition to his most famous work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Vermeer is famous for his sensitive depictions of 17th-century middle-class life in the Dutch city of Delft.
Along with Rembrandt (1606-1669), Vermeer is considered the greatest painter of his era. He masterfully captured various materials and surfaces on his canvases: rough brick, lead-glazed windows, wooden shutters, white parts of walls. Everything looks real, almost photographic: the contrast of light and dark, the perspectives, the calm that vibrates with energy.
28 Vermeer masterpieces from around the world
“The Little Street” is a masterpiece, as are all of Vermeer’s other surviving paintings, although there aren’t many.
When he died in December 1675, aged 43, he had 37 paintings; 28 are now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, up from eight at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague 26 years ago. Works of art were borrowed from major international museums and private collections in Europe and America. Private sponsors reached deep into their wallets. It is the largest single Vermeer show to date.
It’s hard to describe what attracts Vermeer fans: Vermeer’s handling of brush and paint, his technical skill, the lighting effects, the composition, the fidelity of perspective. “Vermeer was a master of light,” said Gregor Weber, co-curator of the exhibition in Amsterdam. No other artist painted light like Vermeer, realistic and yet imbued with a mysterious calm, he said.
From biblical stories to everyday images
Diana, goddess of the hunt, is surrounded by friends. One of them washing Diana’s feet. This is a scene from ancient mythology. The story of the pure goddess was a popular subject of Dutch painting.
Even the young Vermeer idealized such figures. Italian influences are also evident in his work, although the Delft native never left his hometown.
At the age of 21, Vermeer enrolled as a master painter in the Delft Guild of St. Luke.
He initially took up historical themes: scenes from the Bible, from ancient history, stories of saints.
His brushstrokes are bold, creating large areas of color whose stark contrasts of light and dark are reminiscent of his Italian role model, Carvaggio (1571-1610).
Scholars are still puzzled as to why Vermeer changed his subject of interest from 1656.
Was it a breakup? No, Vermeer’s switch to genre paintings was a leap in development. He began to include everyday scenes in his paintings: a maid pouring milk into a jug; A young girl writing a letter; Virginal, daughter of a well-to-do family, in music lessons on a small harpsichord.
All of them are interior scenes, except for the two famous city scenes, “The Little Street” and “View of Delft”.
They are fantasy interiors and yet they provide intimate glimpses of everyday life in the 17th century. Time seems chaotic. “Vermeer’s paintings are not narrative in the sense that there is a lot of moving, a lot of running, like horses bucking or something falling to the ground or people falling or something like that,” says Weber, a Vermeer expert.
“His paintings are always very quiet, very introspective,” Weber adds. Vermeer’s work keeps a secret. It is this very stillness that fascinates today’s audience.
Jan Vermeer, Master of Light
Was it Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) who influenced Vermeer?
Scholars are still searching for answers. Vermeer refined his painting techniques over the years.
With small dabs of color, he created the illusion of light dancing on the surface. The elements of the painting become vivid, almost three-dimensional. The pearls of the girl with pearl earrings, for example, are depicted only through the reflection of light – no more, but also no less!
His pointillism—the technique of using small, distinct dots of color in a pattern to create an image—made Vermeer famous.
In 1664 and 1665, he painted stylistically related interior portraits: it is always a young woman, sometimes with scales, sometimes in a jug of water at the window, with a pearl necklace or as “writing a letter in yellow”. They are idealized scenes of everyday life, each well composed in its own right.
The master of Delft did not use a camera obscura, a pinhole camera, to find his perspective, as had previously been assumed. A current theory is that he used the so-called pin-and-string method, in which he stuck pins into his canvas and attached threads to draw his perspective lines. Other painters also used this technique. Restorers discovered by X-ray many of the Vermeer paintings they examined.
But that’s not all. They also discovered that the artist originally intended to depict: a lute, for example, in the painting “Woman with a Pearl Necklace,” or in the nude youth painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” which Vermeer or He was later painted by an artist because it was perceived as an erotic allusion.
A great world
Vermeer’s late paintings are characterized by a strong incidence of light, but the painting technique seems simple.
The Delft master may have painted his last picture in 1675, “Lady Seated at a Virginal.”
At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, unlike the former in The Hague, the works are hung in spacious rooms where heavy curtains provide atmosphere.
All pictures are protected by glass panes. For good reason: As recently as October, climate activists attacked the world-famous “Girl with the Pearl Earring” with glue and red liquid, but the work remained intact.
Jan Vermeer died in 1675. He left behind a wife and 10 minor children. After his death, the artist was forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century that art historians rediscovered his work.
Today, Vermeer is considered one of the world’s greatest painters, largely because of the quality and originality of each painting—all masterpieces.
More than 150,000 tickets have been sold just days before the exhibition opens on February 10. The event, which runs until June 4, 2023 at the Rijksmuseum, has what it takes to be the art event of the year.
This article was originally written in German and was first published on February 15, 2023. It has been updated to reflect recent developments.