Behind the Scenes of Rijksmuseum’s Blockbuster Vermeer Show

On June 4, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum wrapped the biggest exhibition of Dutch Golden Age master Johannes Vermeer to date. The Vermeer show featured 28 of his 37 known paintings, including seven works that had previously never been displayed for the public before. The exhibition sold out within days of its opening and attracted 650,000 visitors from over 100 countries during its 16-week stint that began February 10, according to reports from the museum. 

A new documentary makes the case that, record-smashing numbers aside, the show achieved something far more significant that cannot be measured in ticket sales (although there was nothing trivial about the astronomical eBay resale market, where markups sometimes reached thousands of dollars). On the whole, Vermeer solidified the magnitude of the mysterious painter’s legacy today in the 21st century and proved case in point that the world’s fascination with the artist is not one that will fade any time soon. 

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Kino Lorber’s new documentary Close to Vermeer (2023), directed by Suzanne Raes, goes behind the scenes of the history-making exhibition. The 78-minute film follows Rijksmuseum curators Gregor J. M. Weber and Pieter Roelofs and conservators Abbie Vandivere and Anna Krekeler as they gather Vermeer paintings that are held in permanent collections in Europe and the United States — a task that we quickly learn is a much more complicated process than it sounds. There are interviews with experts, researchers, and collectors who are all attempting to answer a question that history has yet to: What, exactly, makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?

Is it the startling realism in his portraiture, a quality that has led some to theorize his engagement with the camera obscura to achieve this feat? Or perhaps it is his unconventional incorporation of green earth into his paintings’ shadows and flesh tones? Maybe it’s his perspective, building complex scenes with curious details that draw viewers’ eyes not just to one particular corner, but rather to an entire world full of movement and life? The theories go on.

Still from Close to Vermeer (2023) directed by Suzanne Raes; conservator Anna Krekeler analyzes the fine brushstrokes that comprise the brick building in Vermeer’s “The Little Street” (1657–1658).

Close to Vermeer doesn’t exactly reach a definitive conclusion to the initial question it posits (spoiler alert?), but the film’s exploration of the current work being done to reach one exemplifies the enigmatic 17th-century artist’s enduring influence and enchantment. Because aside from being experts, everyone in the film is also a Vermeer fanatic. And while there are moments that feel a bit over-the-top (say, when Weber divulges to the audience that upon seeing Vermeer’s work for the first time as a schoolboy, he fainted), the love-borderline-obsession these historians feel for an artist who lived nearly 400 years ago — and was only recognized in the last 200 — is palpable. (Cut to a shot of Vandivere rollerskating past the Rijksmuseum in matching “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (1665) crew socks and tee.)

Aside from spotlighting the perspectives of conservators and art historians, the documentary reveals some of the new discoveries achieved with X-ray fluorescence scanning technology that allows researchers to dive deeper into the various facets that comprise one of the art world’s great mysteries. It also traces some of the ongoing debates over Vermeer’s work, like the sad disappointment that is “Girl With a Flute” (1669–1675), which may not be an actual Vermeer at all, but possibly the work of one of his students or associates.

While there are some moments when the film’s deliberately slow pace and sparse score make for a dry viewing reminiscent of a History Channel special, if you’re able to stay awake, you’ll find that it’s these details that “force you to take your time and observe Vermeer’s paintings in detail,” as Director Suzanne Raes explained in a statement. (And I agree.)

Still from Close to Vermeer (2023) directed by Suzanne Raes; “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (1665) leaves the Mauritshuis museum.

“From the very first interviews I did for this film, I realized how deep this love of Vermeer runs. One of the main characters, Gregor J. M. Weber, got a lump in his throat when he tried to put it into words,” Raes continued. “It was precisely this meaningful silence, this indescribable feeling the paintings evoked in him, that became my guideline for Close to Vermeer.”

“This film became a film about looking, and about the indescribable feelings this can evoke,” she concluded.

There may be plenty of questions left unanswered by the end of the film, but it didn’t matter. I can certainly say that I felt a lot closer to the elusive Dutch master by the closing credits. Regardless of whether you have a formal art history background or not, you don’t need one to understand and connect with the intrinsic beauty of a Vermeer.

As of May 26, Close to Vermeer is a limited release, available to watch in select theaters. Audiences can also order a DVD copy online through Kino Lorber.


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