AMSTERDAM — If you don’t already have tickets to the Johannes Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, you’re out of luck: They sold out within days of the show’s opening. The elusive Vermeer remains elusive.
For those of us who obtained tickets, we can be, as the exhibition title proposes, “Closer to Vermeer” — or at least 28 paintings closer to seeing his entire 37-painting oeuvre, all in one dizzying visit. (You can pick up the remaining nine with trips to Germany, Vienna, Abu Dhabi, New York, England, and perhaps an art-loving super villain’s lair.)
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Conscious of crowd control, and perhaps thinking of jewels, the curators strew the 28 paintings across eight black-walled and velvet-draped rooms, with as few as one to a room, each snug behind its own rigid half circle of velvet-covered railing. The paintings are arranged thematically, mostly within chronological groupings, accompanied by minimal wall text. Given that Vermeer only dated three of his paintings, a strictly chronological arrangement could quickly become tendentious.
Yet the themes are exceptionally anodyne (e.g., “Gazing Out,” “Gentlemen Callers”) and the groupings also make it somewhat hard to grasp his development as a painter. Since most of us usually see Vermeer’s paintings only in reproduction, the overwhelming sense of him is as a photorealist before photography. He is also so good at world-building — marshaling just the right details of light or gesture to make his scenes feel both utterly fresh and deeply familiar — that it is easy to get lost in his illusions rather than comprehending the techniques used to create them. Yet a great deal happens in his paint, and his facture frequently relates significantly to the subjects of his paintings.
For instance, at the start of his career, working on a surprisingly large scale compared to his later output, Vermeer explored a variety of painting styles and subjects. He took a stab at mythological painting with “Diana and Her Attendants,” trying out a vague, blotted brushwork. Everyone appears elegant but unreachable, their faces in shadow. Perhaps inspired by Rembrandt’s work from the same period, in “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha,” he experiments with more visible brushwork: long, placid strokes in Mary’s drapery as she sits at Christ’s feet; tortuous switchbacks in Christ’s robe; and a series of agitated lines at Martha’s elbows that telegraph her irritation at her sister for leaving her to do the housework.
In the early “Procuress,” a life-sized brothel scene, he’s back to the blotted style of the Diana, but the painting is darker and more directed toward the viewer. It’s a tale of four hats: a floppy beret capping an awkwardly grinning musician; a black head wrap encasing a shifty-looking procuress; a feathered hat emphasizing the grotesque bulk of a soldier; and a white bonnet, starched and lacy, adorning a red-cheeked young woman. The wholesomeness of her countenance is undermined by her smile as she accepts a coin from one hand of the soldier while the other gropes her breast. In a detail that seems telling, just under the hand Vermeer has applied the paint so thickly that it sags, as if melting from the physical contact.
In these paintings, Vermeer doesn’t yet look like Vermeer. He arrives at his formula with “Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window” (1657–59). He went on to paint 21 more variations of just those elements — woman, window, corner — throughout his career. The next one in the exhibition, “The Milkmaid” (1657–61), depicts a woman pouring milk into a bowl, a basket of bread in the foreground. The bread is composed of tiny dots of raised paint, called “pointillés,” a mark unique to Vermeer that possibly yields from his use of the camera obscura. “The Milkmaid” contrasts especially with his earlier “Procuress.” Whereas that painting is large, red-dominant, and vaguely sweaty, “The Milkmaid” is small (18 inches on its long side), bathed in cool light, and sewn together with blue accents. It feels surpassingly virtuous in comparison, with subtle suggestions of the Virgin Mary feeding the Christ child. Vermeer has come home.
Vermeer’s two surviving cityscapes, “View of Delft” (1660–63) and “The Little Street” (1657–61), though painted after those in the rooms following, open the show, and provide an exterior to the interiors that follow. At 46 inches long, “View of Delft” is also a (brief) return to a larger scale, all the better to beam forth the formidable quiet of its scene.
The painting’s size makes it easy to ogle Vermeer’s mid-career brushwork. The gabled facade of the building with the clock is painted first in a flat brown, then ticked with dots and dashes of thin gray and beige paint to effect the details of its masonry. The terracotta roof tiles on the left are rendered with a curious sandy texture and the trees with piles of pointillés. In the patch of sunlight that strikes the houses deep in the right background, Vermeer depicts the roof tiles with rough lines of buff paint that evoke mineral encrustations left by evaporating water. The canal itself is softly reflective, except where scuffed by the wind, which he evokes with a light smear of opaque paint.
In his later paintings, on trend with Dutch art of the times, Vermeer becomes more refined. The lived-in quality of the kitchen in “The Milkmaid,” with its dinged-up walls and crud on the floor, is replaced in paintings like “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal” with smooth plaster and furniture-catalogue tidiness. His surfaces are smoother, too, and less inclined toward pointillés. These have evolved into scattered discs of light that are barely noticeable, but they contribute strongly to the liveliness of paintings like the life-sized “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and “Mistress and Maid.” In both of these, the background is a glossy black, making the figures both more intensely illusionistic and, with their ineffably soft contours, immaterial, as if fashioned from colored smoke.
The last room includes a vital pairing, hung across the room from each other: “Woman with a Balance” and “Woman with a Pearl Necklace.” These small paintings show Vermeer’s formula at its most potent. “Pearl Necklace” depicts a woman looking at herself in a mirror as she ties on a necklace with a long ribbon. A curtain adds a bolt of canary yellow at the window that matches her yellow jacket. The curtain and mirror reappear in “Woman with a Balance,” but the curtain is now drawn. This makes the room darker, emphasized by the dominating presence of a Last Judgment painting on the wall behind her. The two paintings suggest and then transcend messages of moral judgment of vanity. In them, Vermeer’s style is at its most self-effacing, smoothly drawing us into the moment. Yet we remain, inevitably, outside them. Closer to Vermeer? Never.
Two other exhibitions related to Vermeer are also on view now, both within an hour’s train ride of Amsterdam. One, Vermeer’s Delft, is in the artist’s hometown. Although Vermeer lived his entire life in that city, it has none of his paintings, and this show does not rectify that situation. However, if you hunger for the extensive biographical details omitted in the Rijkmuseum’s minimalist wall text or would like to see some of the paintings that hang in Vermeer’s backgrounds, scrutinize examples of the upholstered chairs upon which his women sit, or pore over some of the original documents that record Vermeer’s marriage and his children’s births, this well-constructed show is worthy of attention.
The other is Jacobus Vrel, Forerunner of Vermeer at the Mauritshuis. (As of April 1, you’ll need to come here to see the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” which is back in her home institution for the summer tourist season.) Vermeer was well admired during his lifetime, but little known after his death. He was re-discovered by the French art historian Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré in the late 19th century. Thoré admired Vermeer’s plainspoken naturalism, a quality shared by Jacobus Vrel. Thanks in part to their shared initials, Vrel and Vermeer were frequently confused. The illustration of Thoré’s first article on Vermeer in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1866 is, in fact, a painting by Vrel.
What we know about Vermeer, which is less than we’d like, dwarfs what we know about Vrel, which is close to nothing. Only one painting bears a date, 1654, which shows him painting women in interiors when Vermeer was still trying out history paintings. The 10 or so paintings on view are clumsier than Vermeer’s but share the mystification of the everyday and a fascination with women and windows. Two of the most striking feature interior windows with a child appearing, ghostlike, behind the glass. In one, a woman leans over in a chair precariously, as if to touch the child through the glass; in another, an older woman with a pince-nez and a book studiously ignores the child’s presence behind her. The paintings’ naïveté both accentuates Vermeer’s mastery and opens another door into the Dutch interior.
Vermeer continues at the Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam, The Netherlands) through June 4. The exhibition was curated by Gregor J.M. Weber, Pieter Roelofs, with assistance by a team of scientists.