Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

View of Delft

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View of Delft
The largest Vermeer exhibition ever staged just opened at the Rijk in Amersterdam. Gathering 28 of his 37 paintings, the exhibition is a closer than ever look into Vermeer’s artistic practice.

The largest Vermeer exhibition ever staged just opened at the Rijk in Amersterdam. Gathering 28 of his 37 paintings, the exhibition is a closer than ever look into Vermeer’s artistic practice.

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Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

“Among the most conspicuous qualities of Vermeer’s art are the much-admired inwardness and tranquility of his figural scenes.

Gregor J.M. Weber

In a world of information saturation and loud exclamations on the latest and greatest, the current Rijksmuseum’s exhibition is a rare and welcome encounter into a small, quiet world. Perhaps this is why viewers have been drawn to Johannes Vermeer for centuries. His paintings are silent and still, beckoning us to come in close and be still. He stops time.

Picasso painted 13,500 paintings; Van Gogh 2,100; Matisse over 1,000. Vermeer, 37 paintings. Just enough. The Rijk in Amsterdam has gathered 28 of these paintings, now on view until June 4. The largest Vermeer exhibition ever staged. 450,000 tickets have been sold, crashing the museum’s website every time tickets were made available. The show is sold out now, but the director is looking to open up some evenings to accommodate more visitors.

In a collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, as well as loans from around the world, the exhibition includes paintings Vermeer produced over 20 years of his life, between 1654 and 1674. The show includes the masterpieces; The Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Officer and Laughing Girl, and Mistress and Maid, lent by the Frick; The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Young Woman with a Lute (Metropolitan Museum, NYC) and The Lacemaker (Louvre, Paris).

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The Milkmaid

Works never before shown to the public in the Netherlands will include the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. The Rijksmuseum itself owns four Vermeer’s: The Milkmaid, The Little Street, Woman Reading a Letter , and The Love Letter. The nine Vermeers not included were deemed too fragile to travel. The exhibition took seven years of diplomacy to organize.

Displayed throughout ten spacious rooms, the show was designed by French architect and designer, Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Each painting is mounted on charcoal-colored walls, and presented in its own area, separated by ceiling-to-floor velvet curtains in deep green, aubergine, and blue that muffle sound. Co-curator, Pieter Roelofs, said, “Museumgoers, Vermeer lovers, researchers, and fellow professionals will now be able to get closer to Vermeer than ever before.”

The show includes his only two landscapes: View of Delft, 1660-61, and View of Houses in Delft, known as ‘The Little Street.’ 1658-59. Delft, in those years, was walled with a wide river and canals, and a population of twenty-five thousand. Vermeer’s people in these scenes are faceless, merely a backdrop to the brick buildings, and cobblestone streets. Distinctive spires are diminished by a lofty sky.

The Milkmaid, given her own room in the exhibition, was painted during this same period when Vermeer was only twenty-five years old, clearly showing the shifts of his interests, which remain throughout his years as a painter. A diminutive 18 inches high by 16 wide depicts a young maid along with Vermeer’s uncanny rendering of everyday objects as beauty. The stark white trail of milk, a well-used earthenware pitcher, fresh crusty bread, the lapis-lazuli and bright yellow dress, and a wall with one nail—all lit from the paned window—are characteristics of his luminous work.

Glass of Wine
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Glass of Wine

Woman with a Pearl Necklace
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Woman with a Pearl Necklace

The Geographer
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The Geographer

Woman Holding a Balance
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Woman Holding a Balance

Girl with a Pearl Earring
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Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

Works never before shown to the public in the Netherlands will include the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window.

 

Advanced research techniques used in preparing for this exhibition, reveal that Vermeer had painted over objects in The Milkmaid. “Vermeer’s painting technique has always been something of a mystery,” said Gregor J.M. Weber, co-curator of the exhibition. “How did he accomplish this miracle of light and color? With the discovery of a first sketch in black paint, we get a much better picture of his working method.” The underpainting was also seen in Woman Holding a Balance. The conventional understanding was that Vermeer painted slowly, but the revised version is that his working method was virtuosic and rigorous.

Maps, letters, pearls, water pitchers, a harpsichord, and a bass viol are all symbols of harmony and domestic tranquility. But all is not calm. In The Glass of Wine and in Officer and Laughing Girl the women are clearly not at ease, the men’s gaze fixed upon them. When it comes to Vermeer’s women, alone, reading a letter, or making lace, their soft delicacy is palpable and tender. These are the tranquil, intimate scenes rendered in subtle, nuanced colors. The shimmering yellow in Mistress and Maid shines from sunlight coming from a black background with no window—a daring move. He achieved this by using glazes, giving depth and resonance to color, and painting wet-in-wet.

We know little of Vermeer. He left no letters, portraits, writings, or diaries. We do know he was born in 1623 and died at 43. He married Catharina Bolnes, a Catholic, and he converted from a Calvinist reformed Protestant to Catholicism. She bore him 15 children in 22 years, with only 11 surviving beyond childhood. He did what he could to support his many children. He was an art dealer and head of an artist’s guild and avoided becoming entangled in the religious disputes of the period. He died with enormous debt, and like El Greco, was rescued from near oblivion until the 19th century by French aesthetics. And yet he actually tells us, in his paintings, everything about who he is.

The Dutch, at that time, were hugely successful international traders who never produced the same writers and social commentators as the French. A great deal of what we know about ordinary Dutch life in that period comes from the paintings that were being done, be they landscapes, portraits, or scenes of simple domesticity. Girl with a Pearl Earring has captured the public's imagination like nothing except the Mona Lisa smile.

Co-curator Weber, said, “Among the most conspicuous qualities of Vermeer’s art are the much-admired inwardness and tranquility of his figural scenes. His interiors seem to be isolated from the outside world as if their inhabitants might exist in their domestic worlds entirely on their own and for themselves. He is able to reproduce light with all its colored reflections in an astonishing manner.”

Light can be direct or subtle, as can symbolism and technique. Looking at a Vermeer, we are taken into an intimate dialogue. Vermeer speaks.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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