All the versions of this article: English , français

Amsterdam; Rijksmuseum, from 10 February to 4 June 2023.

Hurry to the website of the Rijksmuseum, click frantically to obtain the famous sesame. New visiting slots are offered: it is still possible to see Vermeer on certain evenings at 9:30 pm. By the time I write these lines, it may no longer be possible. Even before the exhibition began, 200,000 tickets were already sold. Shortly after its opening, the 400,000 or so places planned were taken by storm. Night shows were then announced and immediately booked. If you can’t see the works in real life and contemplate them, it is possible to examine them and zoom in on them by following a virtual tour.

1. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
The Mistress and the Servant, c. 1664-1667
Oil on canvas - 90.2 x 78.4 cm
New York, The Frick Collection
Photo: The Frick Collection
See the image in its page

This exhibition is presented as the last on Johannes Vermeer, at least the last of such magnitude: the curators have brought together twenty-eight paintings by the master. This is quite a feat considering the limited corpus of his works, about forty in all, of which more or less thirty-seven are known today. It will be difficult to equal this record in the next few years, since the Frick Collection, which never lends its collections, has made an exception: when it closed for renovation, the museum agreed to entrust its three Vermeers to the Rijksmuseum - Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Officer and Laughing Girl, and Mistress and Maid (ill. 1) - while its Spanish masterpieces are currently on view at the Prado.
The previous exhibition devoted exclusively to Vermeer dates back to 1996. That was in the Mauritshuis, where twenty-three paintings were brought together. The Hague Museum, in turn, sent its masterpieces to Amsterdam, including Girl with a Pearl Earring - on view only until March 30 - and the View of Delft. Other institutions have followed suit, including the Louvre, which has entrusted The Lacemaker, but not The Astronomer exiled to Abu Dhabi.

2. View of the "Vermeer" exhibition
Photo: Rijksmuseum/Henk Wildschut
See the image in its page

Vermeer and nothing else. The curators made the choice to show only his paintings, excluding comparative works painted by his contemporaries. Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s very pure scenography invites contemplation. The texts in the exhibition room also do not tell visitors much and merely describe the paintings. The twenty-eight paintings are divided into eleven sections: less than three per room, and no more than one per picture rail on average (ill. 2). This very airy arrangement is a response to the desire to ensure the comfort of the public: despite the number of visitors, they must be able to look at the works without crowding in front of them. The cynics will say that this distribution allows to open the floodgates and to let in a large flow of curious people. Especially since the price of the ticket, which is usually 20 euros, has been raised to 30 euros for the event.

3. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
The Procuress, 1656
Oil on canvas - 143 x 130 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
See the image in its page

The tour is thematic, as few paitings are dated, and it is not obvious to establish a chronology for those that are not. One room, however, displays the first works produced around 1654-1655: they are large-scale religious and mythological subjects, testifying to the influence of Italian painting and the ambition of the young artist to establish himself in the great genre of history painting. Alongside Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Saint Praxedis and Diane and the Nymphs, The Procuress, painted around 1656, is his first genre painting (ill. 3); it is imbued with a saucy tone, later to be found in The Girl with the Wine Glass and the Officer and Laughing Girl. Leaving history behind, Vermeer devoted his brush to interior scenes, which he rendered enigmatic through the science of framing, the treatment of light and the interplay of glances.
The themes of the different sections highlight the recurring motifs in the master’s work: windows, letters, musical instruments, mirrors, pearls. One room contains the only two surviving landscapes by his hand, View of Delft with the famous "yellow wall" that Proust admired, and The Little Street, another vision of his native city, where he spent his entire career.

4. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1654-1655
Oil on canvas - 158.5 x 141.5 cm
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland
Photo: National Galleries of Scotland
See the image in its page
5. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Allegory of the Catholic Faith, c. 1670-1674
Oil on canvas - 114.3 × 88.9 cm
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
See the image in its page

One of the novelties of this exhibition is the study by one of the two curators, Gregor J.M. Weber [1], devoted to the artist’s closeness to the Catholic community and the role it may have had in his creation. Born a Protestant, he married a Catholic and converted. This influence can be seen in the subjects of his early works such as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (ill. 4); the two women embody respectively the active and the contemplative life, the place of each of the characters in the painting would obey the compositio loci [2] defined by Ignatius of Loyola whose Spiritual Exercises and defense of the contemplative life constitute a Catholic response to the Protestants.
Religious subjects were not restricted to his early career. In his later years, Vermeer also painted the Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ill. 5) - with Jordaens’ The Crucifixion visible in the background - while several of his genre scenes have a more or less explicit, and also more or less contested, allegorical dimension, such as the Woman Holding a Balance - with a representation of the Last Judgment hanging on the wall - or even the Woman with a Pearl Necklace.
Gregor Weber is especially interested in the importance of the Jesuits, whose neighbor Johannes Vermeer was. Among them, Isaac Van der Mye was also a painter, and perhaps he showed Vermeer the camera oscura. Did the master use it to create his masterpieces? The Lacemaker is often cited as evidence of this practice, with its focus on a specific area of the painting, and the blurred areas around it. The Jesuits were experts in the field of optics, supporting the theological concept of divine light. Francis of Aguilon, for example, wrote a treatise Opticorum libri sex that was illustrated by Rubens, and the crystal ball hanging from the ceiling in the Allegy of the Catholic Faith is probably borrowed from the Flemish Jesuit Willem Hesius’ Emblemata Sacra: De Fide, Spe, Charitate.

6. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
The Woman with a Red Hat, 1665-1667
Oil on panel - 22.8 × 18 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo: National Gallery of Art
See the image in its page
7. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Girl with a Flute, c. 1665-1670
Oil on panel - 20 × 17.8 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo: NGA Washington
See the image in its page

It is surprising that the tour does not address questions of attribution, which are more fully developed in the catalog. Thus The Girl with a Flute, presented as a counterpart to The Girl with a Red Hat (ill. 6 and 7), which is not unanimously agreed upon, is considered a work by the master in the exhibition, whereas the National Gallery in Washington had renounced this attribution. Some consider it to be a copy, others an autograph replica, or a workshop work - a hypothetical workshop, given how little is known about Vermeer - or even the work of a follower. But after presenting these different possibilities, the curators have chosen to return this painting to the master, who was capable, contrary to what has long been believed, of painting with rapid brushstrokes. Similarly, Saint Praxedis was long considered an anonymous copy of a work by the Florentine Felice Ficherelli, known as Felice Riposo. But a date, "1655", and a signature, "Meer", now considered autograph, have allowed it to be attributed to the Delft master, after Riposo.

8. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window}, 1657-1658,
Oil on canvas - 83 x 64.5 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
See the image in its page
9. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
The Milkmaid, 1658-1659
Oil on canvas - 45.5 x 41 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Photo: Rijksmuseum

Another point that might have been of interest to visitors was the restorations and new non-intrusive techniques for analyzing the paintings. For example, the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (ill. 7), housed in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, had undergone a restoration in 2021 (see the news item of 7/22/21): an eighteenth-century overpainting was removed, revealing a cupid on the wall of the room, which gave a clue to the tone of the letter. The analysis of The Milkmaid (ill. 8) revealed that Vermeer had originally planned to paint a shelf with jugs on the wall and a brazier basket on the floor. In the end, he preferred to conceal these details in order to lighten his composition and give more monumentality to his figure. This scientific study revealed that the master had first quickly brushed his composition with black paint, undermining the idea that Vermeer was always a slow and meticulous painter.

Curators: Pieter Roelofs and Gregor J.M. Weber,

Edited by Pieter Roelofs and Gregor J.M. Weber, Vermeer, 320 pp. Rijksmuseum and Hannibal 2023, €59, ISBN 978464666168

Practical information: Rijksmuseum, Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam. Tel: +31 (0) 20 6747 000. Open daily from 9am to 6pm/9:30pm. Price: 30 €.

Your comments

In order to be able to discuss articles and read the contributions of other subscribers, you must subscribe to The Art Tribune. The advantages and conditions of this subscription, which will also allow you to support The Art Tribune, are described on the subscription page.

If you are already a subscriber, sign in.