Vermeer hysteria has been stoked by the current blockbuster exhibition “Vermeer” on view at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, until June 4, 2023. This show is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition showcasing the majority of the artist’s oeuvre. The show, which is the first Vermeer exhibition ever held at the Rijksmuseum, congregates an astonishing 28 of the Baroque painter’s approximately 37 known paintings. (The exact number of total works is disputed.)
Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) lived his whole life in the Dutch city of Delft. He painted exquisite works: light rendered naturalistically; intimate interiors of quiet domestic moments, captured and made timeless; and compositions that masterfully draw the viewer’s gaze. Vermeer was respected in his lifetime but died heavily in debt. Subsequently, his work was overlooked for centuries, rediscovered to great acclaim by the art world only in the mid-19th century. Today, his paintings are iconic images that have inspired numerous novels and films.
Interestingly, at the time of Vermeer’s death, the United States was not even a country, yet over a third of the works in “Vermeer” (10 paintings in total) are now on loan from American collections, both public and private. Four of the exhibition’s works are part of the collection in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The Frick Collection in New York contributed all three of its Vermeer works, while The Metropolitan Museum of Art sent two from its collection.
National Gallery’s Vermeers
The National Gallery of Art’s “A Lady Writing” is a classic example of Vermeer’s style and composition. As is typical of the artist, soft light coming from the left side of the painting illuminates an intimate interior scene. Luminous paint accents deployed on the tabletop’s pearls, the woman’s earrings, and her satin hair ribbons accentuate her luxurious accessories. Many of Vermeer’s other paintings showcase the same furnishings, motifs, and even one of two rooms in his home.
The lush yellow jacket in “A Lady Writing” is composed of the pigment lead-tin yellow, which Kassia St. Clair in her book “The Secret Lives of Color” explains was the yellow of choice for old-master painters such as Vermeer. For unknown reasons, the use of this color sharply declined around 1750, and knowledge of lead-tin yellow was completely lost until its existence and long history of artistic use was rediscovered in 1941. Indeed, scientific analysis of paintings that reveals this pigment’s presence can help date and authenticate works of art.
“Woman Holding a Balance” features the use of lead-tin yellow. The work also displays Vermeer’s signature liberal use of ultramarine, a pigment that comes from the rock lapis lazuli and was the most expensive pigment in its day, in the woman’s jacket. “Woman Holding a Balance” is a superb example of Vermeer’s use of diffused light, shimmering paint accents, and balanced compositions that lead to an almost otherworldly sense of equilibrium.
The Frick’s Paired Figures
The Frick Collection, housed in the private home turned museum of the Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is prohibited from lending works of art in its collection that were acquired by its founder, as stipulated in Mr. Frick’s will. Serendipitously, however, the Frick is currently undergoing a multiyear renovation of its building and has transported much of its collection to an off-site display. These special circumstances resulted in the impossible being possible, and the Frick’s Vermeers have been allowed to join their siblings at the Rijksmuseum.
All three of the Frick’s paintings feature a pair of figures. “Mistress and Maid” depicts two women, but it hints at a third person with the delivery of a letter. The motif of mistresses and maids, along with letter correspondence, was popular in contemporaneous art and literature. The Frick’s website commentary heralds this painting as an example of Vermeer’s great technical skill, with bravura brushstrokes employed to show the pleating of the lady’s yellow mantle along with shorter brushstrokes used to capture flickering light on glassware and shimmering pearls.
As in other Vermeer works, “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” utilizes music to imply a scene of courtship between the male and female figures. “Officer and Laughing Girl,” illustrating the theme of love, transcends the popular Dutch art subject of a young woman entertaining a suitor by its dazzling display of pictorial light. The Frick notes: “The dark foil of the officer’s silhouette dramatizes both the illusion of depth and the brilliant play of light over the woman and the furnishings of the chamber.”
Nine Vermeer paintings feature wall maps and other cartographic items, and the map of Holland in “Officer and Laughing Girl” was probably the first time the artist depicted such an object. In the fall of 2022, the Frick published a book titled “Vermeer’s Maps,” which is an in-depth exploration of Vermeer’s unparalleled ability to render maps with great detailed accuracy and artistic flair. Amazingly, all the maps and globes that he depicts can be identified. In the 17th century, the Dutch led the world in mapmaking. At the crossroads of art and science, maps became popular objects for interior decoration.
The Met’s Gilded Age Collection
The Met owns five Vermeers, more than any other museum, and has sent both “Allegory of the Catholic Faith” and “Young Woman With a Lute” to the Rijksmuseum. The latter painting was formerly in the collection of the Gilded Age railway magnate Collis P. Huntington. Met curator Adam Eaker explains in the work’s catalog entry that the painting displays classic Vermeer characteristics: a composition with a “half-length figure, anchored in space by a table that juts out of the lower left-hand corner,” diffused light entering the interior through a left-hand side window, and highlighted luminous pearls. The tabletop laden with open songbooks and an instrument on the floor indicate that the young woman is preparing for a duet and allows the viewer to imagine an array of narrative scenarios.
The American businessman and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan and his wife, Daphne Recanati Kaplan, are collectors in the style of those Gilded Age titans, such as Henry Clay Frick, with a focus on collecting old masters and putting them on public display. The couple call their holdings “The Leiden Collection” in homage to the Dutch city of Leiden, and have created a free online scholarly catalog detailing their works. The collection includes the only mature Vermeer painting, “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” which is on view in the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition. The painting features a young woman at her music, a subject comparable with other Vermeers, and showcases Vermeer’s sensitivity and skill in depicting luminous light. Yet again, music-making in the scene implies courtship as the woman gazes out from the canvas, situating the viewer as a potential suitor.
The 17th century in the Dutch Republic was one of the greatest periods of artistic achievement in Western art. Connective threads can be found among many of Vermeer’s paintings, yet each one is individualistic, richly evocative, restrained, but immediate, mesmerizing, and timeless.
Many visitors to the “Vermeer” exhibition, whether in-person or as armchair travelers, will agree with the claim of Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum general director, that Vermeer is “the most mysterious and beloved artist of all time.”