Vermeer regathered

March 31, 2023 7 Comments

We’re back in the Netherlands: the first time we’ve broken out of our bleak little island for over three years.  It’s a relief to be in a country where most things seem to work, as they once did in Britain: railways and buses, information and advice services, health facilities, clean public spaces and much else.  What’s more, the Dutch take seriously the challenge of how to treat the environment well.  Utrecht, where we’re staying, must have one of the greenest transport systems in Europe: almost no cars in the city centre, superb public transport, and so many cyclists that as a pedestrian you need to be hyper-vigilant at all times.

Utrecht is a delight, even in cold, damp March weather, with its canals and canal-side buildings, museums and galleries, cosy cafés, jazz bars and Indonesian restaurants.  We wander on foot, and take a bus trip out to see the Rietfeld Schröder Huis, a De Stijl house that’s joyful in its primary colour modernism (but was probably a pain to live in as a home).  There are almost no other tourists about.

But we’re really here for a special reason, to see the Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Laura Cumming called this ‘one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived’.  That isn’t hyperbole.  The curators in the Rijksmuseum have succeeded in collecting twenty-eight of the thirty-seven known paintings of Johannes Vermeer – works now scattered throughout Europe, America and Asia – and it’s highly unlikely the feat will be repeated for decades to come.  Tickets for the show quickly sold out.  The museum extended its opening hours and issued more, but the new tickets again sold out almost immediately.  We feel lucky to be here.  To see Vermeer gathered together in one space is a very different experience from making multiple pilgrimages to see the paintings in their normal homes.

The paintings are beautifully displayed and lit.  They shine out like gems in the large darkened rooms.  They’re widely spaced – sometimes with just a single picture in one room, at other times with kindred paintings a bit closer together, so that you can make immediate comparisons.  The museum’s planners control the flow of visitors well, so that with a little patience you can stand behind the curved bar in front of each painting and study it in detail, without feeling under pressure to move on quickly.  The only error, it seems to me, is to open the show with the two open-air paintings, ‘The view of Delft’ and ‘The little street’.  Both are masterpieces and would have made a fitting climax at the end of the show, rather than acting as ‘tasters’ at the start.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft

The following day, back in a cinema in Utrecht, we watch a fine documentary film by Suzanne Raes called Dicht bij Vermeer (‘Close to Vermeer’), which follows, with warmth and wry humour, the process of making the exhibition.  The film’s central figure is Gregor Weber, the Head of the Department of Fine Arts in the Rijksmuseum: this is the last and greatest of the exhibitions he’s curated, before he retires.  We watch him as he negotiates the loan of Vermeers from galleries across the world.  Mostly he succeeds, but sometimes he fails to persuade, as with the Met in New York and the gallery in Braunschweig.  The film doesn’t explain why the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna refused to lend ‘The art of painting’, the biggest gap in the exhibition, or why ‘Lady at the virginals with a gentleman’ in the Royal Collection and the Kenwood House ‘Guitar player’ could not come from the UK.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with flute

Detailed scientific study of the paintings continues to uncover their secrets, like the overpainted picture of Cupid on the wall in ‘Girl reading a letter at an open window’ in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.  The film includes debates about two paintings whose attribution to Vermeer is in doubt, ‘Girl with a flute’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) and ‘A young woman seated at the virginals’, the only Vermeer still in private hands.  With American imperial brashness, the National Gallery curators announce to the Rijksmuseum staff that the former is certainly not by Vermeer, while scientific analysis of the latter suggests strongly that it is genuine.  Gregor Weber is visibly unhappy with both decisions.  Who else could possibly have painted the flute girl?  And surely the technical accomplishment of the virginals girl falls well below Vermeer’s usual level?

Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at an open window (with and without Cupid)

The success of this wonderful exhibition raises an obvious question: why is Vermeer now such a revered artist?  It wasn’t always so.  Until the French scholar and collector Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré rediscovered him in the nineteenth century, few had heard of him, and no one would have counted him as a leading painter.  In Suzanne Rais’s film, a painter who has studied Vermeer’s techniques closely over many years points out that each generation reinterprets the paintings, and values them for different things: their stillness, their masterly composition, their colours and shadows, their focus on women.  What makes these changing views possible is the unknowability of the works and their creator.  Almost nothing of real significance is known about Johannes Vermeer, the man or the painter.  We don’t know who taught him, or whether he had assistants or pupils. Why he painted what he did is similarly obscure. 

The paintings themselves are equally opaque or ambiguous.  A few, generally early works, belong to a well-worn artistic tradition.  Others seem to share in the moral messaging that pervades seventeenth century Dutch art.  On the whole, though, Vermeer doesn’t seem to care much about genre categories or moral lessons.  He’s much more interested in fixing the figure and the moment, and in exploring, as the Rijksmuseum’s information panels suggest, the relationship between the inside room and the world outside, and between the private, interior world of his women and the social world they inhabit.  In Dutch painting he stands alone.

In Suzanne Raes’s film, the painter attempts to explain what Vermeer means to him, but he can’t, and tears begin to well in his eyes.  Gregor Weber, too, tries to put into words why he finds the paintings so important, as a person rather than as a scientist and art historian.  He has several tries to camera, but each time words fail him and he snaps his fingers to end the filming.  The paintings themselves are full of sounds – they contain music and conversation, and the shared language of letter-writing and reading – but their overall effect is to one of a deep inner quiet.  So too, Vermeer reduces his viewers too to a powerful, and often highly emotional silence.

Comments (7)

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  1. Nigel says:

    Interesting to hear of your trip to Utrecht and its public transport system. My sister in law went to the Vermeer exhibition and I will forward this review to her.Thank you for your ever interesting posts.

  2. Gillian Lewis says:

    I’m green with envy Mr Green,as green as the drapes on the right as she reads her letter…….what a trip!

  3. David Smith says:

    Andrew’s latest blog struck a chord (as they often do!), not because of the Vermeer exhibition (which sadly we will not get to see) but for the way in which the trip had been staged. Prior to the pandemic we had made four consecutive trips to the Netherlands around Easter time, staying in smaller (but in themselves worthwhile) cities within easy reach of Amsterdam – Leiden, Haarlem and Utrecht twice (so we can confirm that the Indonesian dining is indeed good). We agree with the comments about public transport – the impressive Kröller-Müller Museum was very reachable from Utrecht. Perhaps best to avoid King’s Day, which we unknowingly got caught up in once, however! A fifth adventure to Rotterdam was also surprisingly interesting.

  4. Jean Williams says:

    So envious that you were able to see the Vermeer exhibition. Saw the Riksmuseum pieces last year as well as those in the Mauritshaus in The Hague which included the View of Delft – stunning!

  5. D Harries says:

    Wedi mwynhau yn fawr iawn.

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