Dutch painter from the 17th century is the subject of a historical exhibition in Amsterdam

Dutch painter from the 17th century is the subject of a historical exhibition in Amsterdam

Never before have so many paintings by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer been together in the same space. Of the only 37 works left by the artist, 28 are together for a few months for an unprecedented exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Museum in Amsterdam.

Patricia Moribe, special envoy to Amsterdam

Until then, the only exhibition devoted to the Dutch master took place in Washington and The Hague, in 1995-1996, bringing together 22 paintings. For the first time in centuries, some paintings return to Holland. There are loans from European, American and even Japanese museums.

The curators Gregor JM Weber and Pieter Roelofs took eight years to complete the project for a retrospective dedicated to Vermeer. The push came with the loan of three paintings from the Frick Collection, in New York, due to the establishment’s temporary closure for renovations.

“It’s a rare opportunity, because these works are fragile, the transport negotiations, insurance and how to expose these paintings in the museum space are very delicate”, says Felipe Martinez, professor at Masp and postdoctoral researcher at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), from USP.

Vermeer would have painted about 45 paintings in his lifetime, of which only 37 still exist, most in museums and institutions around the world. Among them, one became famous for its absence, “The Concert”, from 1664, stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, in Boston, in the United States. Experts believe it to be the most valuable stolen object in the world – in 2015 it was estimated at $250 million. Thieves pretending to be policemen took 13 paintings at the time, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

a famous unknown

Little is known about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), besides being a native of Delft, a small city cut by canals in the west of Holland. A Protestant, he married a Catholic and perhaps converted. Records show that he had more than ten children, eleven of whom survived. There is also the inventory made after his death, with few possessions and many debts.

There are no letters written about or by Vermeer. There are also no records of his physical appearance. He did not make self-portraits, like his countryman and contemporary Rembrandt (1606-1669), who made hundreds of drawings and paintings of himself. There are suspicions that he could have become involved in his paintings as a character, perhaps as a guest in “A Alcoviteira”, or as the back painter in “Alegoria de Pintura”.

But Vermeer went unnoticed by the world until the mid-19th century, when the French critic Théophile Thoré-Burger drew attention to the talent of the Dutchman, who was elevated to the pantheon of painting geniuses. Since then, Vermeer’s notoriety has only increased, even stimulating many forgeries, which today are easily unmasked by technology.

everyday silence

What makes Vermeer so special in a generation of great painters Dutch, like Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Jan Steen and so many others? “Vermeer paints the silence of everyday life”, explains the Dutch historian Kees Kaldenbach. “It depicts a person with a jug of milk, and a woman looking at herself in the mirror, wearing a pearl necklace. Or the stillness of a room where a man and a woman are; It is a rare poetry”.

After initial forays into religious allegory and mythology, Vermeer found his niche in the banal day-to-day, indoors, domesticity and intimacy.

Observing a painting by Vermeer is almost an exercise in “voyeurism”, of peeking through a crack in a door or behind a curtain. The scenes are suspended instants, the characters look almost lost or thoughtful. Sometimes they look directly at the viewer.

They are ladies, nurses, gentlemen, in the midst of reflection, writing or reading a letter. Dim light comes from a window. The musical instruments of the time, such as the virginal or the viola de gamba, are recurrent. The maps on the walls refer us to the outside world. Letters can be news from afar. As in a game of clues, the clues invite the viewer to dive into a moment of silence and suspended gestures.

All this symbology is combined with accurate composition, mastery of light and the search for techniques to highlight the shine of an earring, the creases in the silk and out-of-focus details to give the idea of ​​movement.

The possible conversion to Catholicism may have brought the curious Vermeer closer to Jesuit neighbors in Delft. This could explain the theories – never proven – that the artist would have used the camera obscura process to arrive at such precise perspectives. The resource was that of a dark box with a minimal hole that projected the inverted image on the background, so that, through lenses and mirrors, it was enough to reverse the scene and take advantage of the contours obtained.

Victim of own success

The first one hundred thousand tickets for the exhibition were sold out in two days. The museum has extended visiting hours to 10 pm and later to 11 pm. A second batch of tickets went on sale at the beginning of March, but online demand was so high that the museum’s computer system crashed.

But the visits take place without fuss, organized by schedule, following the Dutch tradition of the discipline. The audience is mostly Dutch. “I’ve waited so long for this, it’s exciting,” comments Janneke, a retired teacher. “It’s part of our history,” she adds.

A visitor takes a picture of a painting by Vermeer, at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam (03/17/2023). © Patricia Moribe/RFI

The trajectory within the exhibition does not happen chronologically, but thematically. The rooms are sober and formal, in dark tones of blue, gray and burgundy. The welcome is given by two paintings depicting his hometown. “The most beautiful painting in the world”, wrote the Frenchman Marcel Proust in a letter about “View of Delft”, property of the Mauritshuis museum, in The Hague. The other image is that of a street, with children entertained and women doing their household chores – it’s “A Pequena Rua”.

Four initial works were gathered in a single room: “Diana and her nymphs”, from the Mauritshuis museum, in The Hague, “Santa Praxedes”, on loan from the Museum of Western Art, in Tokyo, “Christ in the house of Martha and Mary”, in Edinburgh , Scotland, and “A Alcoviteira”, from Dresden, Germany.

Vermeer’s domestic scenes are mostly in small format, such as an A4-sized sheet. Visitors stretch their necks, sharpen their eyes, analyze, shoot photos with their cell phones.

Northern Monalisa

In another room, reigns “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, from the Mauristshuis museum, in The Hague, one of the most iconic paintings by Vermeer, also known as “Monalisa of the north, in reference to the mysterious woman portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Vermeer.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Vermeer. Margareta Svensson

Nor is it known who his models were. Was the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” a servant, as imagined by writer Tracy Chevalier? The plot became a movie in 2003, with Colin Firth in Vermeer’s skin and Scarlett Johannson as the muse. Historian Kees Kaldenbach laments the book’s lack of historical background.

Taking advantage of the “Vermeer craze” for the mega exhibition, a reality show was even created in Holland – with transmission starting in the week of the opening of the exhibition. Artists from across the country were invited to recreate – with whatever technique they chose – six “missing” paintings by Vermeer, including “The Concert”, stolen in Boston. The show – “The New Vermeer” – is a ratings success.

“Vermeer” runs until June 4 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


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