Major retrospective on Vermeer opens in Amsterdam

Last week, the much anticipated Rijksmuseum exhibition, Vermeer, opened to the public and is already receiving outstanding reviews. The popularity of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was confirmed when over 200,000 advance tickets for the exhibition were sold.

The Delft-based artist Vermeer only lived until the age of 43 and there are just 37 known works by him. Little is known about his life and, while he was respected during his lifetime in Delft, he was relatively unknown elsewhere. In the centuries following his death, Vermeer was largely overlooked but, in the nineteenth century, the Dutch artist resurfaced. With the advent of photography, many became fascinated with Vermeer, who seemed to be able to create the appearance of areas of sharp focus and other parts of his compositions out of focus, mimicking photographic effects.

The last exhibition dedicated to Vermeer was in 1995-1996 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The show played an important role in bringing Vermeer even more fame: curator Quentin Buvelot gave Girl with the Pearl Earring its name for the exhibition (it previously was often called Girl with the Turban). The painting’s popularity led to Tracy Chevalier’s book The Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999) and a film (2003), which helped make the painting one of the most iconic works of art. Surprisingly, new research for the current exhibition has revealed that it likely was not actually a pearl, which co-curator of the show Pieter Roelofs states would have been “astronomically expensive” due to its large size. Roelofs explains that “in Vermeer’s work we are looking at imitation glass pearls, which in his time were mainly sold by Venetian glass blowers”. When the Mauritshuis director Martine Gosselink was asked about the earring, she quipped, “it is neither a pearl, nor glass, simply paint.”

The exhibition’s other co-curator, Gregor Weber, told ARTnews more about new research the curatorial team are carrying out in conjunction with the exhibition. Weber explained that, “we conducted a lot of technical research on 11 of Vermeer’s paintings. We have quite a bit of equipment in our studio, as a result of Operation Nightwatch. Some paintings will stay at the Rijksmuseum after the show so that we can continue to examine and research them. This kind of research will continue to be an ongoing process and the technical research will be published about two or three years later.”

Other new areas of research that the exhibition team have carried out help to tell us more about Vermeer’s life. Weber discussed Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, something he likely learnt from his Jesuit neighbours. “Part of my research on Vermeer’s depictions of Catholicism picks up on this use of the camera obscura because the Jesuits wrote a lot about it as a tool to explain the light of God entering into believer’s souls. I think Vermeer was interested in how his neighbors, who were Jesuits, used the camera obscura as a tool for theological, educational, and devotional purposes, which he then incorporated into his paintings.”

Reviews of the exhibition, which is organised thematically looking at topics such as domestic interiors, religion, musical seduction and daily life, have been exceptional. The Guardian described it as “one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived” and the New York Times reviewer wrote of the Girl with the Pearl Earring that the “turbaned maiden has skin so seamlessly contoured she could give TikTok tutorials.” The skill of Vermeer seems both enduring and ever impressive. Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s general director, summed up public opinion to the artist, saying “Vermeer makes the clock stop. He gives you the feeling you are there, with that person, in that room, and that time has stopped. And time, most especially today, is what we all long for.”

Vermeer is on until 4 June 2023.

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