The mysteries of Johannes Vermeer

As an artist, he is hailed as a master for his use of light, rich pigments, and the serenity of his interior scenes. As a man, however, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer remains an enigma.

His body of work—just three dozen paintings—holds some of the singular traces of this virtually forgotten 17th-century artist. Today, even one of his masterpieces can become the centerpiece of a museum, which is what makes the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam so unusual.

Twenty-eight of Vermeer’s paintings, most of his life’s work, are assembled in what co-curator Gregor Weber calls a once-in-a-lifetime show.

Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha Vermeer
“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55) by Johannes Vermeer, on display as part of the Rijksmuseum’s once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of the majority of the Dutch master’s works.

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Doane asked, “Have there ever been so many Vermeers together at one time?”

“No, no,” he replied. “I don’t think even Vermeer saw himself with so many of his paintings at once.”

Weber said he had dreamed of such an exhibition, and the dream came true when he heard that the Frick Collection in New York City, which owns three Vermeers, was closing for remodeling. “And if you get them, of course you can continue to collect all the others,” he said.

The Rijksmuseum already had four. Others are on loan from around the world: New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin. And what may be Vermeer’s best-known painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” has traveled from Mauritshuis to The Hague.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664-67) by Johannes Vermeer.

Mauritius, The Hague.

Weber likened “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to the “Mona Lisa” for its captivating gaze. It inspired a book, which became a movie. But his celebrity came late: “The painting was forgotten – forgotten, forgotten, forgotten, forgotten,” he said. “And it came out in the late 19th century. A man living in The Hague bought the painting for a little more than two guilders (about $40 today). That’s nothing!”

How Vermeer was almost lost to history is a story that traces back to his hometown of Delft in the Netherlands.

Art historian David de Haan notes that during Vermeer’s lifetime, neither the artist nor his art ever left Delft. His main mentor was there. “It didn’t really add to his fame, the fact that he only had a small body of work and most of the paintings stayed in Delft,” he said. “But then, they went into various private collections.”

Vermeer painted slowly, only two pieces a year. One of them was “The Little Street”. To determine the building’s location, a researcher used tax records.

Johannes Vermeer’s painting “View of Houses in Delft”, also known as “The Little Street” (1658-59).

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Marriage and death records are also on display at the Prinsenhof Museum, where de Haan is curator. “From this, we have to gather a little insight into his life,” he said. “It’s a bit of a puzzle.”

There are no known self-portraits, although some have suggested that the figure on the left in “The Procureur” may be the mysterious painter who fathered 15 children and died in 1675 at the age of 43. went.

Detail from “The Procureurs” (1656) by Johannes Vermeer.

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

His widow wrote that Vermeer was “unable to sell any of his art,” had “fallen into such decay and degradation,” and “as if he had fallen into a frenzy,” died suddenly. Documents show that he traded Vermeer’s art to pay for bread.

“So, the local baker had these, will the priceless artworks be lost?” Donne asked.

“Yes,” DeHaan said. “It’s strange that you imagine now that a baker has three paintings by Vermeer? But that’s how it really was.”

“Landscape at Delft” (1660-61) by Johannes Vermeer.

Mauritius, The Hague.

“Views of Delft” may have saved Vermeer from obscurity. Almost two centuries after the artist’s death, the French art critic Theophile Thorburger described the painting as “magnificent and extraordinary”. He became obsessed with the then-obscure artist, and helped establish Vermeer as a master of the Dutch Golden Age.

Ige Verslype is one of the researchers using new technologies to analyze Vermeer’s paintings. “Vermeer is doing some things that we don’t see with other 17th-century painters—very unusual construction of layers of paint, unusual use of certain pigments,” he told Doane. I’m experimenting, and that’s what amazes me.”

Art experts use modern technology to analyze a 17th-century artist’s work – here his “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (1662-64).

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With so many valuable works, and never so many in one place, the show sold out in two days. The exhibition only runs until June. Not surprisingly, other museums want their Wormers back.

Duane asked, “Where does Vermeer sit in the pantheon of great painters?”

Weber replied, “It depends on your artistic sense. For me? Top of the line.”

For more information:

Story by Michaela Bofano Producer. Editor: Joseph Frandino.

See also:

From 1996: A Historic Vermeer Exhibition


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