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Largest ever collection of Vermeer paintings unveiled in blockbuster show

<i>Johannes Vermeer/Musée du Louvre/Rijksmuseum</i><br/>
Musée du Louvre
Johannes Vermeer/Musée du Louvre/Rijksmuseum
"The Lacemaker

Nick Glass, CNN | Natasha Maguder, CNN

“The most mysterious and beloved artist of all time.” Without a hint of apology, this is how the general director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, describes Vermeer. And it’s hard to disagree. Of course, we have other more recognizable names — Leonardo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh — but has any other great artist been so intensely studied and revisited in recent years as the Dutchman Johannes Vermeer of Delft?

Dibbits has pulled off the art world’s coup of the year. And he knows it. For the next four months, the Rijksmuseum is playing host to the biggest Vermeer exhibition of this, or any other, lifetime.

Scholars disagree about exactly how many paintings Vermeer left behind. The Rijksmuseum now resolutely puts the number at 37, the National Gallery in Washington at 34. Whichever it is, having 28 of them in one place is unprecedented. Advance ticket sales for the blockbuster exhibition, which opens Friday, have already exceeded 200,000.

“It’s very exciting,” Dibbits says. “I have had this dream of having all the paintings together. Having 28 here is something we never thought possible.”

Even this number is subject to debate. The National Gallery recently decided that “Girl with a Flute” isn’t by the master himself but by an unnamed follower. Nevertheless, the Rijksmuseum has happily borrowed the painting for its show, along with three other Vermeers from the National, and it firmly disagrees about the re-attribution. The Rijksmuseum’s head of paintings and sculpture, Pieter Roelofs, made light of the matter, wryly telling a Dutch newspaper that when “Girl with a Flute” flew across the Atlantic it simply became a Vermeer again.

We are used to seeing Vermeers perfectly reproduced in books, posters and postcards. In real life, however, “Girl with a Flute” is a surprisingly small picture. It hangs together with the important and transitional painting in the artist’s evolution, “Girl with a Red Hat,” on a designated Rijksmuseum wall — each painting just 9 inches by 7 inches.

The re-attribution is part of a fascinating and exhaustive Vermeer research project involving not only the Rijksmuseum and National Gallery, but also the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The methods involved are extraordinary: a kind of non-invasive archaeology, with techniques first pioneered by NASA to map minerals on Mars and the Moon. Museum scientists and conservators have been delving below Vermeer’s meticulously painted surfaces to examine his underpainting and, in a few cases, below that to his initial sketches. The results have astounded them all.

‘It’s as if you are looking over his shoulder’

Until now, we’ve known Vermeer as a methodical and sublime artist, a magical painter of light and luminous moments of 17th-century Dutch middle-class life. He captures arresting domestic scenes: women reading or writing letters, a housemaid pouring milk, a woman playing a lute, a young girl wearing a pearl earring.

“Vermeer depicts those moments of intense happiness where time stands still,” Dibbits enthuses. “Everything comes together. There is this complete tranquility, this intimacy.”

The conventional wisdom is that Vermeer took his time — perhaps no more than two or three pictures a year, across two decades of painting. But the new research also suggests that he could be impulsive, spontaneous and impatient, attacking the canvas quickly with broad brushstrokes in sketches and underpaint.

Rijksmuseum conservator Ige Verslype is thrilled. “We really see the first creative steps of Vermeer,” she says. “We can really follow him in his way of painting. It’s as if you are looking over his shoulder and seeing what he’s doing.”

Take “Woman in Blue reading a Letter,” which Verslype restored some 10 years ago. This time around, it’s been in the lab — on and off — for three weeks. Again, there have been revelations.

“It has a very subtle tonality,” Verslype said of the work, which was painted in the 1660s. “And that’s because of the way he built it up with a greenish and brownish first layer, and then on top he used, in every layer, the blue pigment ultramarine — not only in the blue chair, the blue tablecloth, but also in the walls, in the shadows, even in her face and hands.”

Ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli, was the era’s most expensive pigment used. Vermeer’s regular use of it suggests that his painting career, while short, must have been relatively successful. Yet, after his death, he was quickly forgotten. His work was rediscovered by a French art critic almost two centuries later.

Now, the auction record for a Vermeer stands at $30 million, the sum fetched by “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals” at Sotheby’s in 2004. Most Vermeer enthusiasts agree is that it was a good but not a great work. It was acquired by the Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn who later sold it on. Its current owner has lent to the Rijksmuseum show. It’s anyone’s guess what a great Vermeer would now make at auction — certainly over $100 million or perhaps double or treble that

A Vermeer overdose

Standing in front of “The Milkmaid,” Rijksmuseum conservator Anna Krekeler explains what emerged from the scans, not least the objects Vermeer overpainted: a rack of hanging jugs behind his subject’s head and a large fire basket for drying clothes on the floor. He painted them out to simplify the image. His focus is purely on the maid and that jug of milk she pours for eternity, here and on countless fridge magnets.

Experts like Krekeler are helping develop our understanding of Vermeer, but we still know very little about him, as both a man and painter. Born an innkeeper’s son in the city of Delft in the Dutch Republic in 1632, he died there penniless in 1675, aged just 43. He left a wife and 11 children, with another four children having pre-deceased him.

The Rijksmuseum’s head of fine art, Gregor Weber knows more about Vermeer than just about any other living art historian. His recent research has explored, among much else, how the painter’s conversion to Catholicism — and his subsequent interactions with Jesuit priests in Delft — influenced his work. At 66, this is the curator’s retirement show, he says. But he has been obsessed with the painter since he visited the National Gallery in London as a 15-year-old schoolboy and encountered two Vermeers hanging on a wall.

“I think I fainted a little,” he recalls. “This artist with such glowing light. I was really surprised.” And since then? “I’ve been busy with Vermeer. A lifetime,” he replies. At 18, Weber built a camera obscura, or pinhole camera, at home to test whether Vermeer might have used one.

We stroll around the exhibition together. His words stream out and his passion is palpable. Every time Weber looks at a Vermeer, he seems to spot something new, he says, smiling.

Standing in front of the tiniest of paintings, “The Lacemaker’ (measuring 9.5 inches by 8.25), the curator explains how Vermeer saw things differently from his contemporaries — and how he understood the viewer’s gaze. Vermeer obviously centered his image on the lacemaker and the expression of intense concentration on her face as she works the fabric with her hands. The threads of lace — red and white — in the foreground are painted in a blur. They are abstract, “like melting wax,” says Weber.

Weber believes Vermeer thought long and hard about the subject matter and composition. But the new scientific research indicates that he sometimes painted very fast. The underpaintings “are very fresh and vivid and quick,” the curator says, adding: “In my view, he painted it within a week. Other paintings in a month.”

Yet, we are left with so few to enjoy. The normal Vermeer experience is a rationed one — one, two or three, at best five, pictures in any single museum. The Rijksmuseum’s show is an altogether different, almost hallucinogenic experience. We depart overwhelmed, having seemingly overdosed on Vermeer — “Vermeered,” you could say.

There are almost too many paintings to take in on one visit. The experience has to be slowly absorbed, reflected on and then repeated. The unfamiliar Vermeers have to be seen again — and soon.

“Vermeer” runs February 10 – June 4, 2023 at the Rijksmuseum.

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