Stephen Hitchins takes us through the world’s largest exhibition dedicated to the enigmatic Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer

AS A MAN Vermeer is little more than a signature. We know his paintings but we do not know the artist. It’s a question of identity. Not exactly the incredible shrinking man, but the more you think you see of him, the less there appears to be. He might as well be the man who never was. He appears to be the man who wasn’t there. He was certainly a man of mystery. And his paintings tell their own mysterious stories. There is an Arabian Nights flavour about a painter who leaves so few traces of himself, the greatness of his stature equal to the dearth of knowledge about him. One reason for his popularity is that he eludes art historians.

A Catholic convert, a part-time painter barely recognised for two centuries whose work is today reduced to just a few pictures, one who left no drawings, no prints, had no followers, no studio and no indication as to who modelled for him. There are no letters, no diaries, no quotes, no stories, no friends’ revelations, no evidence of his training or character, and we have no idea what he looked like. He is faceless.

All we have are 37 wonderful paintings by the master of the pearls and virginals. Thirty-seven? Standard catalogues are fixed on 31, most specialists now accept 34, the Rijksmuseum says 37 – 39 has been suggested.

In 1866, the French art critic Théophile Thoré, writing under the pseudonym Wilhelm Bürger, claimed to have rescued the artist from oblivion, calling Vermeer the ‘Sphinx of Delft’ due to the silence of past historians and the enigmatic quality of his art. He attributed 74. Who are we to judge? Until 4 June we can – at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Along with Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian, Vermeer is one of the most famous painters in the Netherlands, his paintings are generally considered the most prized treasures of every museum collection. They are rarely lent out. He is, nevertheless, a public obsession. This is the biggest ever exhibition devoted exclusively to the master painter of Delft, with paintings from all over the world. Simply obtaining the works shown here required bravura feats of cultural diplomacy and triumphs of ingenious negotiation.

The Milkmaid under the microscope. Image Credit: Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk The Milkmaid under the microscope. Image Credit: Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk 

Of that 37, the Rijksmuseum has 28 on show. Or does it? Following scientific evaluation, three paintings that have always been in question have now been upgraded. Girl with a Flute from Washington has been lent as a ‘non-Vermeer’ but is being exhibited as a real Vermeer. Any lingering doubts as to its authenticity apparently disappeared during its flight over the Atlantic.

Vermeer clearly operated in a sea of women. He was enveloped by the feminine. Catharina, his wife, bore 15 children, 11 of whom survived, most of whom were girls. In fact, the vast majority of his pictures are of young women seen in a corner of a delicately lit room. They frequently appear pregnant.

Taken altogether they are some of the most serenely beautiful faces in art but we do not know who any of them are. The most famous Dutch girl in the world is there. But was she real? Yes. No. Maybe. Just who was the Girl with a Pearl Earring has become a parlour game, and not just for art historians.

On first encounter, Vermeer looks like a painter of everyday life, one who recorded in detail of hallucinatory precision the homely life of prosperous, scrubbed Dutch families in the 17th-century heyday of their republic.

He began by painting early Christian scenes, expressing the lurid piety of Baroque Catholicism. By the mid-1650s, however, Vermeer turned his attention from the melodramatic to the mundane, the general to the specific, and the imagined past to the known present. A religious artist who never attempted the Netherlandish staple of grand civic set-pieces, his stage set became the home, introverted portrayals of domestic calm, with unrivalled qualities of luminous, vibrant light, and an impressive use of illusionism. Serene and unnerving, sensuous and disembodied, mesmerising they may be, tranquil slices of everyday life transfix us, plus something indefinable, transfiguring the most commonplace view with light. When you look at a Vermeer painting, time stops. It is almost like a photograph, it is all so real, but they are not as true to life as they look.

Rediscovery of Vermeer in the 19th century coincided with the advent of photography. It gave critics a useful point of comparison. The number of extant works may be argued over, but there is now little doubt that Vermeer used a camera obscura. The evidence is in the paintings. Miracles of light, the paintings are also miracles of space. People and objects in the foreground are extra large, some things are in soft focus, some are even out-of-focus rendered with a halo effect, distortions unseen by the naked eye. Regarded as a tool for the observation of God’s divine light by the artist’s next door neighbours, a Jesuit mission for whom light and optics were a major focus of devotional literature, the optical device shaped Vermeer’s trademark photo realistic style, and his work’s unique sense of stillness. It was only with the invention of photography and our becoming used to its way of representing reality that Vermeer’s work began to lose its oddness. Later, X-ray photography showed that he never laid down his shapes with drawn lines. There’s no conventional drawing in his work, just masses of dark and light—exactly the information he’d get from the projected image of a camera obscura.

Estimated to have been painted around 1665, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s most well-known works of art. Image Credit: Margareta SvenssonEstimated to have been painted around 1665, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s most well-known works of art. Image Credit: Margareta Svensson

Ultimate mystery man of art as he is, Vermeer on some level has no secrets at all. Some see his pictures as complex allegories, yet the tenor of his art is strikingly secular and unsymbolic. We rarely believe that there is a story to be deciphered. He presents a clear, seemingly measurable sense of how near or far he is from a table, chair or carpet. All he’s doing is what we and the people in his pictures are doing: looking.

The Art of Painting perhaps depicts the artist Vermeer himself – his back. It’s doubtful because this is not reality. There are no brushes, paints, palette or oils to be seen, but posing before a great map of the Netherlands is Clio, the muse of history, her crown signifying fame and eternal life – something the artist doubtless wanted to achieve but never did. Born in 1632, he died heavily in debt, aged just 43. He became world famous and immortal – centuries after he died.

If only someone had persuaded him to look in our direction, just once.

Vermeer, (The largest exhibition ever)
10 February to 4 June 2023, Rijksmuseum,
Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam

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