Johannes Vermeer may be highly regarded for his domestic interior scenes of middle-class life, but little is known about the Dutch Baroque painter, who lived from 1632 to 1675 and left behind a remarkably small oeuvre of 37 paintings, the most famous of which are Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) and The Milkmaid (1658–59).
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is set to change that, as this week it opens the largest exhibition of Vermeer‘s work to date, with 28 paintings on view—seven of which have not been on display in the Netherlands in over 200 years. The exhibition has been made possible by global museum loans from such institutions as the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in Washington D.C.
The son of an art dealer, Vermeer lived and worked in Delft as a painter, an art dealer, and the head of the St. Lucas art guild. He was raised a Calvinist reformed Protestant, but converted to Catholicism upon his marriage. He had 11 children who survived beyond childhood. The new exhibition follows themes that Vermeer took up during his life such as domestic interiors, religion, musical seduction, and daily life.
Though Vermeer was moderately successful during his lifetime, receiving recognition in Delft and the Hague in the Netherlands, his works experienced a revival in the 19th century with the rise of the camera. This technology picked up on techniques that Vermeer had incorporated into his paintings, including his use of light and illusionism.
The show comes on the heels of new technical research conducted on the paintings, with Mauritshuis in the Hague and the University of Antwerp, using advanced Macro-XRF and RIS scanning technologies. (The same technologies were used on Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch.) Changes made by Vermeer (and others) to his work have shed light on the artist’s approach and overall practice, as well as the lives of the works themselves. (Last year, the museum released details on the underpainting of The Milkmaid, which included previously unknown details of the piece.) Research will continue after the exhibition’s close and will be presented at a symposium in 2025, in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of Vermeer’s death.
Ahead of the new exhibition, which will be on view through June 4, ARTnews spoke with Gregor Weber, the head of the department of fine arts at the Rijksmuseum and co-curator of the show.
ARTnews: This exhibition is the largest showing of Vermeer’s work thus far. What was the impetus behind it?
Gregor Weber: The last big monographic exhibition about Vermeer was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1995–96. We are now a generation farther away from that. After nearly 30 years, it is necessary to show the work of Vermeer and others like [Pieter] de Hooch and Rembrandt [Harmenszoon van Rijn] as artists of the Netherlands.
The Rijksmuseum has never dedicated an exhibition to Vermeer until now. Since the last showing, there have been advancements in our understanding of the artist and his work. There was also a nice opportunity to showcase the Vermeer paintings on loan from the Frick Collection while it’s undergoing a rebuilding process. The show includes three paintings from the Frick, four from the Rijksmuseum, three from Mauritshaus, and others from museum partners in Washington D.C., London, Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfurt.
AN: It’s great that you could arrange this kind of global collaboration. How did you first conceive of the show?
GW: We were glad to have a selection of 28 Vermeer paintings for the exhibition. We had to consider the arrangement, how to best display them, and how visitors would approach them. We decided to arrange the show based on themes that Vermeer had considered throughout his career, in particular this interplay between the inner and outer world. He paints the inside of Dutch houses, for example, but opens these interiors with a woman’s gaze looking beyond the frame and windows left open to the outside world. Such elements and details as open windows and letters really drive this concept. He also captures male and female courtship through music making as an invitation to the beholder.
AN: Your research considered the role of Vermeer’s conversion to Catholicism. How did that inform the way you approached the exhibition?
GW: In the catalog and the arrangement of the exhibition, Catholicism plays a minor role. He painted Allegory of the Catholic Faith [1670–74], Christ in the House of Mary and Martha [1654–55], and Woman Holding a Balance [ca. 1662–64], which pick up on Catholic themes. We have three paintings together that speak not to an outer world, but rather to an inner one. In these paintings, Vermeer speaks to the soul through religious themes and motifs. But he also painted very fashionable subjects at the time, too, that were very opposite of these Catholic themes such as young people coming together to make music and to drink wine.
AN: Tell me about the collaborative research project that the Rijksmuseum has been working on with Mauritshuis.
GW: 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.
For the show, it is interesting to show the changes Vermeer made in some of his paintings. It helps us to better understand his decision making during the painting process. We are a little bit closer to Vermeer not only conceptually, but also in his practice.
AN: Is there a sense of why Vermeer made these changes?
GW: Each case is different and some changes were made by restorers or others. In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window [1657–58], for example, there was a cupid floating on the wall that was later painted over by someone else.
AN: How did discoveries from the conservation project influence the scope of the exhibition?
GW: The research doesn’t impact the whole show, but it influenced our knowledge of several paintings. In The Milkmaid, Vermeer painted over a board with jacks and also a fire basket in the foreground. We have an illustration of this hanging on the wall so that visitors will get a sense of how he thought through and developed solutions in his work. One can see that Vermeer really considers composition, light, and color.
AN: What are some key takeaways from the show?
GW: Vermeer was a master of painting light, which means that he understood the rules of light. For instance, warm yellow light creates blue coat shadows. As a keen observer of the world, Vermeer used this in his work. And, at the time, he was the only one doing it.
His use of the camera obscura also influenced the way he painted details and distance. There are places in his paintings where there are sharp lines and other things that are blurred or appear out of focus. Other artists at the time were painting everything in focus.
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. Interest in Vermeer’s work was reignited when the camera was developed in the 19th century because of his ability to paint details in a similar photographic view.