‘Opportunity of a lifetime’ Vermeer exhibition opens in Amsterdam

For once, the curators say, ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’ may be right: never before have so many works by Johannes Vermeer, the luminous 17th-century Dutch master, been collected in the same place – and it’s highly unlikely they will do be again.

Of the fewer than 40 paintings most experts attribute to the artist, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has acquired 28. The first Vermeer retrospective to open next week has sold more advance tickets than any exhibition in the museum’s history.

‘Vermeer makes the clock stop’, says Taco Dibbits, general director of the Rijksmuseum. “He makes you feel like you’re there, with that person, in that room, and that time has stood still. And time, especially today, is what we all long for.”

Born in 1632, Vermeer is the most enigmatic of the Dutch masters. Apart from his canvases, nothing has survived of him: no letters, no writings, no diary. Trained as an artist, his work was barely recognized during his lifetime, especially since he converted to Catholicism in a strongly Protestant country when he married at the age of 21.

Museums and private owners in seven countries have lent masterpieces for the show, including nearly all of the intimate, atmospherically lit domestic scenes—a maid pouring a jug of milk, a girl stitching lace, a woman at a virginal—for which Vermeer is best known .

The National Gallery in London sent Young Woman Seated at a Virginal; the Louvre in Paris provided The Lacemaker; and the National Gallery in Dublin borrowed a woman writing a letter with her maid. Other works of art come from Berlin, New York and Tokyo.

Some, of course, haven’t traveled far: the Rijksmuseum’s four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, are on display, and perhaps the artist’s most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, was further up in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

But the great fragility of the paintings, most of which were completed between 1655 and 1670, their value and the fact that they have become the most prized asset of many of the museums that house them mean that they travel very rarely.

“It was incredible to watch,” said Dibbits. “This is an artist who has done 45, maybe 50 paintings. We know of 37, and to get 28 together… When you have a party, you hope that everyone you invite will come. Well, pretty much everyone who could has done that.

The initial spark for the show, he said, came when the Rijksmuseum’s team of curators realized that New York’s Frick Collection, which has not had its three Vermeers travel for more than a century, would close for renovation in 2023.

It took “a lot of hard work”, but in the end only nine known works by the artist will be missing. One was stolen from a Boston museum in 1990; two, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, cannot be loaned due to the terms of their bequest; and another, from the Louvre, is on loan elsewhere. Most of the rest are too fragile to travel.

The exhibition is not without controversy. Late last year, the Rijksmuseum said that after careful scientific and comparative research, it confirmed the attribution to Vermeer of three works whose authenticity has been questioned by some experts.

Most surprising was Girl with a Flute, which the National Gallery of Art in Washington said last October was not a genuine Vermeer, but likely produced by an unnamed collaborator.

Dibbits said: “Look, there are differences of opinion about Rembrandts, with over 300 paintings to compare. When you have so little work to do, you can draw different conclusions from the same data. Attribution is not a hard science.”

He said recent exhaustive research had shown that beneath the minute details of Vermeer’s photographs there were broad, bold strokes that contradicted previous conceptions of how he worked.

Related: Vermeer will never look the same after Amsterdam exhibition | Jonathan Jones

The research also revealed the great Jesuit influence on his art. Light, optics and focus were a recurring theme in Jesuit literature: for example, the order considered the camera obscuraa precursor to the camera that projects an image onto a surface from a small hole on the other side, as an aid to the observation of God’s divine light.

One of the camera obscura‘s effects are to focus the light on one point while the rest fades and distorts; exactly the effects you find in many of Vermeer’s tranquil, atmospherically lit interiors. This was clear evidence, Dibbits said, of a Jesuit connection that was “not only religious, but also artistic.”

Vermeer is on display at the Rijksmuseum from February 10 to June 4, whose groundbreaking exhibition on slavery – the source of so much of the wealth of the Dutch Golden Age – is on display this month at UN headquarters in New York: timely recognition , Dibbits said of “the continued impact of slavery on world history”.

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