the world’s largest ever Vermeer show is a party not to be missed

Seen from above the quay, across the slowly flowing water of the river Schie full of dark reflections, the distant center of Delft is hit by the early morning sun. Soon people will be walking the streets, with their yellow cobbles and freshly washed tiles, while children play at the front door and servants do their work, glimpsed in the darkness of a side alley.

At the opening of the magnificent Johannes Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, two paintings of these morning scenes plunge us right in and take us on a journey through Vermeer’s art, spread across 10 rooms. We commute from cityscapes to private interiors, between the sacred and the profane; from domestic life, with quiet music and private moments, to religious devotion and dirty scenes. All this in an exhibition of only 28 paintings.

Your eye darts around, but Vermeer manipulates you at every turn – obscuring some things, bringing others to the forefront

These were made over a period of 20 years, between 1654 and 1674. Only 37 paintings by Vermeer are known. A few are disputed, an unknown but likely small number have long been lost, and one was stolen from Boston in 1990 and never surfaced again. Some paintings cannot be borrowed. The Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum was hesitant about lending The Art of Painting (1666-68) and ultimately refused to lend one of its top exhibits. This is the main omission here, in the largest ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work. The last big Vermeer show, in The Hague, was a feverish, busy experience. Here the art has room to breathe.

A girl is reading a letter, her vague reflection caught in the slanted window. On the table in the foreground between her and us is a crumpled rug and a tilted fruit bowl on top of it, catching the daylight. A green apple appears as big and round as her forehead. On the wall behind it hangs a picture of a naked Cupid looking at us. This picture-in-a-picture knows we’re watching – and knows we know, while the girl herself thinks she’s not being noticed. The situation is further doubled by the fact that this painting, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, also hangs alone in a small room, and we are there with her.

Elsewhere, a milkmaid pours milk and prepares a basket of bread. She is alone in the kitchen, a situation somehow emphasized by the blank wall behind her, pockmarked by small craters and scuffs in the plaster, and the bare nail sticking out of the wall and its shadow above her head casts. Such a small thing, on a wall that lights up with daylight. A workspace, then, where you could hear the sound of the running milk and smell the grainy crust of the bread and the tufts of crumb.

I understand this domestic scene not only by sight, but also by the milkmaid’s senses. It is an invocation of the ordinary, elevated to the wondrous. Being there with these women, oblivious to being seen, feels like a privilege, meeting them in their solitude, absorbed in their activities.

The exhibition is full of such moments, guiding us through Vermeer’s career, just as the artist himself guides and guides us through his painted scenes. The eye jumps and darts around, but Vermeer manipulates us at every turn, pulling things in and out of focus, obscuring some things, bringing others to the forefront. All the details in his art are clearly visible – from the clouds passing over Delft to the finial on a Spanish chair, the blackberry on an Anatolian carpet and the glitter on an earring – but they are more than inventories of the visible. Although he was a devout observer of the surface of things, which he became within a few years, Vermeer was not a realist. His paintings are careful, complex constructions. Their carefully crafted artifice is all fiction and allusion, tempered by both worldliness, curiosity and the Catholic faith to which he converted during his marriage.

And Vermeer certainly never sat in a camera obscura, copying the inverted image projected onto the darkened wall. He was not a copyist, although influenced by the Jesuit scientific and quasi-religious interest in optics, he understood and was interested in the way light illuminated objects in a camera obscura – and used its effects, just as he used one-point perspective to measure and constructs the architecture of his painted spaces. Artists are always interested in the technology they have at hand. Vermeer wanted to see more, one way or another.

It is impossible for us to look at his art without thinking about photography and film: Vermeer pans out and zooms in, keeping us on the threshold and hindering us with details that reveal themselves over time. In The Love Letter, a maid has just brought her mistress a letter that they eagerly discuss. We seem to walk past the door, like guests intruding on a private moment. The maid’s clogs, bucket and mop are left on the doorstep. These objects seem to have been left in a hurry. We are not supposed to step over them.

Vermeer’s art is full of such detail and intricacy, whether it’s the light streaming through a wall, a dancing reflection in a wine glass, the tiniest bit of view at the edge of a window, or a human drama unfolding before us. . There is nothing trivial here. It also leads us to things we can never know: people are always focusing on illegible letters, or looking over the edges of the screen or through windows at things we can’t see.

They play unknown music and have conversations that we can never overhear but only guess. We are kept on the edge, sometimes teetering. A man looms behind a seated girl, holding a jug of wine. His face half in shadow, he waits and watches her drink. You feel his power, her passive and perhaps unwilling obedience. A woman holds her necklace, lost in thought and staring into the light through the window. She is a girl interrupted and lost in thought.

But it’s not all that great work, nor that compelling. Vermeer’s early painting of Saint Praxedis wringing the blood from the head of a severed martyr into a pitcher is a copy of an Italian painting. The modeling of her head is somehow slippery and strange, the color largely flat and cumbersome. The anatomy of Diana and her nymphs is appalling (no wonder Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren chose this stage of Vermeer’s art to fabricate his 1940s deception).

Vermeer’s later Allegory of the Catholic Faith, meanwhile, is a swooning monstrosity. Only the closely observed details work. Even the crystal ball dangling above my head—a Jesuit symbol of inner light and the vastness of the unbound soul—seems to be based on observation rather than a fervent invocation of the transcendent; its little flashes of refracted and reflected light are beautiful.

Mystery and enigma are attractive. Who is the woman with the red hat, or the one with the pearl? What does that letter say? What is that girl looking through the window at? What does she think? Who is approaching? This exhibition finally gives us not only Vermeer’s painted spaces, but space to be with them and occupy their unfolding strangeness. Can not be missed.

• Vermeer is on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from 10 February to 4 June

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