Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - a once in a generation show, don’t miss it

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, 1658-59  (Rijksmuseum)
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, 1658-59 (Rijksmuseum)

Yes, before you ask, she’s here. How could she not be? In this, not just the first retrospective exhibition of works by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer in the history of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, but the most complete ever mounted. It has 28 of his 37 (ish – some are disputed) paintings brought together, for the first time, including seven not seen in Vermeer’s home country for more than 200 years. It would be mortifying if his most celebrated work, certainly his most famous, wasn’t present.

But she is. Don’t worry. The Girl with a Pearl Earring (c 1664-67), with her dewy skin, her level gaze, a beauty made breathtaking by that tiny dot of white paint in the corner of her mouth that turns her from painted figure to real, breathing girl, takes pride of place in this exhibition of (mostly) masterpieces.

She hasn’t exactly come far, just from the Mauritshuis in the Hague, a quick train ride away – unlike other unprecedented loans that have made their way to Amsterdam for what is, to be clear, a once-in-a-generation show. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Frick Collection in New York, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, our own National Gallery, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, the Louvre and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, all these and more have handed over their precious Vermeers.

Mistress and Maid by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67 (The Frick Collection, New York  © 2022)
Mistress and Maid by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67 (The Frick Collection, New York © 2022)

This, in case it wasn’t absolutely crystal, doesn’t normally happen. Museums guard their Vermeers jealously; they are jewels in the crown of any collection. This show has already pre-sold more than 150,000 tickets and it opens on Friday, so get booking and get to Amsterdam.

Vermeer has a reputation as a mystery; this turns out to be nonsense. We know when and where he was born and died; we know that he probably converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife Catharina in 1653, and that, like his father, he worked as an art dealer.

We know he was elected twice as headman of the Guild of St Luke; that during the Dutch Republic’s ‘Disaster Year’ of 1672 he sold barely anything, driving him towards penury; and that in 1674 he served as a pikeman in the civic guard. We know that he died aged 43 in 1675, penniless, in huge debt and that 14 pall bearers carried his coffin while bells rang out. In the catalogue there’s even an entire chapter, deadly boring or utterly fascinating depending on your prediliction, detailing the goods that were in every room of his house after his death, when Catharina, left with 11 children to support, decided to file for bankruptcy.

What we don’t have is anyone gushing about what he was like – as Giorgio Vasari did with the Renaissance artists – so we have no real picture of him as a man, but who cares, because we do have most of his pictures. I admit to caring little for the larger-scale works here, painted soon after his marriage, when he was trying a bit hard to be a grand painter of grand subjects. His Saint Praxedis (1655) is a copy of a work by an Italian contemporary and looks it, and with the exception of the luminous metal of the gilded water bowl from which the goddess is having her feet washed, Diana and her Nymphs (c 1655-56) leaves me cold.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer, 1657-58 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische)
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer, 1657-58 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische)

But in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c 1654-55), lent by the National Galleries of Scotland, we begin to see that slanting, sideways light that entrances him, and us, for the rest of his career. The Procuress (1656), a weirdly composed brothel scene that is pretty much half rug, presents a turning point, a consolidation of international influences and shift towards more domestic, even prosaic subjects that, through his brush, become poetry.

From this point on it’s basically all killer, no filler. Eleven themed sections of between one and three pictures look at his first domestic interiors; music and its seductive meaning; the balance between inner and outer worlds; faith; close-ups and more.

Across these themes, those virtuoso shafts of light cascade from windows, illuminating beautifully observed faces, focused on a letter; washing out the colours of ripe fruit in a bowl; exposing the creases in old, heavy velvet curtains or the thick weave of a stiff, crumpled rug.

At those windows, the inside and outside create invisible eddies, the outer world brought in via maps on walls, or in the distant gaze of a maid patiently waiting for her mistress to finish writing a letter (the WhatsApps of the day, they feature heavily), so that you can almost hear the sounds of the bustling Delft street intruding into these hushed homes (and they are always hushed; where music features, it’s always just paused).

The Glass of Wine by Johannes Vermeer, 1659-61 (Rijksmuseum)
The Glass of Wine by Johannes Vermeer, 1659-61 (Rijksmuseum)

Vermeer’s mastery of perspective, too, draws us in, whether we’re spying through an interior doorway to another room as in The Love Letter (1669-70) – the cheeky maid bearing it, who has clearly just made an off-colour remark, and her mistress, who is about to tell her so, are two of Vermeer’s most animated women – or leaning in to overhear something said in Officer and Laughing Girl (1657-58). Is she about to put this over-confident braggart in his place?

Incidentally Vermeer does a nice line in ‘men importuning women’. Girl Interrupted at her Music (c 1659-61) and The Glass of Wine, painted around the same time and which might feature the most grudging slurp I’ve ever seen, will feel oddly familiar to any woman, of almost any era. Whoever has written the wall texts thinks that these men “exude charm”. They do not.

There are some nice insights into the painter’s practice that can only be appreciated by seeing the work en masse. He sometimes used the same models (one woman appears three times as a maid, suggesting she has been called in from her duties in the same role, which may or may not have been more enjoyable than laundry) and the same fancy bed jacket in yellow and (probably fake) ermine appears repeatedly; ditto that heavy, patterned rug.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1664–67 (Mauritshuis)
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1664–67 (Mauritshuis)

And it’s nice to see the evolution of his tronies – the group of paintings to which Girl with a Pearl Earring belongs. Tronies are character portraits in fantasy costumes, and extremely popular in Vermeer’s day. Two sketches, Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat, both c 1664-7, show him experimenting with costumes, lighting and backdrops. In the more finished works that follow, Pearl Earring included, he jettisons the elaborate backgrounds, the better to focus on the exquisite expression of the central portrait. God, she’s young. God, she’s beautiful.

But amid the virtuosity, the sensitivity and observation, the man, not just the painter, does emerge – as a master storyteller. Every detail sparks a narrative; the stained glass crest on a window indicating a venerable house; a hopeful face, regarding its reflection with a string of pearls; a pair of discarded shoes; and letters, all those letters, they’re almost a cheap trick. But it’s impossible not to fall for it, every time.

Vermeer is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam from February 10 to June 4;