Basking in Vermeer’s Light at Rijksmuseum
Johannes Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (1657–58), oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (all images courtesy Rijksmuseum)

AMSTERDAM — If you visit the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer, the most comprehensive retrospective of the 17th-century Dutch artist’s work to date, I might suggest going backward, starting with the last of the galleries. One of the first works you’ll encounter is “Woman Holding a Balance,” a characteristic Vermeer where the light streams in from the window to capture a beautiful moment of pause and reflection.

Next to it is the much larger and lesser known “Allegory of the Catholic Faith.” Produced just a year or so before his death in 1675, the painting is filled with symbols — the woman, named Faith, rests her foot on a globe, symbolizing the overcoming of worldliness, and she gazes upward at a glass ball, a symbol of holiness that is both empty and reflective of the entire universe.

Visitors crowd around a Vermeer fave. A sign of things to come as the exhibition crowds grow? (photo AX Mina/Hyperallergic)

Were you to start at the show’s entrance, however, you’d be greeted with equally religious paintings. In “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha,” his first known painting (c. 1654–55), Jesus engages in conversation with Martha, who is serving food to her guest, and Mary, who listens to him at his feet. Jesus’s hand, tilted upward in a gesture of explanation, rests at the center. It’s once again a characteristic Vermeer subject — a gentle moment of pause in glowing light — but the figures are not the Dutch middle class for which he is most known. 

Very little is known about Johannes Vermeer, but historians do know that he was raised a Reformed Protestant, only to convert to Catholicism upon his marriage to the Catholic Catharine Bolnes. As the exhibition texts describe, Vermeer’s ambitions show through in his earliest works, as at the time history painting was considered one of the highest genres of art. These early works are not his most engaging, nor his most iconic — they are, to be frank, not very interesting — and his “Allegory” feels like a cacophony of symbols that he’s trying to squeeze together like devotional checkboxes.

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664–67), oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Bequest of Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, The Hague

But the overt religiosity at either end of the show reveals a side of Vermeer that is less discussed yet essential to understanding his work. The connection between these and his secular works is evidenced in the scales of judgment carried by the woman in “Woman Holding a Balance.” Though she is ostensibly weighing her jewels to determine their earthly value, the painting of the Last Judgment behind her is a suggestion that she, too, will be judged upon her death.

From February 10 through June 4, the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands, is hosting the largest-ever retrospective of the painter, produced in collaboration with the Mauritshuis in The Hague. It represents 28 of some 37 known paintings — a tiny oeuvre given Vermeer’s outsize influence and regard in Western art. And as such, it’s worth taking time going through the exhibition.

The paintings have traveled from places like the Frick Collection, the National Gallery of Ireland,  and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. “The Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Vermeer’s most famous painting (bolstered by the eponymous film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson), on loan from The Mauritshuis, is on view through March 30. 

With the majority of his work in one place, themes and overlaps between artworks are readily visible, from his color choices (the blue and gold from “Pearl Earring” appear frequently) to the placement of windows (most often on the left), and even the recurrence of certain models, like the unnamed maid in “Mistress and Maid” and “Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid,” who’s clearly modeled after the same person.

The exhibition is in turn organized thematically — starting with the section Venturing Into Town, which features his outdoor works. Other sections are themed around his interests in music and musical instruments, figures receiving letters, and reflections on faith. A timeline at the end of the exhibition, alongside his biography, helps place the paintings in the context of his life.

Johannes Vermeer, “View of Houses in Delft, known as ‘The Little Street’” (1658–59), oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of H.W.A. Deterding, London

That such an exhibition could come together is in itself rare, as is the access and privilege required to travel to Amsterdam to see the works in person. The last Vermeer retrospective, featuring 25 works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, was nearly 30 years ago. Fortunately, the Rijksmuseum offers a number of ways to experience the exhibition remotely. 

There is, of course, the beautiful catalogue, which details not just the works but the research conducted in preparation for the show. We learn, for instance, that Vermeer’s top patron was not Peter van Ruijven but his wife, Maria de Knuijt, who began purchasing his work around the time the artist started incorporating more secular subject matter. “The Milkmaid” originally had designs for a jug holder and fire basket that were later painted over to create the sparser background.

The catalogue is published alongside Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, in which author Gregor J.M. Weber contextualizes Vermeer’s production in the Catholic-Protestant conflict of 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands. The relatively young Jesuit order, whose focus was on education and the natural sciences, had a station in Delft, next to Vermeer’s home. Weber argues that this might have influenced the artist’s relationship to light, as the Jesuits there saw the divine in the workings of the camera obscura, a technology that likely inspired Vermeer: “The image of the camera obscura is also created miraculously by light (understood to be divine) and thus could serve in Jesuit devotional books as an illustration of faith,” Weber writes, referencing the sphere in “Allegory.” “Again, it is light whose reflections Vermeer uses to make this message visible. Light and its manifestations thus emerge as a fundamental interest of Vermeer’s and a constant in his work.”

Johannes Vermeer, “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1662–64), oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

The Rijksmuseum is also launching a digital platform called Closer to Johannes Vermeer, in both English and Dutch, with English narration by Stephen Fry. The experience guides viewers through thematic elements of the works, like the role of windows in his paintings and the specific type of portraiture — tronies — that he developed. And the Mauritshuis, recognizing the meme potential unleashed by “The Girl With a Pearl Earring,” has opened up the space left by the painting to fan contributions. 

Thanks to ultra-high-resolution photographs, we can zoom in on the paintings to the level of pigment particles. Each work contains points of interest with greater explanation that illuminates themes across Vermeer’s oeuvre — for example, clicking on the curtain in “The Art of Painting,” we learn about repoussoir, a technique that uses a dark element in the foreground to enhance the feeling of depth, presenting the other works that utilize this same technique. This mirrors the didactics of the physical exhibition, which help orient viewers to the works.

Spiritual elements aside, Vermeer’s work is a treasure of composition, color, and caricature that long predates the rise of photography and cinema. In a religious context, light may be a vessel of God, and in a secular context, it offers a wide range of health benefits, including vitamin D and serotonin. There is good reason we find the glow of Vermeer’s paintings so resonant.

The science of awe is emergent, but early research suggests we feel awe because it reminds us of our place in a larger, interconnected universe. At times, Vermeer was sheltering in place as the plague ravaged Delft, and he painted amid growing conflict and economic tension in Europe. Then, as now, quiet transcendence was a necessity. 

Seeing this show, I mentally returned to those haunting early COVID-19 mornings and evenings, when time slowed down and my thoughts turned inward. Those moments of quiet light were, in a word, awesome. Each text message I sent or received felt like the magic missives in “Woman Writing a Letter” or “A Lady Writing,” where the world outside beckoned through a thin veil. Music from my turntable came to me like “Young Woman with a Lute,” telling me of the world outside while holding me in the solitude. Pouring out milk (from a carton, not a jug, sadly) became an act of deep mindfulness.  

Johannes Vermeer, “The Milkmaid” (1658–59), oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt

Much of what Vermeer stands for is now under question. Most of the painter’s subjects were the Dutch upper middle class, whose leisure and wealth were enabled by colonies and slavery. “Pearl Earring” was a recent target of climate protests, alongside other famous works of Western art. The role of religion in society is ever in question. And even the artistic heroism of Vermeer is more complicated now, with new research that shows his process was much messier than previously imagined.

But despite all this, Vermeer’s works continue to inspire, perhaps because they capture moments of pause we can all look back on in our own lives. At the press preview, otherwise stoic art critics and journalists giddily took selfies with some of his famous works, a scene that will no doubt repeat itself countless times as the show goes on. 

Part of Vermeer’s appeal, I suspect, is that, like those he painted, we know very little about him, and so we are free to project whatever we’d like onto his life and work. He can be a hero for depicting women’s interiority or a creep for mostly painting physically attractive ones. He can be a devoted Catholic showing the light of God or a skilled student of optical science. He can be an introverted painter or a wheeling-dealing art dealer.

I think back to “The Geographer,” one of his few paintings in which a man takes center stage. The young man, with a compass in hand, bends over a set of maps, but he looks upward, perhaps out the window or simply lost in thought. We have no official self portrait of Vermeer, but I like to imagine the geographer is a stand-in for the artist, and for all of us, really, caught in a moment when the world is much larger than we imagined and yet somehow deep, meaningful, and magical.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Geographer” (1669), oil on canvas. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Johannes Vermeer, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (1662–64), oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)
Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing” (1664–67), oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer
Johannes Vermeer, “Officer and Laughing Girl” (1657–58), oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York (Photo Joseph Coscia Jr.)
Johannes Vermeer, “A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal” (1670–72), oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London
Johannes Vermeer, “Mistress and Maid” (c. 1665–67), oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York (photo Joseph Coscia Jr.)

Vermeer continues at the Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam, The Netherlands) through June 4. The exhibition was curated by Gregor J.M. Weber, Pieter Roelofs, with assistance by a team of scientists.

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