In Amsterdam, a once-in-a-lifetime Vermeer exhibition celebrates the artist’s enduring mystery

On an early spring afternoon outside the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s mecca of Dutch Golden Age painting, queues snake all the way to the adjacent park square. Six weeks have passed since the opening of the museum’s blockbuster Vermeer show – billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, the exhibition includes the largest number of works by the artist ever assembled, and the largest likely to be again – and interest around it is feverish shows no signs of slowing down.

By the second day of the show in February, all 450,000 entry places had sold out, meaning tickets were now as valuable a commodity as a flower bulb at the height of the tulip craze. Visitors flew in from all four corners of the globe to see it, looking for what may be the most coveted accessory for Spring 2023: a yellow wristband. The frenzy for tickets has probably only recently been matched by Beyoncé’s announcement Revival tour – except that in this case the gilded megastar in question is a nondescript 17th-century genre painter and not-so-successful art dealer from the sleepy Dutch town of Delft.

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What exactly is it about Vermeer—one of the quietest, smallest voices in the pantheon of Old Master painting—that has made him such a world-dominant phenomenon? During his lifetime, the artist was respected but not exactly famous: he is believed to have worked mostly with the same patron in his hometown until Vermeer’s untimely death at the age of 43, and his remarkable sensitivity and technical prowess are said to have fallen short much further than the outer ring of canals of Delft and those of the nearby city of The Hague. It then languished in obscurity for centuries before being rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century by two French art historians. Notable mention in Proust In search of lost time, in which of the artist View of Delft offers the protagonist a moment of stark beauty so profound that he dies on the spot helping to spread the news; as did, much later, the fictionalization of his life in Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 bestseller. Girl with pearl earring. But none of this explains what it is about the stillness and unpretentiousness of Vermeer’s works that continues to captivate the modern imagination.

The curators of the exhibit—titled simply, definitively, “Vermeer”—presented the exhibit in a way that allows us to answer that question for ourselves, or at least try. There are no bells and whistles: the rooms are painted in sumptuous, dark jewel tones and hung with velvet curtains that echo those seen in Vermeer’s domestic scenes; simple semi-circular balustrades around the paintings distribute the crowds around them evenly, allowing everyone to look decent; the wall texts are deliberately placed in other parts of the room, forcing you to it really looks like in the paintings, constantly searching for contextual clues. The spaces are designed as elegantly and with the same deceptive simplicity as the rooms and doors in the paintings themselves.

The first thing that strikes you, unsurprisingly, is the detail. In the first room, on View of Delft it looks quite unusual at first glance. When the spectators around him disperse and you are able to come within touching distance, the myriad, inventive ways in which Vermeer realized this complex study of light and shadow come into focus: The Braille white dots that suggest light reflecting from the metal spikes on the side of a ship or the flecks of paint that gouge the dried brick surface of old city walls. In the sky above, puffy cumulus clouds whisper of a storm on the horizon, with one right at the top of the picture already turning an ominous shade of concrete gray. On the opposite wall, a scene of a “small street” in Delft prompts the assembled audience to lean ever closer—under the watchful eye of a gallery warden, mind—as they try to pick out the metal grating of a window, barely perceptible straps created with the most -the faint patch of gray paint.

These aren’t things you need the jargon of an art critic to appreciate, but the thoughtful texts on the walls offer new perspectives on Vermeer’s alchemical way with light. One example woven into the exhibition is the overarching influence of the artist’s Catholic faith, to which he is believed to have converted (with real conviction) after his marriage to Catharina Bolnes in 1653. The second room includes a range of his experiments with more literal religious scenes where he seems to be trying different styles on for size. (In a less generous interpretation, some of the paintings are ascribed somewhat sketchily.) There is an unusually macabre vision of Saint Praxedes turning from a beheaded martyr to squeeze his bloody rag into an urn, and a scene of Christ with Mary and Martha, this is his only known expressly biblical work, which is distinguished by a more characteristic, grounded simplicity.

From this point on, the exhibition presents Vermeer’s greatest hits: namely, modestly sized scenes of mysterious, sphinx-like women at work and leisure in the privacy of their homes; the dim glow of the northern lights falling through the window, always on the left. But to see so many of them in quick succession—and in the context of some of the artist’s lesser-known outliers—is to see them again for the first time. One explanation for Vermeer’s popularity among the 20th-century avant-garde is that his work is largely secular: the lacemakers, milkmaids and lute players of his paintings are not so different after all from Degas’s lonely drinking woman Absinthe, or Manet’s Disappointed Barmaid at the Folies-Bergère. But here suddenly its brilliant, blissful light suggests something quite different, landing on the wrinkled sleeve of a dress painted ultramarine blue, or illuminating the glass pearl dangling from a rich woman’s ear. Are these women receiving God’s light? Are they miniature notices, Vermeer’s own Madonnas at the pivotal moment when the archangel Gabriel arrives on her doorstep to share the news of her immaculate conception?

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t: this openness to interpretation may be another key to Vermeer’s appeal. The paintings are so captivating that in their presence all these lofty explanations seem irrelevant. Despite being bathed in Vermeer’s delicate, watery light, his paintings—and the women who populate them—somehow never feel cold or distant. Seeing them together only emphasizes the growing romance that threatens to break the dyke in almost every scene, no matter how low-key they seem at first. Whispers from the outside world always make their way through the four walls of Vermeer’s women: many of them study letters, possibly from suitors, and by open windows; huge, intricate maps of the European continent hang behind them, promising ambitions for adventure; the raised surfaces of Turkish rugs are articulated with shimmering dots of white paint, and precious porcelains from Italy and China are tucked away on side tables.

Another revelation, however, is the seemingly darker, more insidious forces behind some of these intrusions, mostly in the form of visitors whose presence often rings with quiet menace. IN An officer and a laughing girl, the woman’s flirtatious smile shines even as the looming, dark figure of the gentleman seated across from her dominates the frame. Does her open palm hint at a more illicit transaction than romantic courtship? In the equally mysterious the glass of wine the seated woman tilts her glass almost horizontally to drink the alcohol, while her well-dressed suitor clasps the pitcher, ready to pour her another glass. Is he trying to get her drunk? in A girl interrupted by her music, on loan from the Frick collection, there is a note of strength in the way the sheet music is pulled from (or pushed into) the woman’s hands, but she looks at the viewer with an enigmatic gaze. Is she seeking our help, or is she implicating us in the moment of predatory feeling going on here? are we those who interrupted her?

But the exhibition does not seek to definitively decode the enigmas of Vermeer’s paintings, because who could? And more importantly, who would? In review for New York Times, critic Jason Farago has observed that part of Vermeer’s magic, and what may explain why he commands such rapturous reception from today’s audiences, is his extraordinary ability to provide moments of slowness and stillness in our image-saturated world. That his paintings offer a space where we can return to a state of concentration and contemplation that is nearly impossible in the age of the Internet. “Nothing important is happening, and yet that nothingness is everything now,” he wrote. It’s true – and it extends all the way to how the exhibition’s curators have chosen to present Vermeer’s exquisite mysteries. It allows them to hang there as windows to another world: a world shrouded in almost fantastical beauty, but often closer to our own than you think, with its notes of passion, melancholy and even fear.

There are many reasons to beg, borrow or steal your way to a ticket to the exhibition. The previous show that featured nearly that number of Vermeer paintings (of which there are about 37 in total, depending on who you ask) was in Washington in 1995, where 20 were collected; here, there are 28. The likelihood that any institution will ever have the resources—and the fortuitous timing that the Frick’s renovation meant that all three of their paintings were available for loan—to mount an exhibition like this again is remote. But the real reason I go is that Washington is not Amsterdam. For me, anyway, some of the most moving moments of the exhibition didn’t happen within the four walls of the Rijksmuseum, but once I made my way back to the streets around it and started walking back to my hotel.

Having visited in the late afternoon, I had time before dinner to wander the canals. I stopped at a small cafe with whitewashed walls behind a plywood coffee bar and a menu with sliding vintage letters. It may sound too good to be true, but after the barista finished making my coffee and I sat scrolling through my phone, I looked up and noticed the same milky, diffused light from ages past cascading in (from the left!) through the large glass overlooking the street. She stopped to look out the window at the rickety bicycles lined up against the glass for a few seconds before returning to cleaning the pipes of the coffee machine. Vermeer is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, sure, but its most compelling moments are the same ones that happen every day, in every life: reading a letter in the bedroom, taking a moment to strum a few notes on a musical instrument , cautiously flirting with an unexpected guest, stopping for reflection in a cafe, with light always –always— fall to the left.

“Vermeer” can be seen until June 4.

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