Rijksmuseum blockbuster exhibition devoted to Dutch master Vermeer still leaves plenty to the imagination

AMSTERDAM – Sheer numbers are sure to draw many visitors to Vermeer, the blockbuster exhibition devoted to the Dutch Golden Age master that opens at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on Friday.

The Dutch national museum has managed to gather 28 of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, representing about 75 per cent of his known surviving works. That is seven more than the public could see at the last major Vermeer retrospective nearly 30 years ago.

Numbers are important when it comes to Vermeer because he did not produce many pieces. Depending on how you count, his overall output was between 40 and 45 paintings, across a career that lasted no more than two decades. Only about 35 of those 17th-century works are thought to exist today.

His artworks are the most significant clue one has about the mysterious Sphinx of Delft, who was born in 1632, painted mostly in two rooms of his house, rarely travelled, left behind scant surviving documents and died penniless in 1675. There is still no clear picture, for example, of what Vermeer looked like.

Yet, many people feel that they “know” Vermeer. His art has never been more beloved and widely accessible than it is today, and images of his most adored paintings, such as Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid, have been reproduced, photoshopped and turned into the world’s most circulated memes.

A seismic shift in Vermeer’s popularity came after the last major blockbuster devoted to his work – at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Mauritshuis in The Hague – in 1995 and 1996 respectively. That show – the first devoted exclusively to his work – brought together 21 paintings and revealed many new insights. But since then, there have been only small and incremental discoveries.

With a lacuna to fill about Vermeer’s life, authors, film-makers and other artists have fed the growing fascination through creative speculation. A huge part of the phenomenal appreciation for the artist can be attributed to the imagination.

Author Tracy Chevalier, in the late 1990s, began writing a novel about Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring. The 1999 bestseller, Girl With A Pearl Earring, was then adapted for the 2003 film of the same name, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. While the story is a fantasy, the book and the film had a sensational impact, turning Girl With A Pearl Earring into a household name, and drawing huge numbers of pilgrims to the Mauritshuis.

While some authors sought to fill in gaps about Vermeer’s personal life, others attempted to demystify his painting process.

In his 2002 book, Vermeer’s Camera, architect Philip Steadman argued that the “perfection” of the Dutch master’s canvasses could be attributed only to the use of optical tools. In particular, he revived an idea first floated in the 1920s that Vermeer made his paintings from inside a room-size camera obscura, a device that operates like a pinhole camera.

Artist David Hockney furthered this notion with his 2006 book and 2011 BBC TV show, Secret Knowledge, which argued that Vermeer’s “photographic” effect was aided by optics.

American magician Teller of duo Penn and Teller tested that theory in his 2013 documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, in which inventor Tim Jenison tried to recreate The Music Lesson using a camera obscura in a Texas warehouse. The painting that Jenison created in his simulated Vermeer studio was so convincing that Steadman and Hockney felt he had validated their claims.

The question of whether Vermeer used optics was one of the major research focuses for curators at the Rijksmuseum preparing for the museum’s blockbuster show. Gregor Weber, the exhibition’s curator and author of its catalogue, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light And Reflection, said he had concluded that Vermeer was most likely exposed to optical tools through the Jesuits in Delft, who owned such instruments and referenced them in their devotional literature.

Weber said Vermeer had probably entered a camera obscura and “translated that experience into his own art”. In other words, he did not use the optical device as a tool in his studio, but instead as a source of inspiration for how light and perspective could be depicted in his paintings.

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