Arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, with an ultimate destination of the Rijksmuseum for the landmark Vermeer show, I consulted my phone to check the train schedule between Amsterdam and The Hague, the bureaucratic hub of “international justice” that also houses one of the world’s great collections of Old Master paintings at the Mauritshuis. But the speedy regularly scheduled service between Amsterdam Zuid, near my hotel (on Albert Cuypstraat, appropriate for an art trip), and Den Haag Centraal had been canceled, owing to a train stuck on the tracks near Leiden. The options were a bus connection from Leiden or a southbound train to the university town of Utrecht and then a westbound train from there to The Hague. Train was the answer. Any expectations of Ruisdaelian vistas to be seen from the train windows were foiled by a landscape as flat as it was featureless.
Dutch Baroque might seem a bit of an oxymoron, given the famously restrained nature of the Dutch artistic temperament.
The Hague itself has an unattractive train station flanked by equally unattractive office buildings—the detritus that always, remora-like, accompanies a bureaucratic settlement. Quick steps, however, lead to the historic center, which, if not as preserved as a Brussels or Bruges (or Amsterdam, for that matter), still has a seventeenth-century air. That’s especially so on the Plein, home to both the Dutch parliament (Binnenhof) and the Mauritshuis, which was originally designed by the pioneering Dutch classicists Jacob van Campen (1596–1657) and Pieter Post (1608–69) as a private home for John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, a cousin of the stadtholder Frederick Henry. On the sunny mid-April day of my visit, all The Hague seemed to be sitting out in the various café terraces that expand from their storefronts into the center of the square, shaded by rows of neatly planted trees. Refreshed by Hertog Jan beer, I traipsed over to the Mauritshuis, a stately exercise in Dutch Baroque that has been open to the public since 1822 to display the Royal Cabinet of Paintings. Dutch Baroque might seem a bit of an oxymoron, given the famously restrained nature of the Dutch artistic temperament. And indeed the Dutch Baroque hardly approaches the superabundance of the Italian or French versions. Still, with its monumental pilasters and fecund swag moldings, the building bears the decorative hallmarks of the energetic architecture that became prominent across the Continent in that era.
If any further proof were needed of the faddish nature of the museumgoing public, skeptics should have been directed to the Mauritshuis that April day. There I encountered the painting that launched a thousand reveries and one major New York museum expansion: The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius (1654). When the painting was on loan at the Frick Collection in 2013–14, the small museum on East Seventieth Street saw a quadrupling of its subscription base and record crowds, all there to get a glimpse of this little trompe l’oeil canvas because of its starring role in Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch. The book was coincidentally published the day the painting went on view in New York as part of a show of Dutch Golden Age loans from the Mauritshuis, which was closing for renovation. Those crowds—who could often be spotted shivering in the rain, breathlessly waiting for a chance to see the painting (and Vermeer’s 1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring, another Mauritshuis loan with a popular-fiction connection)—convinced the Frick that its early twentieth-century structure was inadequate for the assembling masses. Thus began an exceedingly expensive reimagining of the Frick’s campus, one that will leave it rather a different museum from the one it started as (a plan deftly anatomized by my colleague James Panero in the March 2020 edition of this magazine). So when I arrived in room fourteen at the Mauritshuis, I expected throngs. It was rather a pleasant surprise, then, to find the room deserted. Naturally lost in the hype surrounding the painting’s New York stint was the painting itself, a gorgeously tiny production that elevates the diminutive passerine bird with blocky brushstrokes and a shock of yellow at the wing.
Much of the Mauritshuis’s appeal lies in the breadth of its collection, which could serve as a single-afternoon introduction to the greats of Dutch painting.
Much of the Mauritshuis’s appeal lies in the breadth of its collection, which could serve as a single-afternoon introduction to the greats of Dutch painting. Jan Steen’s Poultry Yard (1660) gives us a portrait disguised as a domestic scene, with the delicate Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer feeding a lamb milk, while birds of all sorts—a duck here, a pheasant there, turkeys, cockerels—fill out the composition. Paulus Potter’s Bull (1647) is a celebration of bovine life, with the bull dominating the scene, pushing the raggedy farmer to the side. The closely observed flies that buzz around the animal complete the barnyard air. And then there are the Rembrandts, over ten in all. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) is a sharp group portrait presaging later compositions such as the Rijksmusem’s Night Watch (1642). All of the sitters gaze outwards, but each in a different direction, creating unexpected movement in the composition. Out of dark cloaks come pale faces with searching eyes, all in contrast to the ghoulish cadaver laid out on the central table.
But it was not just old favorites on show at the Mauritshuis. A small temporary exhibition of thirteen paintings, “Vrel: Forerunner of Vermeer,” introduced me, and I expect many others, to a Dutch painter of startling capability but little fame.1 I first came across Jacobus Vrel (ca. 1630–80) in a 2021 catalogue raisonné published by Hirmer that told the fascinating story of a painter lost to time. Vrel had been valued enough in his own century to feature in the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, which served as the seed of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But then his name disappeared. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Vrel reemerged, albeit through the side door. In 1866, the art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger published “The Sphinx of Delft,” which rescued Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) from obscurity. (That Vermeer needed rescuing seems incredible now, but tastes change.) As part of that article, Thoré-Bürger had compiled a catalogue raisonné for Vermeer, some items of which were actually by the hand of Vrel, a fact only revealed by careful scholarship decades later. Disentangling the Vrel corpus from that of Vermeer and their contemporary Pieter de Hooch (1629–84) was made even more difficult by various instances of autographic malfeasance over the years, wherein Vrel’s distinctive signatures, which often appear on scraps of paper within the compositions, were changed so as to make his work more saleable as being by Vermeer or de Hooch.
All that is merely interesting background to these piercing smallish paintings, some of which approach and perhaps even surpass the best work of the better known de Hooch and Vermeer. An Old Woman Reading, with a Boy behind the Window (after 1655; Orsay Collection, Paris) is a haunting scene. The frizzy-haired, bespectacled woman sits in the center of an undecorated room, focused intently on the large book laid on her lap. Behind her is a windowed wall, its panes delicately picked out by the painter in crisp silver. A splash of moonlight at the top of the windows is a welcome distraction from what lies below: the outline of a white-collared boy peering through the window, placidly studying the woman with a face all the more devilish for its calm. A sort of companion picture, Seated Woman Looking at a Child through a Window (after 1656; Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris), shows the inevitable result of mischievous childhood games: that is, detection. Though we have a different woman (wearing a wimple), and a different child (no collar here), the setting is nearly identical—just a spare room with a chair. But whereas An Old Woman Reading is entirely static, Seated Woman shows the subject nearly tipping out of her chair as she confronts the child in the window. I couldn’t decide which painting was more disturbing. It is an accident of history that Vrel is not better known, but this exhibition should help introduce him to a wider audience. In this case, the art world’s current ignorance was my gain: I had the exhibition more or less to myself.
If only the landmark Vermeer exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum had been as empty as the Mauritshuis and the Vrel. I arrived just after the museum’s opening to find a line out the door: timed-entry tickets appeared to be no guarantee of timely entry. But the guards efficiently managed the hordes, whisking us into the large central atrium, a space that, when I last visited in 2011, was under construction and before that was an open courtyard. A glass ceiling draws in light, even on cloudy days, providing welcome refuge from Amsterdam’s variable weather. Such a vast and more or less empty space hardly prepared me for the crush of “Vermeer,” which is tucked into exhibition galleries at the back of the museum.2
In these pages in June 2001, reviewing a Vermeer show at the Metropolitan Museum, Karen Wilkin wrote:
“It’s easy to tell where the Vermeers are in any of the galleries,” a young artist reported to me. “You just go to where there are twenty people in front of a painting.”
Imagine, then, a show with only Vermeers, and twenty-eight out of a known thirty-seven at that. Such an embarrassment of riches, a Croesus-like concentration of art, could not fail to draw the crowds. And, as an Old Master dealer I spoke to said, “At least it proves that people are interested in Old Masters.” Still, the scrum made for a difficult viewing experience.
Is this all too much of a good thing? On its own, a single Vermeer captivates. Three Vermeers, as the Frick has, allow one to consider the paintings in opposition to each other, drawing out the differences, for instance in the facial expressions of the subjects of Girl Interrupted at her Music (ca. 1658–59) and Mistress and Maid (ca. 1666–67). The Frick’s recent rehanging on Madison Avenue gave us just that opportunity, putting all three Vermeers in the same small room. But twenty-eight Vermeers in merely a few rooms?
The smallest room of “Vermeer” is given over to the View of Delft (1660–61), on loan from the Mauritshuis, and the Rijksmuseum’s own Little Street (1658–59), two engaging pictures that defy our expectations of Vermeer with their landscape views. Alas it was not twenty people in front of each but forty, sardines in oil, making it nearly impossible to discern the engaging details—about the only thing I could make out in View of Delft was the top cloud, darkly promising rain. Likewise I’d hoped to focus my eyes on the figures on the riverbank, those dark-clad burghers surveying the cityscape in front of the tranquil water. I’d hoped to discover the “Chinese patience” that Proust ascribed to Vermeer (it is in front of the View of Delft that the writer Bergotte dies in the fifth book of À la recherche du temps perdu). The swarm dashed my hopes.
Even those of us suspicious of the idea of linear progress can admit that artists often get better as they get older and gain experience.
Moving further into the exhibition, we find some of Vermeer’s earliest and, it must be said, least successful works. These exercises in Caravaggism from the 1650s are technically accomplished but unengaging. We see the germs of Vermeer’s fanatically detailed style in the patterned oriental rug and blue-and-white vase of the bawdy Procuress (1656; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and the artist’s burgeoning skill in depicting subtle expressions in Diana and Her Nymphs (ca. 1655–56; Mauritshuis). But there’s a reason Vermeer is known for his small interior scenes and not his large allegories; these early paintings lack both the skill and the emotional appeal of the work Vermeer produced in the 1660s. Put simply, they fail to draw the viewer in. Even those of us suspicious of the idea of linear progress can admit that artists often get better as they get older and gain experience, and Vermeer certainly did.
Just how good is Vermeer at his best? Heart-stoppingly good, of course. How many passages can the critic identify as outstanding? Countless, and often more than one in a single painting. There is the woman’s face buried in her cup in Berlin’s Glass of Wine (ca. 1659–61), the titular glass’s contents empty so as to reveal the anonymous sitter’s delicate nose. Spend too much time on the figures, however, and you might miss the way the light illuminates the pages of the music books on the table, itself covered in one of Vermeer’s trademark patterned rugs. Vermeer was the great painter of humanity, for he understood that humanity is not just people but personal effects and settings too. Consider the Frick’s Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657–58). We are naturally drawn to the girl’s winsome face, fully illuminated in contrast to the soldier in profile, who sits with his back to us. We wonder about the nature of their chat; what sort of petty flirtation is occurring? But then we look to the wall and see a map of Holland, which situates us geographically. We see the fine blue-glass cup that the girl cradles, which gives us a class context. That the map, the chairs, and the windowed setting reoccur in various works of Vermeer’s does not diminish their humanizing effect. Instead these details, seeming at once so specific and so general, help to universalize the scene: we’ve all been there in some capacity. Human life is not just emotional life; it is also everything around us, filtered through our perceptions. Vermeer understood that in a way few artists before or since have.
Given the crowds, the best approach to seeing the exhibition seemed to be to try to take it all in without too much thought. Allow yourself to catch a detail here and there: the crispness of the golden calipers that the subject holds in Frankfurt’s Geographer (1669) or the way the off-white fabric of the sitter’s cuffs is built up with countless little dots of paint in Girl with a Flute (ca. 1664–67; National Gallery, Washington, D.C.). Marvel at the contrast between light and shadow on the neatly pleated curtains in Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid (ca. 1670–72; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin); be impressed by the quiet dignity of The Milkmaid (ca. 1658–59; Rijksmuseum), which is a study in deep humility. Be overcome with gratitude that so many stunning paintings could be gathered together into a single exhibition. There will be plenty of time after seeing the show to gain context. The Rijksmuseum has produced an interactive edition of the exhibition called “Closer to Vermeer” that enables online visitors to examine the paintings and their thematic connections at a range impossible in person. A new biography of Vermeer by Gregor J. M. Weber, a co-curator of the exhibition, focusing specifically on the artist’s relationship with Catholicism, has just been published and adds much to our understanding of Vermeer’s religious and social milieux.3 Thames & Hudson has produced an essential catalogue for the show, with thematic essays on such illuminating topics as “Vermeer’s Journey from Bible to Brothel” and “Fashionable Intruders,” among many others.4 All this helps to add necessary context to a painter whose life and work can sometimes seem shrouded in mystery. But such context, while unignorable, can wait. First, see the paintings and revel in them.
The Rijksmuseum added evening hours, to 11 p.m., to attempt to accommodate all the Vermeer seekers, and the show still sold out. Alas, all the goodwill in the world cannot overcome the fact that the exhibition is simply too crowded for much close study of the paintings, thereby dampening Vermeer’s great effect: his details. I will be grateful when Officer and Laughing Girl returns to the Frick so I can inspect the map of Holland at top right or the diamond-cut windowpanes at left. “Vermeer” was a spectacle, but perhaps Vermeer scattered is even better.
- Vrel: Forerunner of Vermeer” was on view at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, from February 16 through May 29, 2023. The exhibition will also be seen at the Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris (June 17–September 17, 2023).
- “Vermeer” opened at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on February 10 and remains on view through June 4, 2023.
- Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, by Gregor J. M. Weber, translated by Gerald Brennan; Rijksmuseum, 168 pages, $35.
- Vermeer, edited by Gregor J. M. Weber and Pieter Roelofs; Thames & Hudson, 320 pages, $65.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 22
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