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Art review: Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

05 May 2023

Susan Gray visits the landmark exhibition in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin  —Gemäldegalerie

Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Johannes Vermeer, c.1662-64, oil on canvas

Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Johannes Vermeer, c.1662-64, oil on canvas

NEAT as it would be to claim that religious paintings bookend the Rijksmuseum’s stunning Vermeer show, this is not quite the case, but their presence is strong in the second room and towards the end.

The artist’s early career was devoted to history painting, and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1654-55) is a monumental canvas depicting a theme popular in the Dutch Republic in the preceding 100 years. But in Vermeer’s treatment the three figures have greater prominence than was common in Dutch art, which emphasised the story’s domestic nature through kitchen and still life scenes. Perspective remains a work in progress, Martha’s torso in an ochre tunic seeming to burst through the back wall, like the luggage trolley at King’s Cross’s platform 9¾. Behind Mary’s stool, where she sits close to Christ’s outstretched right hand, the floor and wall dissolve into one.

In later interiors, a simplified view of one portion of a single room achieved rendering 3D space on flat canvas. Sleeves give a hint of the paintings to come: Martha’s right sleeve brilliant white with few folds, while her left is all dark sand and grey creases to emphasise the room’s lighting. Folds and twists in Mary’s sleeve underline her crooked elbow pose, head to one side, as she listens intently to the Lord.

The Frick Collection. New York. Photo Joseph Coscia JrGirl Interrupted at Her Music, Johannes Vermeer, 1659-61, oil on canvas

Saint Praxedis (1655) is also a large canvas, and modelled on the Florentine artist Felice Ficherelli’s picture. It is the only known 17th-century Dutch painting of the Roman saint who cared for Christian martyrs’ bodies. Vermeer depicts the saint against a bright blue sky, in a billowing red silken dress, kneeling over a silver vessel, into which she squeezes blood from a sponge. Her gaze is fixed on a crucifix, held between thumb and knuckle of her top squeezing hand.

The Florentine original had no crucifix, and Vermeer’s addition is among elements highlighted in the Rijksmuseum indicating the painter’s becoming Roman Catholic. Baptised in the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, and brought up in a Prince of Orange-supporting family, he embraced, it is argued, the faith on marrying Catharina Bolnes in April 1653, and his work can be more rewardingly read through this lens.

Gregor Weber, the Rijksmuseum’s head of fine and decorative arts, describes Vermeer’s early paintings as “journey from Bible to brothel”, and it is at the latter stop that the artist transitions from history to genre paintings. Although the format of The Procuress (1656) is large, its subject-matter is everyday life (or, rather, painterly traditions around brothels, not street reality). Inspired by the Utrecht Caravaggists’ 1620s brothel scenes, Vermeer’s work hones in on the deal. X-rays reveal that The Procuress was reworked with the client’s face put in shadow by a newly painted hat, and his eyes downcast, as are the young woman’s; so all attention is on the coin, a golden horizontal sliver between the central male figure’s forefinger and thumb, hovering over the woman’s palm.

On his left, the titular female figure, clad in black, also has eyes only for the glittering rijksdaalder, while the grinning man on the far left, in outdated black puff sleeves and broad white collar, meets the viewer’s gaze. Drawing focus to characters through colour, the client’s coat is red while the young woman’s blouse is yellow. Creating depth through blurring faces but sharply defining objects such as the silver wine jug are techniques developed in later works.

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, DresdenGirl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer, 1657-58, oil on canvas

Vermeer’s only two known exterior scenes, View of Houses in Delft, known as The Little Street (1658-59) and View of Delft (1660-61) begin the show, giving a sense of the artist’s city of birth, where he raised 14 children, and, in 1653, registered as a meester Schilder (master painter) in St Luke’s Guild. In View of Delft, the cityscape occupies a thin strip in the lower half of the frame, with Kolk harbour’s water and southern shore forming zones beneath. Above, a cloudy sky covers more than half of the plane. Although the reconfigured cityscape occupies not much more space than the dark cloud edging into the top frame, the detail, texture, and perspective let us know exactly where we are geographically. And the time of day, early morning, is indicated by the steeple of the Nieuwe Kerk, a tapering impasto column of glistening pale and dark yellows.

With the scene set by 17th-century Delft and early paintings, gallery-goers pass through a blue velvet curtain, and enter a horseshoe or rooms devoted to the characteristic, intimate interior scenes. Of the 37 known existing works by Vermeer, 28 are on display, gathered from galleries and private collections across seven countries, including four works from the UK.

Familiarity with celebrated works, including The Milkmaid (1658-59), does nothing to lessen delight in seeing the real thing. In The Milkmaid, the figure in yellow blouse and long blue skirt is completely absorbed in her task of pouring milk from an earthenware jug into an earthenware bowl. Spots of blue suggest both the shadow of the bowl’s rim and the viscosity of the milk stream as it barleytwists into the bowl. Yellow, ochre, and rust dots create both the loaves on the table and basket containing them — ingredients strongly hinting that bread pudding will be on the menu.

Originally, the milkmaid had a shelf of jugs behind her, but these were painted over to create a more convincing room corner of grey walls and leaded window. Light from the window illuminates the face, front torso, and table objects, creating a feeling of room depth beyond the plane.

Light was colour, and colour was light, for Vermeer. By analysing the age of pigments, through infrared spectroscopy, in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1662-64), conservators have revealed that her jacket’s glowing effect was achieved by leaving a light blue underlayer exposed beneath an ultramarine glaze. Making the figure prominent and the walls recede creates a deep interior.

Included in the display of paintings of young women reading letters, playing music, and receiving gentleman callers are three works from the years 1662-64 interpreted as windows into Vermeer’s soul, drawing on his home’s proximity to the Jesuit order in the Papenhoek (Papist’s Corner) in Delft.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher shows a young woman with her head covered, and dressed in blue, with arms outstretched, touching an open window on one side and water pitcher on the other, connecting her with symbolic purity and light. Woman with a Pearl Necklace examines the folly of earthly vanity, as a young woman in fur-trimmed jacket holds her pearl necklace up to the mirror. Powder puff, comb, and water basin on the table link her to the medieval symbol of Frau Welt (Lady World). Preoccupation with own image contrasted unfavourably to St Veronica’s devotion to the image of Christ. Woman Holding a Balance features a woman calmly weighing gold coins, with a painting of the Last Judgement behind her.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith was painted a decade later, possibly the year before Vermeer’s death at the age of 43. The large, theatrical canvas shows a woman in blue and white representing faith, with her foot on a globe. One hand is on her heart, her other elbow resting on a table furnished with chalice, crucifix, and Bible. Behind her, there is a huge painting of the crucifixion, and at her feet a gold-green apple contrast with the black and white floor tiles. In the foreground, a cornerstone crushes a serpent. The clear glass sphere to the right of her head corresponds with Guilielmus Hesius’s Emblemata Sacra de fide, spe, charitate (Holy emblems of faith, hope, and charity) of 1636, where the globe’s attribute is Capit quod non capit (It grasps that which it cannot grasp).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-67) is saved until last, along with three other tronies (idealised faces), Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Veil, and Girl with a Flute, all painted in the same period. Standing apart from the painter’s oeuvre, the tronies are experimental in subject: late-17th-century Dutch women did not wear turbans. And, in execution, the famous pearl, probably modelled on a glass imitation, is achieved with a few stokes of grey and white paint. It is like seeing a magazine cover, a mesmerising four centuries ahead of its time.


“Vermeer” is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until 4 June. www.rijksmuseum.nl

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