The Procuress by Johannes Vermeer, 1656 (Photo by Norbert Millauer/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

The sacred and the profane

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

Artillery Row

Rarely do the sacred and the profane exist so cheek by jowl as in Amsterdam. An external wall of its oldest church, the mediaeval Oude Kerk, is paralleled just a few feet away by window stalls of prostitutes exhibiting their wares. Out of the centre of the city, another exhibition of a more elevated sort is taking place: the major show of Vermeer’s works at the Rijksmuseum.

Vermeer’s money came far more from art dealing than his own painting

Even here, going back nearly four centuries, the sacred and profane remain constants. One room depicts three of Vermeer’s early, conventionally pious religious works, before a fourth painting strikes the viewer with its palpable incongruity: the lascivious brothel scene of The Procuress (1656). Bordeeltje — brothel pictures — formed a popular genre of 17th century Dutch painting. A soldier is groping and offering money to a whore, whose face is flushed red by the copious wine. The scene is in complete contrast to what precedes it, not least for marking a critical turning point in Vermeer’s style and choice of subject matter. Here is the transitional painting from the religious to the subsequent every-day scenes that make Vermeer so beloved by modern audiences. 

We know little of the man himself. Born in Delft in 1632, he died at only 43, leaving behind only some three dozen known works. Some fifteen children, of whom eleven survived, created considerable financial pressure. His money came far more from art dealing than his own painting. Whilst respected in his time, his fame came posthumously in the 19th century. All this seems remarkable in light of the veneration heaped on Vermeer these days — a veneration that is wholly justified for this most subtle and embracing of artists who achieved a form of perfection in his greatest works. Whilst he was not always the most original or even most interesting of the Dutch masters (Jacobus Vrel certainly deserves a place in the spotlight), Vermeer is surely the most sublime.

The exhibition is quite something, even if a good quarter of the exhibits do not necessarily show Vermeer at his best. Everywhere the colours are remarkable, with his trade-mark cobalt blues and the smoky lemon tops worn by the female models. Yes, there are pearl earrings aplenty — but not that one. As astounding as the colours is Vermeer’s ability to combine a softness of view with sharp, intricate detail: we are welcomed into his world, which offers a near-photographic observation of personal, domestic life in the 17th century. The effect is totally disarming.

The early religious paintings mentioned above are not so enticing for most viewers. There is great technical ability on display, as in St Praxedis (1655), but not the intimate engagement we look for in Vermeer. We have to wait seven paintings before we find this in familiar Vermeer form, as the first room comprises two paintings: The Little Street (c. 1657–58) and View of Delft (c. 1659–61). Both are brilliant, but the first, depicting his aunt’s house, is a stand-out of the exhibition. It captures a quiet, domestic street scene, with two women busy at their chores and two children playing on the tiled porch in front of the house, all preoccupied with their own activities. The sense of calm and order is what we expect from Vermeer, whilst the alley-way offers both depth and a secret glimpse into life behind the façade. 

Once again, Vermeer captures a moment and makes it timeless

A good portion of the exhibition is taken up with young women reading or writing letters. One especially captures Vermeer’s trademarks. In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c.1657-8), the window is, as in most of his paintings, on the left and open (suggesting the need to break free into the exterior world), with a red curtain draped over it. The girl is reading the letter in the light offered, her face reflected at an angle in the open panel. On the right, a beautifully painted hazel-green dividing drape hangs down the entire length of the painting, both a frame to the picture and a drawing back that reveals the girl at this private moment. An overturned bowl of fruit in the foreground represents the disorder of a likely adulterous liaison. Another drape is drawn back for the viewer to look through an open doorway in The Love Letter (c. 1669-70), where a maid has passed a secret communication to her mistress, playing a lute. There are lots of ladies on their musical instruments here.

The beauty of the paintings should not distract us from their morally didactic messages. Woman Weighing Pearls (c.1662-64) is more explicit, a direct reference to the weighing of souls on Judgment Day. The abundance of pearls in Vermeer’s works represents superbia, vanity. Confusingly, though, that earring on that girl is often taken as a sign of chastity. The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c.1665) did not make the short journey from The Hague to Amsterdam; it may be a portrait or a tronie: a stylised work of contrived expressions, often accompanied by exotic clothing, especially headwear. The four at the exhibition, whilst brilliantly executed, are therefore a step away from Vermeer’s real-world subjects. 

Of the many masterpieces on view, the quiet humility of The Milkmaid (c. 1658-59) is perhaps the most affecting: the maid, in those familiar yellow and blues, pours milk from a jug into a bowl on a table of crusty bread, exquisitely rendered by Vermeer’s proto-pointillism. The bare grey wall behind accentuates the maid and her colours, whilst the light from the window reveals the concentration on her face as she modestly attends to her task. Here more than anywhere we find the stillness and tranquillity we seek in Vermeer’s sublime art. Once again, he captures a moment and makes it timeless.

The exhibition brings together 27 of his three dozen known works from seven countries and twelve external museums, the largest ever Vermeer exhibition. The impact is considerable. Whilst 27 works would normally constitute a relatively smaller-scale exhibition, here at the spacious Rijksmuseum one leaves with an awe-inspiring sense that this has been an epic experience: it is as if one has just seen a huge number of Vermeers. The exhibition runs until early June. That is academic if you do not already have a ticket, however, as this “once in a lifetime” show is completely sold out. Some solace can be found in the museum’s “online exploration” of the exhibition. Do not waste your money on the utterly appalling but very pricey show catalogue, though: printed on nasty, dull, rough paper (presumably for “eco-friendly” reasons), it’s like trying to appreciate Vermeer’s brilliance whilst peering through onion soup. A travesty for what is certain to be one of the most important art exhibitions of the 2020s.

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