Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum

27 years after the last great Vermeer exhibition, on that occasion in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, it is now the Rijksmuseum with opportunity to draw an even bigger selection of the Dutch master’s work together.  This time twenty-eight paintings are assembled for this sell out show that runs through the late winter and spring in Amsterdam.

Even being incredibly familiar with Vermeer’s work, seeing it assembled and grouped like this throws up surprises.  The View of Delft held my attention in a different and perhaps better way than it does in its normal home in The Hague.  The lighting of the work was maybe better, and the overall luminosity of the painting just fantastic.

Having spent several years making work about the place that Vermeer’s work has gained in art history I try and see the artist’s work whenever the chance presents itself and booked my ticket early.  The museum has found itself trying to find the balance between wanting to give as many visitors the chance to see the work, without creating a situation where seeing the work once you’re inside is inhibited by the sheer size of the crowds.  I chose to visit in one of the later afternoon slots and as a result, heading towards closing time, often found myself alone I front of paintings, which if I think back to my visit to the Mauritshuis in 1996 was a huge improvement.

The Mistress and Maid painting from the Frick Collection in New York is a beautiful image.  Larger scale than most other similar works and a painting of contrasts, intense darkness and glowing light, crisp sharpness and soft focus, a whispered moment between the lady of the house and the servant.

Then there is the recently restored/altered Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window from Dresden.  Last time I saw this painting the cherub painting on the back wall was still hidden under a layer of paint that had been added later.  Compositionally it is a greatly altered image.  An unusual experience to have in front of such an icon from art history.

But yesterday, for me, there were three stand out paintings. A Woman holding a Balance, Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.  All three share a delicacy that you find in most of Vermeer’s work but seem to just take it to a level further.  The extreme fineness of the rendering of the fingers, holding, writing, expressing, seems to be important here, at least to my experience of the work.  The exquisite restraint and stillness come to its absolute high point in the way the woman in the darkness of her interior delicately supports the barely visible balance above the luminosity of a row of pearls.  Just fantastic!


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