Francesca Peacock

How to see two sides of Vermeer in the Netherlands

Two exhibitions, 40 miles apart, combine to offer a once-in-a-generation perspective

  • From Spectator Life
‘View of Delft', 1660-61, by Johannes Vermeer [The Rijksmuseum]

Why is it that the world of critics, gallery-goers and art-lovers is so overwhelmingly enthralled by Johannes Vermeer? His subjects – quiet interior scenes with women writing letters or playing music – are hardly the stuff of radical innovation or surprise. He wasn’t even that original: his works often have a similar focus to those by his contemporaries from the Dutch Golden Age, from Pieter de Hooch to Jan Verkolje. Nor is his biography the perfect fodder for endless books and feverish interest. So little is known about the man, and his way of painting, that the moniker he was given by the French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger in the 19th century – ‘the sphinx of Delft’ – is still used today to imply his inscrutability, his opacity and his ambiguity.

Nonetheless, there is no question of the strength of his appeal: just two days after a blockbuster exhibition opened at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum last month, the museum had to report that it had sold all 450,000 tickets for the show’s run. The tickets would have sold even faster had the website not crashed under the weight of demand. (The museum has promised updates on future availability.)

Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and died there in 1675 – having moved only a matter of metres from his birthplace to the house in which he died, penniless, leaving behind a wife and 11 children. For all his provincial penury (upon his death, his widow Catharina Bolnes had to pay the family’s bakery debts in paintings), the Dutch artist is now the recipient of unprecedented international fame. His tremendously small output – it is estimated he only made 60 works, of which 36 are now known – is scattered all over the world, from Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art to the Frick Collection in New York.

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