Andrew Lambirth

Mysterious ways | 3 December 2011

Among exhibition organisers, hyperbole is clearly the order of the day. The crowds are going wild over Leonardo at the National Gallery, expecting an exhibition packed with paintings (though only nine are by the master), and now the Fitzwilliam is hauling them in with a show called Vermeer’s Women that contains just four paintings by Vermeer.

On the day I visited, the gallery was thronged, though the queues of which the management warned were thankfully not in evidence. I am frankly horrified by the volume of visitors to art galleries these days. I should perhaps be thankful that art is so popular, but the sheer numbers make the experience of viewing an exhibition increasingly disagreeable and unrewarding. You can hardly pause to study and consider without being elbowed or shouldered out the way. Does anyone stay at home in south-eastern England?

The Fitzwilliam’s show of 28 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age contains some old favourites such as de Hooch’s ‘Courtyard of a House in Delft’ as well as Vermeers from the National Gallery (‘A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’) and the Royal Collection (‘The Music Lesson’). The other two Vermeer paintings are both small: ‘Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’, from a private collection in New York, is a late work, simplified and experimental, and less obviously interesting than its fellow exhibits. ‘The Lacemaker’, on loan from the Louvre for the first time in England, is the real reason to make the Cambridge pilgrimage. It is exquisitely beautiful, with a placid simplicity within its ordered complexity. This is a painting you want to gaze at and ponder quietly — an impossible hope amid the scrimmage of visitors who simply want to be able to say they’ve seen it.

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