For once, say its curators, “the chance of a lifetime” may be right: never before have so many works by Johannes Vermeer, the luminous 17th-century Dutch master, been assembled in the same place – and it is highly unlikely they will be again.
Of the fewer than 40 paintings most experts attribute to the artist, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has obtained 28. Opening next week, its first Vermeer retrospective has sold more advance tickets than any show in the museum’s history.
“Vermeer makes the clock stop,” Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s general director, said. “He gives you the feeling you are there, with that person, in that room, and that time has stopped. And time, most especially today, is what we all long for.”
Born in 1632, Vermeer is the most enigmatic of the Dutch masters. Besides his canvases, nothing of him remains: no letters, no writings, no diary. He trained as an artist, but his work was barely recognised during his lifetime, mainly because, in a strongly Protestant country, he converted to Catholicism when he married at the age of 21.
Museums and private owners in seven countries have lent masterpieces for the show, including almost all of the intimate, atmospherically lit domestic scenes – a maid pouring a jug of milk, a girl stitching lace, a woman at a virginal – for which Vermeer is best known.
London’s National Gallery has sent Young Woman Seated at a Virginal; the Louvre in Paris supplied The Lacemaker; and the National Gallery in Dublin lent Woman Writing a Letter With Her Maid. Other artworks have come from Berlin, New York and Tokyo.
Some have not journeyed far, of course: the Rijksmuseum’s four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, are on show, and perhaps the artist’s most famous work of all, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was just down the road at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
But the great fragility of the paintings, most of which were completed between 1655 and 1670, their value, and the fact that they have become the prize possessions of many of the museums that house them mean they very rarely travel.
“It’s been incredible to see,” Dibbits said. “This is an artist who produced 45, maybe 50, paintings. We know of 37 of them, and to get 28 together … When you have a party, you hope everyone you invite will come. Well, pretty much everyone who could, has.”
The initial spark for the show came, he said, when the Rijksmuseum’s team of curators realised that the Frick Collection, in New York, which has not allowed its three Vermeers to travel for more than a century, would close in 2023 for refurbishment.
It took “a lot of hard work”, but in the end only nine known works by the artist will be missing. One was stolen from a Boston museum in 1990; two, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, cannot be lent because of the terms of their bequest; and another, from the Louvre, is on loan elsewhere. Most of the rest are too frail to travel.
The exhibition is not without controversy. Late last year, the Rijksmuseum said that after painstaking scientific and comparative research, it was confirming the attribution to Vermeer of three works whose authenticity some experts had questioned.
The most surprising was Girl With a Flute, of which the National Gallery of Art in Washington said as recently as last October it did not believe was a genuine Vermeer, but had probably been produced by an unspecified associate.
Dibbits said: “Look, there are differences of opinion over Rembrandts, with more than 300 paintings to compare. When you have so few works to go on, you can draw different conclusions from the same data. Attribution is not a hard science.”
He said recent exhaustive study had shown that beneath the meticulous detail of Vermeer’s pictures were broad, vigorous strokes that ran counter to previous notions of how he worked.
The research also revealed the profound Jesuit influence on his art. Light, optics and focus were a recurring theme in Jesuit literature: the order regarded, for example, the camera obscura, a forerunner of the camera that projects an image on to a surface from a small hole in the opposite side, as a tool for the observation of God’s divine light.
One of the camera obscura’s effects is to focus the light on one point, while blurring and distorting the rest; precisely the effects found in many of Vermeer’s tranquil, atmospherically lit interiors. This was clear evidence, Dibbits said, of a Jesuit connection that was “not just religious, but artistic”.
Vermeer runs from 10 February to 4 June at the Rijksmuseum, whose groundbreaking exhibition of slavery – the source of so much of the wealth generated by the Dutch Golden Age – goes on display this month at the UN headquarters in New York: timely recognition, Dibbits said, of “the continuing impact of slavery on world history”.