Vermeer review – one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Moments of profound absorption, a glance, a letter… the mystery and stillness of the Dutch master’s work deepens the closer you get in this near-perfect show

The scene is unassuming – rinsed cobbles, whitewashed walls, a woman stitching in an open doorway as the Dutch gable facade ascends towards motionless clouds. Yet every visitor stands before it amazed. Perhaps the spell has something to do with the Advent calendar of open and yet to be opened windows, or the chain of absorbed and absorbing figures, or the abstract arrangement of frames and arches, or the brickwork that seems made of the very thing itself? The eyes and mind, beguiled, search the image for answers. How can Johannes Vermeer’s painting be so infinitely more beautiful than the scene it depicts?

The Little Street (c.1657) hangs at the beginning of one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived. Vermeer, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, brings together more of his paintings than ever before – and possibly ever again, given the cost and their fragility – 28 of the 37 known works. The show is superbly dramatic: a sequence of darkened chambers, where the paintings (like their subjects) appear sometimes alone, occasionally in twos or threes, each in its solo spotlight. The design reflects the revelatory aspect of Vermeer’s art at every turn.

Revelatory – and yet profoundly mysterious; that is where the show starts. It opens outdoors, with the View of Delft and The Little Street, and then turns inwards, asking us to look ever closer at the interiors. A box of light, a figure, some props, occasionally a framed picture: the means appear so restricted, yet the scenes are mesmerisingly various.

Vermeer’s is a world on hold; not suddenly frozen in the moment so much as bypassing motion altogether. The maid pours her milk – but only in theory. In fact the liquid is not flowing at all, its passage (even in a gigantic magnification in the foyer) entirely imperceptible.

‘Frozen in the moment’: The Milkmaid, 1658-59. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
‘A world on hold’: The Milkmaid, 1658-59. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photograph: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Nor do people come and go from these rooms, always lit from the left. Girls in ermine, yellow velvet and lace, men in cloaks and beaver hats are depicted, but they have not arrived from elsewhere. There is no conversation, no matter that transactions may be implied. All those musical instruments, and still no sound. Equally, you are not supposed to work out what is going on in these scenes, but instead to let each fine mystery hover before you undisturbed.

Vermeer takes from Pieter de Hooch’s shining interiors, but rarely shows women at work to make them so immaculate. A brush lies idle on a floor, maids have brought, or wait for, letters. But only the marvellous Lacemaker, from the Louvre, bends over her intricate task. Time is held in profound and productive absorption, which feels far more significant than the creation of any lace.

The Lacemaker, 1666–68. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Lacemaker, 1666–68. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photograph: Musée du Louvre

This is surely where the notion of secular madonnas enters in. For what is the girl there for, in Vermeer, if not to receive the extraordinary beneficence of his light – a light like no other, more than any real room could contain. For some it is supernatural, to others sacred; it feels the very essence of grace.

Vermeer’s annunciations – news from nowhere, by letter – have a stillness and quietude that does not seem related to the proposed scenario, any more than the reading, writing, gazing or weighing of (completely empty) scales. The sense of prolonged meditation seems to come from the creative act itself. The curators show (in panels set at a tactful distance from the art) how often objects, clothes and even people were moved or excluded in Vermeer’s protracted deliberations. He is known to have made only one or two paintings a year.

And then, quite suddenly, the show pivots and a tremor disrupts one’s sense of Vermeer. Three apparently similar interiors appear in one gallery. Stand in the middle and you witness a thousand differences. This scene is jewelled with raised pinpricks of crackling light; that one is soft and subdued; a third far less intimate, with a blazing expanse of bare wall. The Rijksmuseum slows the pace down to show how Vermeer might have thought about the making of each picture.

Sometimes the view is partially blocked by a man with his back to us, or a heavy chair. Perhaps the girl appears remote, on the other side of a table, or way across the room. Or she is brought into abrupt closeup: such as the girl with the red hat, the flute or the veil (all three tiny) or the life-size girl with the pearl earring turning to us out of pitch darkness with her cinema flash.

Young Woman with a Lute, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is so spectral she might be a memory or a ghost, unlike the solid objects all around her. The window is unusually narrow and small, the sheer curtain arranged so that the light falls sidelong, illuminating the studs in a leather chair like bright stars but dissolving the girl in blurry haloes, as if she were herself a secret.

In the Rijksmuseum’s own entrancing Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, there is no window and the whole scene is suffused with the blue of the dress, as if it were an extension of her mind. The letter she holds is now just a sliver of light. Surely this is the same girl from a picture painted about five years earlier, borrowed from Dresden, her face slightly older, her absorption now deeper. Vermeer’s wife gave birth to 15 children. Perhaps some of his daughters appear in these pictures?

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1662-64.
‘The whole scene is suffused with the blue of the dress’: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1662-64. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Photograph: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Everything changes, and yet remains. One maid looks out of the window with cool (or is it wry?) impatience, as her overdressed mistress labours over a letter. Another looks Flemish, as if hired from elsewhere. The letter may be folded, inscribed, worn thin as silk with repeated readings, or passed unopened by maid to disaffected mistress in a distant scene viewed through a door – like a momentary glimpse in Alfred Hitchcock.

Details are enigmatic: a single red drop on the floor (perhaps sealing wax), a playing card brandished as if in warning by a cherub, friezes of Delft tiles that existed in reality but look as if they might be decoded. One girl has a curiously flat moon face, another appears androgynous, still others are stalled like sleepwalkers, held still by a kind mystical gravity.

For reasons unknown, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna refused to send Vermeer’s The Art of Painting – with its artist-magician turning his back upon us, even as he paints the scene – so that we might have entered even further into the chamber of his mind. But everything else about this show is as perfect as it could possibly be. More paintings, greater (and more condensed) visions and variations, it offers every opportunity to look longer, slower and more keenly than ever before. Yet Vermeer’s paintings have the mystery of their own making, their beauty and meaning as part of their content. The closer you get, the stranger he seems.

  • Vermeer is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 4 June


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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