Why the 2023 Rijksmuseum Vermeer Show Might Not Be the Last

“The Vermeers are back,” reads the subject line of an email from Washington’s National Gallery of Art announcing that Woman Holding a Balance and A Lady Writing are again on view at the museum. ‘Again’ because from early February through early June, the paintings were part of the largest-ever exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Visitors look at the painting “Mistress and Maid” during the opening of the Johannes Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum. ANP/AFP via Getty Images

The 16-week show attracted roughly 650,000 visitors from more than 110 countries. Pre-sale tickets sold out in days, and by the exhibition’s second day, the only initial-round tickets left were those that appeared on secondary markets. This mad rush for entry ostensibly comes down to the fact that, due to factors like the fragility of these old paintings and the challenges of securing museum loans, it’s possible there will never be another Vermeer exhibition quite as extensive.

The Rijksmuseum show featured 28 of the 36 known Vermeer paintings—eight more than the next-largest exhibition, which brought together 20 works in 1995 for a show curated by Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock that debuted at the National Gallery of Art before moving to the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague the following year. It, too, attracted hundreds of thousands of Vermeer fanatics from around the globe, eager to see as many of the painter’s works as possible in one go.

Similarly, a thirteen-day Vermeer exhibition at Rijksmuseum in 1935, which showed eight works by the artist, drew 123,000 visitors. And “In the Light of Vermeer—Five Centuries of Painting,” shown first at Mauritshuis and then at the Orangerie des Tuileries in 1966, with 12 works by the artist, also attracted Vermeer lovers from around the globe.

A gathering of Vermeers causes such a stir because seeing each of his paintings on their home turf is a massive undertaking—one that feels very of-the-moment because of the buzz generated by the recent show but atually isn’t. A Washington Post article from way back in 1996 specifically references “Vermeer groupies” whose life goal is to see all of his works in public collections. In the piece, Wheelock tells writer Amy E. Schwartz, “You can take it as a goal to see all of them, and you can more or less accomplish it, but not easily.” While all but two of the known Vermeers are on view in museums, they’re scattered across institutions in ten cities in several European nations, plus two cities in the States and one in Japan.

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A journalist takes a picture of Vermeer’s “Milkmaid”. Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

That wasn’t always the case. During Vermeer’s short and somewhat enigmatic life, and likely for some time thereafter, his paintings resided more or less in and around Delft. It wasn’t that his talent went unrecognized while he was alive. His works sold for relatively high sums to wealthy local collectors, but Vermeer’s renown only stretched as far as The Hague or possibly Amsterdam. Bookbinder Jacobus Dissius (son-in-law of Vermeer patron Maria de Knuijt) had a whopping twenty-one paintings by the artist—possibly half his lifetime creative output. When Dissius died, the works, which were almost certainly the property of his late wife, Magdalena van Ruijven, were auctioned off and their whereabouts temporarily lost. Vermeer, meanwhile, faded into equally temporary obscurity.

It’s hard to think of the Dutch Master as obscure, but he might have been lost to history were it not for art critic Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who encountered View of Delft in The Hague in 1842. While he did misattribute a number of paintings to Vermeer as he catalogued his work, he was also instrumental in both tracking down Vermeer’s paintings and kicking off Vermeer scholarship. He purchased the artist’s pieces, including A Lady Standing at a Virginal and Woman with a Pearl Necklace, when he could; when he couldn’t, he reportedly encouraged wealthier art collectors to snap them up.

Vermeer's 'View Of Delft '
Johannes Vermeer’s idealized Delft. Getty Images

The appeal of Vermeer’s work, as Thoré-Bürger saw it, was simple. The Dutch painter created “l’art pour l’homme,” or art for the people, which was in stark contrast to the focus in France on Romanticism and Academic art. That said, Thoré-Bürger’s glowing assessment may have misunderstood what today inspires people to embark upon odysseys to see the artist’s body of work.

View of Delft, widely considered the Dutch Golden Age cityscape, is no mere reproduction of reality. The painted riverside vista that inspired Proust to write “Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world” in a letter to Jean-Louis Vaudoyer was the result of a fair amount of editing. We know, for instance, that Vermeer moved the Nieuwe Kerk spire, lengthened the reflection of the Rotterdam Gate and deftly adjusted the light to enhance the scene.

The lasting popularity of Vermeer could come down to the same innately human predilections that keep us endlessly scrolling through staged and filtered photos of everyday life. Johannes Vermeer may have become one of the most significant artists of the 17th century because he painted life perfected. His work feels cozy and intimate and quiet in a way that most of our lives seldom are. The light is golden, and there’s so much of it. The fabrics are sumptuous and draped just so. The people are engaged yet serene. The Little Street strikes one as eminently Instagrammable—”less about Delft, or even a small fragment of a streetscape in Delft,” according to Wheelock, “than about the poetic beauty of everyday life.”

The Little Street (View of Houses in Delft) by Johannes Vermeer
“The Little Street” in the Rijksmuseum. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Vermeer fever persists because the artist painted the kinds of simple yet enthrallingly beautiful scenes that suggest it really is possible to be in a moment. “Nothing important is happening, and yet that nothing is everything now,” critic Jason Farago wrote in a review of the 2023 Rijksmuseum show for the New York Times. As for that exhibition being the last opportunity to see such a large collection of Vermeer’s work in one place, don’t be so sure. Every large-scale exhibition of the artist’s work was once a curator’s moonshot dream and curators never stop dreaming.

Vermeer Fever Persists Because He Painted Life Perfected

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