By Saskia Hayes
Advertised as the largest ever Vermeer exhibition, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam draws together 28 of the 37 known Vermeer works until June 4th in an exhibition simply entitled Vermeer. A revered master of the Dutch Golden Age, born in Delft in 1632, Johannes Vermeer’s paintings provide a glimpse into the interiority of 17th century domestic life and the exhibition aims to draw the spectator into Vermeer’s world.
Upon entry you are struck by the brightness of daylight, characteristic of Vermeer, in the scenic View of Delft (c.1660-1661) and View of Houses in Delft (c.1658-1659). Having been offered a window into scenes of Delft, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c.1657-1658) in the third room soon follows and peers inwards at domestic life. Presented singularly on a green wall, the painting seemingly emits natural daylight in high contrast to the curated dark, heavy curtains draped across the walls that frame the work. Vermeer’s understanding of the values of light are displayed as bright areas fades into shadow and darker areas gradually lose clarity according to their proximity to the light source. The carefully composed scene demonstrates Vermeer’s astute observations and arrangement of depth in his work through illusions performed deftly in his brushstrokes.
In the following room, The Milkmaid (c.1658-1659) further demonstrates the development of Vermeer’s technique with his choice of a single vanishing point above the Milkmaid’s right arm, influenced by Pieter de Hooch’s linear perspective. The glow of the painting exudes outwards as though emitting its own light from both behind the imposing figure as she reflects off the white wall and through the open panes of the window. In this scene, the viewer is immersed in an imagined tranquil frame of midday work and is bathed in this calmness just as the Milkmaid is bathed in sunlight.
As with many of his paintings on display, what is striking is the contrast between the actual relatively small size of the painting and its demanding presence. Girl with a Red Hat (c.1664-1667), Girl with a Flute (c.1664-1667), and Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1664-1667) further amplify this presence as the viewer’s gaze is reciprocated by the subject. Girl with a Pearl Earring captivates the viewer as she glances, off guard, over her shoulder and gazes at the intruder with a directness, forming a unique intimacy. The dark background looms behind her, pushing her into focus while the light source cohesively shines from the viewer’s left-hand side. In these paintings, we are included not only as the voyeur but as a part of the scene. This level of engagement allows us now to walk directly into Vermeer’s domestic interiors and intimate frames.
The theatricality of the work further propels intrigue in the exaggerated expressions and props, from elaborate headdresses to pearls, each complemented by rich colours from ultramarines to yellows. The scenes are carefully staged, and the thematic arrangement of the exhibition explores this in his early religious and mythological scenes and the later imagined private spaces of 17th century women. It is these familiar private spaces that we return to as the exhibition comes to a close and finalises on scenes of introspection which combine the religious and the domestic.
The pair of Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662-1664) and Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662-1664), two of Vermeer’s later works, are detailed and precise in the objects arranged. In the latter, the balance the woman holds has a symbolic and religious significance as the painting of the Bible’s ‘Last Judgment’ hangs behind her. In both paintings the material value of the objects the women handle as opposed to spiritual value is scrutinised. His work welcomes the viewer to consider the painting closely, it beckons you to come closer, to observe and reflect as the tranquillity created invokes a contagious calm. A timelessness, therefore, is executed in both the mundaneness of the activity portrayed and the stillness performed.
In an exhibition which aims to bring us closer to Vermeer, the paintings themselves reach out to us, the 21st century spectator, and they welcome us into their world.
Image credit: James Macfarlane