THE TIMES called it “the exhibition of the century” and—although I have traveled for years to see and write about Vermeer—it was also the exhibition of my life. For those who were not lucky enough to snag one of the coveted golden tickets, as well as for those who were, I’ll try to explain. But I can’t emphasize enough the sheer impact of the show. Many reviewers have felt the same, including the painter Jonathan Janson, whose lifelong contribution to Vermeer studies includes running the beloved website Essential Vermeer. Immediately after his own visit, Janson posted: “I was overwhelmed, and two weeks later I’m still having a very hard time processing it.” Helen Kirwan-Taylor, writing in the Sunday Times, described feeling the same way and identified it as Stendhal syndrome—a “psychosomatic episode” in response to viewing art. I’m happy to learn there’s a term for how I feel, two weeks after my own visit.
On March 8, I arrive at 9:15 a.m. at the Rijksmuseum and assume my place at the end of a line the length of Museumstraat. I start a conversation with a British couple directly in front of me—a retired teacher and a civil servant—and for the next twenty minutes or so, as we near the entrance, we chat. It’s a surprisingly soulful discussion, mostly centered on Vermeer, of course. “How did you fall in love with his work?” I ask. One of them speaks of his visits to see The Guitar Player in London’s Kenwood House. I mention my own favorite London Vermeer, The Music Lesson, in the Queen’s Gallery. (Both were among the half-dozen Vermeers that didn’t make it to the Rijksmuseum.) Kids waiting outside a candy store. I’d like to keep talking with these two long after we enter the building. But I’ve always had such conversations in Vermeer’s shadow.
Not enough can be said about the job the Rijksmuseum did with every aspect of this exhibition. The grand old (1876) building seems to have been reimagined expressly for this purpose, its curators willing to throw absolutely every card on the table to realize the vision. Art museums are familiar friends—except when they seem to metamorphose into something else, the way the Guggenheim did in 2018 for af Klint, the way the Rijksmuseum did for Vermeer.
There were many facets to the dramatic repurposing of the Philips Wing, and to the incredible collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and other great institutions that made this show possible. A lot of it was aided by the pandemic (and by the Frick’s temporary move to the Breuer building, enabling the loan of its three Vermeers, which do not ordinarily travel). For now, I’ll focus on qualities in the art itself that seem to have served as guiding principles for the exhibition. What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer, besides the light? One feature that made the Rijksmuseum a spectacular venue was its high glass roofs that set off the fireworks of Vermeer’s rooms as if tailor-made for the purpose. What else? Stillness, space: both calibrated and reconfigured for contemplation and breathing room. Curators Gregor Weber and Pieter Roelofs and designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte rose to the grand occasion. Some paintings hang gloriously alone, others within sight of a close sibling from another country. There are no placards. Instead, the titles, approximate dates, and museums are simply stenciled on the wall.
When I approach a painting in a great museum, I head straight for the curatorial label. When and where was this painting created? Whose influence or spell had the artist fallen under? It seems only prudent to arm myself thus. And in our day, such labels have taken on a life of their own. Our eyes flick often back and forth between the image and the text.
But this exhibition takes a different route. The omission of labels feels quietly radical. Look within, the curators seem to say. It’s exactly what Vermeer, who seldom even dated his works, would’ve wanted. And eliminating unnecessary text is only one strategy used to enrich our encounter with each painting. Visual and tactile rhymes for this artist’s version of the seventeenth century abound in tones of Prussian blue, aubergine, or grayish paint that cover each wall, and in the elegant sheen and flow of the matching velvet ropes and ceiling-to-floor curtains. As Tracy Chevalier noted in her review, “exhibition organisers will be learning from this show for years to come.”
Speaking of stillness, the more-or-less official descriptor for Vermeer, certainly most of the figures—transported, rapt, or engaged in some delicate task—hold as still as possible. Before entering the first small gallery, we encounter the first of several paragraphs, placed near the entrances, that read more like poetry than criticism: “he guides our gaze into the painting, which centres on an everyday activity, a glance, an encounter. Now and then our gaze is reciprocated.”
That first gallery contains the landscapes View of Delft and The Little Street. Even before I get near enough to glimpse them over someone’s shoulders, I can feel them. Drawing closer to View—Delft as seen from across the Schie in the early morning—is like drawing close to the most mystical vision imaginable, although it’s also just a bourgeois town in the best possible light. I’ve kept a framed print of View hanging on my wall for twenty years. But the effect it has in this room is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
On a landing in the foreground, a few people wait for a ferry. Much of the painting’s space is filled with river and reflections. There are a couple of moored herring boats, their hulls lavishly festooned with pointillés, each consisting of a single, spherical daub of paint thought to have been inspired by the optical distortions produced by a lens. These pointillés, used to sumptuous effect here and in The Milkmaid, are seen as precedents for the pointillism to come several centuries later. The top third is sky full of infinitely soft clouds, dark to light in the distance. In between reflections and clouds floats a relatively narrow band of Delft, the most realistic part of which is the Nieuwe Kerk steeple, slightly taller than in real life but otherwise faithful and encrusted with brushstrokes of heavy impasto, like buttercream frosting, that collects more light than anything else in the Rijksmuseum. The entire city, in fact, is drenched with light—a dream so tantalizingly close yet out of reach. Proust called it “the most beautiful painting in the world.” It is.
The Little Street hangs on the facing wall to the right, where it functions as a sort of close-up to View. Here is Delft’s working-class interior, its cobbled heart, which turns out to consist of a couple of bonneted women doing chores (one needlework, one laundry) along with everyone’s favorite detail, the two children (one boy, one girl) crouched beneath a bench, utterly absorbed in some obscure game. Above, another of Vermeer’s rare skies, its ranks of receding cumulus framed by the V’s of the steep, intersecting rooflines. Both paintings say: Welcome.
The second room contains four early works, two of which I’d never seen in person. These biblical or mythological scenes, painted around 1655, when Vermeer was twenty-three, were on trend with the current market, with groups of figures in Italian-style compositions. Some critics also speculate that the religiosity of some of Vermeer’s art, early and late, was perhaps inspired by his marriage with Catharina Bolnes, when he moved into Delft’s Catholic Quarter. I find much of interest in the early work, though it bears little resemblance to what we think of as the real Vermeer.
And for that, for the genre scenes that dominate his mature work, I need only step into the next room. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is not just the first in the line of solitary women, but a masterpiece fit for a king (August III of Saxony). It’s the first of the perspectival interiors and contains the artist’s first use of ultramarine, in the carpet covering the table and in the exquisite window frame—this is, in fact, Vermeer’s first window. It’s also the first appearance of the yellow satin jacket highlighted in four other paintings, including The Music Lesson.
There is a great mystery here concerning the artist whom legendary French critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger called the Sphinx of Delft. (Thoré-Bürger not only correctly attributed Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window to Vermeer in 1860; he was instrumental in Vermeer’s “rediscovery” and worldwide fame.) Girl Reading was painted in 1656, one year after the juvenilia. There’s no transitional work. In other words, almost literally overnight, Vermeer began painting world masterpieces, one after another, and Girl Reading is the proof. But Girl Reading has also been called “a new Vermeer,” because of the large cupid, the painting-within-a-painting, which was painstakingly revealed by conservators at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in 2019. This is only one of several incredible Vermeer revelations currently afoot, along with the unprecedented, over-the-rainbow exhibition itself, making 2023 probably the most exciting year yet for Vermeer enthusiasts. It certainly is for me. I’m gobsmacked to see Girl Reading in all her glory, for the third time but also the first.
Benjamin Binstock called Vermeer’s interiors “poetic constructions.” In these lyrical balancing acts, objects, figures, and details were obsessively added, shifted, shifted again, and often deleted. This is clearer now than ever, because we can see through layer after layer down to the canvas by means of X-rays and infrared reflectography. In painting after painting, the list of items he added and then removed has only grown, just as the compositions themselves began to pare away elements that, a canvas or two before, had been essential: furniture, characters, the glorious windows. One example among many would be the case of the missing wall map in Berlin’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Maps on the back wall, of course, are even more common in Vermeer than cupids, but when he painted out the map in the Berlin picture, Vermeer left a classic white wall with gorgeously modulated shadows, against which the chimerical lady floats in a dream. I confess to a fierce love for Vermeer’s whitewashed walls, whether smooth and elegant like the one in Girl Reading or battered as in Milkmaid. What emerged from this experimental process was the minimalist, poetic Vermeer, whose meaning cannot be parsed.
The cupid’s presence in Girl Reading had been documented for decades, but (given his obsessive deletions in general) it was always assumed that Vermeer had painted it out himself. It was quite a shock when conservators announced that a layer of dirt, found between the original paint and the overpainting, meant that decades had passed between the two layers, and so the latter couldn’t have been painted by Vermeer. Whoever the painter was, the museum recently spent four years scraping away the overpainting, millimeter by millimeter. I confess I’ve had mixed feelings about seeing the contemplative silence of Girl Reading violated by a large pink cherub. But the instant I see it, I know I was wrong. The cupid (the same one appears in three other Vermeers) stands casually with one hand propped on his upright bow, coolly meeting the viewer’s gaze. Just beneath him, the model (surely Catharina) reads a love letter in utter concentration. Her lips are parted as she mouths the words on the sunlit page, exactly as the later Woman in Blue Reading a Letter does. A favorite touch.
Clearly, it was always Vermeer’s instinct to return us to our truest selves, but to do so he had to learn how to make his figures vulnerable. It also seems clear that he felt this vulnerability had to be countered somehow, so he’d pile up carpets or furniture in front of the figures or, in at least ten different paintings, have his women turn to gaze back into the viewer’s eyes. And Vermeer has other, trickier ways of keeping an eye on us. In The Procuress, it’s a merry cavalier—a figure often considered a stand-in for the artist himself—who stares at us from amid the bawdy scene with a knowing twinkle in his eye. In two other paintings, a young woman with her back turned gives her attention to her task, yet her eyes are also reflected in a windowpane (as in Girl Reading) or in a mirror (as in The Music Lesson), and she seems at least subliminally aware of us.
There has been quite an international Vermeer kerfuffle over the past few years (one of several, actually) over the Hockney-Falco thesis, which hinges on Vermeer’s likely use of optical aids, especially the camera obscura, in constructing his perspectival interiors. The gamechanger was Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera (2008), which carried out a scientific examination of the compositions—particularly the complexity and uniformity of certain patterns—and seemed to prove the thesis beyond reasonable doubt. Much debate ensued, and today we still see its widening ripples. For instance, in the Rijksmuseum catalog for the Vermeer exhibition (the best art catalog I’ve ever read), Weber pivots during one of his brilliant essays to exclaim: “Steadman is surely going too far.”
Yes, of course, Weber is right: Steadman goes too far! Or else, possibly, Steadman is correct. Weber has realized a lifelong dream: the largest, most perfect Vermeer exhibition in history. Steadman has punctured a few antiquated notions about creativity and illuminated a long-suspected truth about Vermeer. I revere both minds. But as I step toward the next painting, which happens to be The Milkmaid—my own very favorite painting of all—I’m shivering with the impact of Girl Reading. The point for me isn’t that Vermeer used some type of camera to better capture his subject, I realize. (Yes, of course he did.) It’s about sentience, the way that the painting captures us so well. We are the subject; we are always the subject.
Crowded as the next room is, The Milkmaid becalms everyone. I shuffle forward. This youthful masterpiece was a one-off, much like the mid-career View of Delft. He never returned to working-class scenes or to landscapes. And, like View of Delft, The Milkmaid generates a self-lit glow; as I stand before it, the startling saturation of hues seems far more intense than I recall. This richness, as with Girl Reading, is otherworldly—but even more striking for the workaday subject matter. The stalwart, dreamy maid’s blue apron, for instance—like the cloth casually flung on the table before her—contains sumptuous amounts of lapis, in that age more precious than gold. This exquisite apron pops even more for being worn over a vermilion skirt (glazed with red madder), which creates a vivid contrast in the eye of the beholder.
These riches are supported by Vermeer’s first use of single-point perspective, one of many influences (like the whitewashed walls and the marble floors) from fellow Delft artist Pieter de Hooch. I lean in, as usual, to find the pinhole above her hand where he fixed the end of his chalked string. Another device employed to full effect in this enchanted, looking-glass world is a highly flexible approach to values as well as colors. Darker and lighter areas of the shadowed wall are dramatically edited for maximum contrast with lighter and darker areas of her figure. Easy to overlook, this illusionist trick is used throughout the scene, and is partly responsible for the stature and spiritual force of the figure. So much for Vermeer’s “photorealism,” I think. “Photoillusionism” might be more accurate.
Like Girl Reading, The Milkmaid has revealed some dramatic secrets since I saw her last. The wall behind her—one of my favorite details in this or any Vermeer, along with the pointillist bread crusts—was once nearly as occluded as the wall in Girl Reading. The clear shapes of a jug holder and a fire basket—common household items owned by the Vermeers—were originally painted in on either side of the maid. The jug holder was a wall rack for hanging up a row of ceramic jugs by the handles; the fire basket a willow basket containing a bowl of embers for keeping babies warm or for drying nappies. With the aid of short-wave infrared scans, these objects have been clearly shown for the first time and the images posted on the Rijksmuseum website. This is interesting for me partly because the picture has always included discernable pentimenti, including a large, rectangular smudge on the wall where the jug holder was painted out and a strange black mark in the lower right, left over from the fire basket. But the wall is already irregularly shadowed, crisscrossed with scrapes and signs of wear—including the trompe-l’oeil nails and nail holes in the plaster—so the pentimenti, for me, have always blended in, and I’ve never completely understood what was intentional and what was not. Another interesting discovery is that these objects were sketched in quickly and then painted out, though this clashes with our long-held stereotype of Vermeer as a painstakingly slow and refined artist. A similar conclusion was also recently drawn by researchers at our National Gallery after an examination of Woman Holding a Balance: the underpainting was laid in rapidly and coarsely at first, they found, then smoothed and softened later.
I find myself in a bit of a rabbit hole. The black pentimenti at lower right is a horizontal smudge that corresponds to the upper edge of the painted-out fire basket, a streak that somehow became revealed. To my eye, even now, it appears to be just another scrape on the wall. I now know that this wasn’t the case; it’s a flaw. But the whole world loves the painting as it is. Something about this bothers and yet pleases me.
It’s true that I obsess over a smudge for hours, tracking the rake of light across a wall; I can almost feel the texture, run an imaginary finger over cracks and gouges. This bread, these crusts dissolving into pointillés. The pale of her upper forearm, where her sleeve is turned up, darkening in infinite gradations down to her sun-bronzed wrists. This light, this song—half hoisting, half caressing the stout, stoneware pitcher in both palms. This wonder.
Over the next few hours, I gaze at the exhibit’s twenty remaining Vermeers arrayed in several larger galleries with designated themes like “Gazing Out,” “Gentleman Callers,” “Up Close,” or “Reflecting on Vanity and Faith.” To see favorites like Woman Holding a Balance lined up to face the closely related Woman with a Pearl Necklace across the grandest gallery one can imagine is simply overwhelming. The first holds the scales with such focused delicacy one might assume she was preparing to weigh souls rather than the gold and silver coins on the table before her. The other, an elegant young lady wearing the yellow jacket with spotted ermine trim, is gazing dreamily at a mirror, tying a glinting pearl necklace around her neck by means of two yellow ribbons. Both are vanitas works, a seventeenth-century Dutch tradition. Forsake your earthly pleasures, the tradition suggests, but what we hear is closer to Keats: Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
And as for beauty, the “Up Close” grouping features the astonishing miniatures The Lacemaker and Girl with a Red Hat, along with the controversial Girl with a Flute—still considered a Vermeer here, but not in the US National Gallery, its permanent home. At the far end of the gallery, Girl with a Pearl Earring hangs alone with a sizable crowd in thrall. Patiently filtering forward, I become aware of a group of five or six young women (students, most likely) directly between me and the iconic painting—which looks indeed as if it were made from “the dust of crushed pearls,” as Jan Veth wrote.
One of the young women steps forward to examine some detail of the mesmerizing vision. I wonder what she’s looking at—perhaps the trompe-l’oeil pearl itself, which consists almost solely of two white, comma-shaped highlights, one a little brighter than the other? Or those lacerating hazel irises? Or the all-but-invisible signature in the upper lefthand corner? All I can say is that something amazing and yet utterly common happens. The young woman glances back at one of her friends—who at that instant, happens to raise her iPhone to take a photo—and she, the woman, straightens into a pose.
A few notes about her. She’s Black; her hair a mass of natural, seventies-style curls; her beauty as uncanny as that of the girl in the painting. What I will remember best is the playful, unselfconscious half-smile she flashes over her shoulder for the camera—then for this friend, then for that friend, then maybe for all of us—eliciting an audible gasp or two, a moment I think no one present will ever forget.
On the plane trip home, I’m instantly engrossed in the exhibition catalog, especially Gregor Weber’s provocative essay “Paths to Inner Values.” It isn’t just about art as moral instruction, as you might assume. It’s more specifically about the Catholic and Jesuit literature and iconography of Vermeer’s time, specifically 1662–64, when Vermeer was painting celebrated solitary figures including Woman Holding a Balance, while his family was living next to the Jesuit school in Delft. The Jesuits associated the camera obscura with faith—because both might be useful in approaching or perceiving the divine—and possibly shared an early version of the instrument with Vermeer. In any case, a masterpiece like Woman Holding a Balance reflects their didactic iconography in every detail. A seventeenth-century viewer would’ve immediately equated the scales in the woman’s hand with the Last Judgment scene in the painting-within-the-painting and, in all likelihood, taken all this to heart. (One of the many exquisite virtues of Vermeer’s art is that a painting like this worked perfectly well as an orthodox didactic painting of its time, yet also works perfectly well for the modern sensibility, prone as we are to view his meditative women as secular Madonnas.)
For days after my return, I wonder what had caused my Stendhal syndrome; I’m as overwhelmed as Jonathan Janson had been. I come up with a few pet theories. It wasn’t exactly the sheer number of paintings, obviously, although it was the largest Vermeer show in history. Rembrandt, for instance, painted ten times as many oil paintings, not to mention many hundreds of etchings and drawings. But seeing Vermeer’s masterpieces lined up was breathtaking, to say the least. Not unlike seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace for the first time; it’s scarcely comprehensible that humans made such things.
The second reason has to do with the lantern-like luminosity of the paintings themselves. I understand that this was Vermeer’s métier, the result of scientific rigor, obsessive devotion, and his great fortune to be borne in perhaps the most extraordinary era of painting that the world has ever seen. But there’s more to it than that, I feel: more than the glass roofs, more than the muted hues of paint and drapes that seemed to channel visible light straight onto the surface of the canvases.
After a few days, on impulse, I google “Rijksmuseum lighting,” and find a 2013 press release on the website of the parent company of Philips, which helped create the museum’s LED lighting system. Okay then. I had been to the Rijksmuseum twice before, but not since the renovations ten years ago. In the release, Tim Zeedijk, head of exhibitions, is quoted at length about the new system, “the most advanced in the world.” Indeed, no paintings have ever shone for me the way the Vermeers did in that exhibition.
The third reason, I realize, involves the recent, dramatic restorations to some of the works, particularly Girl Reading a Letter. There’s something about Vermeer that makes this an especially pointed topic. When Paul McCartney was going through his divorce, he spent many long hours staring at Vermeer’s The Guitar Player, at Kenwood, just as I once did. Art is for those of us who need it; and for those of us who need it, even such necessary changes to a well-known, well-loved painting can be challenging or upsetting at the least.
But the fourth reason is perhaps the most important, and this is also more sensation or awareness than actual discovery. I’d long considered Vermeer’s work an object of study, the work perpetually drawing us closer and closer as we try to discern an enigmatic expression; to see what the balance pans hold; to see if we can make out the all-but-microscopic red threads that The Lacemaker is sewing. And yet sometimes, as the signage reminded me, there’s a reversal; “now and then, our gaze is reciprocated.” This happens with stunning directness in at least twelve paintings. Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl with a Red Hat are unforgettable dreams, perhaps because the experience of having been seen is what many of us desire most fervently on this earth. This unrepeatable exhibition, with its unprecedented size and scope—its twenty-eight Vermeers more than Vermeer himself could have ever seen at one time—made this overwhelmingly clear to me.
There may be complications when a male artist’s career consists largely of solitary women. One of our most perceptive critics, Edward Snow, articulates this tension in his magnificent A Study of Vermeer (1979): “Look at the expression of the face of the woman in Woman Holding a Balance. In some only half-figurative sense she knows that we are here, and accepts, even sensually absorbs, our presence. She lets us in, and at the same time deflects our gaze toward the scales with which she seems to weigh, again, only half-figuratively, something in our attention to her.”
But there’s a built-in corrective to these complications. I experienced it powerfully in the exhibition, face to face with nearly the entire oeuvre. For every preoccupied Woman Holding a Balance, there’s a Girl with a Red Hat; for every Milkmaid, there’s a Girl with a Pearl Earring; for every Girl Reading a Letter, there’s a Girl Interrupted in Her Music. They gaze straight through me. They know me to the soles of my feet.
Michael White’s poetry collections include Re-Entry (North Texas), winner of the Vassar Miller Prize, and Vermeer in Hell (Persea), winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editors’ Choice Award. His memoir, Travels in Vermeer (Persea), was longlisted for a National Book Award. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry.