Vermeer: The Dutch Golden Age makes it back to the Netherlands
September 26, 2023
By Filip Radzikowski
Vermeer – once in a lifetime?
Coined the ‘Blockbuster exhibition of the year’, the largest to-date retrospective of Vermeer’s artworks hosted by Rijksmusuem in Amsterdam closed on June 4, marking the end of a 16 week-long run. The Vermeer exhibition that ran between February 10th to June 4th, 2023 has been making a spotlight for the entirety of its duration. Secondary market, such as Ebay or Ticketswap marketplaces, was for many the only available recourse to a “definitely sold-out” exhibition of baroque canvases, with resale websites offering the tickets at the much-heightened prices in tandem with a limited number of offers. What makes this display an artistic highlight of the year, if not decade, can be credited to a variety of factors, ranging from the widespread media coverage, as well as a complexity of setting the show in place to the enigmatic backroad of the artist himself. What seems to be certain, however, is that it’s “something that will never happen again.”
The rocky road
Conceiving any exhibition is a burdensome, time-consuming, and complex endeavor. In the case of Vermeer’s art, these difficulties begin with a limited number of artworks scattered across the globe. To elaborate, Vermeer is one of the most mysterious of the Dutch Golden Age Masters and is sometimes referred to as ‘the Sphinx of Delft’. In addition, there is also the matter of the shipment of extremely fragile canvases of his works, which are kept sheltered by their protective owners. To spice things up, make use of the artist’s credentials as an author of “the most valuable object ever stolen” in the largest ever art theft – the Isabella Stewart Gardner 1990 theft of the Concerto. The headlines of the Vermeer’s show do not seem too much of a stretch now, do they?
Yet, it’s a long and burdensome journey for a museum to have their curation displayed on the front pages of major media outlets. Before the paintings could be reunited within the walls of Amsterdam’s largest museums, the complex loaning process from the institutions worldwide had to be put in motion, a process that involved the inter alia Mauritius in the Hague (loaning The Girl with the Pearl Earrings), Dresden State Art Collections (Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window), and the Frick Collection that loaned Rijksmuseum three of their Vermeer paintings. Altogether, 14 museums and private institutions from 7 countries collaborated in the reunification of Vermeer’s works, with the total exhibition housing 28 out of 37 or 36 surviving works assigned to the Dutch master. With the exhibition’s official opening on February 10,, the 5-month long display was the largest to date, beating the previous record of 22 paintings shown during the 1995/1996 joint exhibition of National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. and Maurithuis in the Hague.
Not to belittle the co-curatoring team of Mr. Pieter Roelofs and Dr. Gregor J.M. Weber, but the exhibition would not have come into being was it not for some fortunate circumstances. Due to renovations at the Frick Collection, a window of opportunity for their three Vermeer paintings to be shipped back to the old world opened up; previously, only one of these paintings (Officer and the Laughing Girl) had been shown at the 1996 Maurithuis exhibition following the National Gallery’s show in Washington. Altogether, 7 out of 28 paintings displayed in the recent exhibition had never before been viewed on a public display in the Netherlands.
Artur K. Wheelock, Jr., a man behind the 1995 Vermeer’s Washington exhibition, gave some insight in an interview with ARTnews into how his creation came into being. His story begins 9 years prior to his exhibition’s opening, detailing the rocky road of its planning. With the exhibition being halted twice, as the spending cuts on federally funded institutions were considered necessary for the approval of the Federal budget, the National Gallery eventually reopened its doors for Vermeer only. Nevertheless, drawbacks did not stop over 350.000 people from visiting, most of which spent significantly more time on admiring the works of the “Sphinx” than usual, and proving that the Vermeer’s popularity was exceeding any expectations, even in the era preceding online ticket purchase and social media. Rijksmuseum’s exhibition made use of almost 30-years worth of technological advances, putting in motion a remarkably-widespread marketing strategy, and with the use of social media created publicity very few artists could dream of. An interplay of these factors consequently shadowed the previous record. The first pool of 450.000 tickets sold out two days after the exhibition’s opening, with the second batch being sold out even faster. All in all, 115 days after opening its doors, 650000 visitors from 113 countries had made their way to Amsterdam’s largest museum to experience the biggest show ever conceived in the Netherlands and one that yielded in popularity to few exhibitions before. Given the pedigree of the exhibition, the loan agreements reached must have been incredibly preceded by incredibly complex and time-consuming operations. Unaspiringly, the tight schedule of the team involved in creating this exhibition hindered my request for a more detailed description of the process. What museum loan agreements should contain is, however, to some extent deductive. With terms specifying the division of costs, insurance (some covered by government indemnity schemes, as the commercial market insurances could be prohibitive), care conditions including the light intensity, humidity, and temperature, as well as conditions reports and exhibition schemes, the Rijksmuseum must have concluded these cross-border agreements in seven different jurisdictions for the exhibition to commence.
What the fuss is all about?
Those visiting this exhibition had little trouble learning the biography of the artist as well as the underlying themes in his works, how the exhibition had come to being, and why it is one of the most thrilling ever conceived. Many assign the artist’s genius to his ability to convey the beauty of daily life. To say he was a master of the so-called genre painting is somewhat of a satire in the context of the Rijksmuseum blockbuster show insofar as ‘The Sphinx’ had indeed excelled in portraying the everyday life of the Netherland’s most vibrant period.
Although the Rijksmuseum seemingly handled the overwhelming popularity better than the National Gallery of Art, drawing a valuable lesson from the latter’s experiences, it also shares some as well. The crowds were expected, and the time slots to visit in most instances disobeyed, but this was not surprising given the similar experiences some 30 years prior.
Guided by blue lane leading to Philips wing, a sponsor of Rijksmuseum since 2001, which is said to be made available to high-profile exhibitions only, the visitor experience starts well before one is welcomed by the earliest known painting by Vermeer – a Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c. 1653-1655). Being disconnected from the rest of the museal collection and having its own separate entrance, the effect is equally practical as it is allegorical. Visitors are reminded at every step that the forthcoming experience is extraordinary, and deservingly so. There is something about Vermeer’s paintings, most of which are small to medium format, that strikes immediately, and despite crowds of visitors clinging before every work displayed and limited ability to enjoy the scenes depicted unbothered, the effect could be described as hypnotizing.
Slightly dimmed rooms and grayish walls make for a fitting environment for Vermeer’s coruscating pictures to be appreciated, with well-designed lighting that is focused and undistracting. Every room welcomes the visitors with concise information that informs of important developments of Vermeer’s works and the Dutch reality of the period while also providing some insight into details the artist had included in his works. However, this does not sound like an exceptional museum setting, rather it subscribes to conventional and well-proven methods that curators worldwide use commonly. Regardless, it still makes its way above-the-fold.
Skyrocketing prices of tickets, which are only available on the secondary market, means many will not be given the opportunity to experience Vermeer’s talent. With exclusivity and one-off nature fueling the price surge, Wheelock’s venture suggests that some Amsterdam-based hospitality services, such as hotels, are involved in bulk-buying the tickets with a marketable outlook. Nevertheless, visitors who missed out on securing their tickets via official channels have no guarantee of success with these services. Therefore, unless one has deep pockets and the will to reach into them, consolation must be sought elsewhere, and there is plenty to choose from.
Having groomed key figures of Baroque paintings such as Peter Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn or Vermeer, the region’s numerous cultural institutions jumped on the bandwagon of exhibition popularity.
Concurrent to the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Museum Prinsenhof Delft made use of the razzmatazz and hosted its own exhibition titled Vermeer’s Delft, where the Delft’s artistic spirit of the period and its influence upon the artist’s legacy is said to be a centerpiece in exploring the Vermeer’s private life and work. The Mauritshuis, which had lent Rijksmuseum some of its most treasured pieces for the exhibition, took on a similar approach. The exhibition on Jacobus Vrel, whose style is claimed to be a forerunner to Vermeer, as well as the Maurithuis’ collage series of My Girl with a Pearl and the TV show titled The New Vermeer, are exemplary of the widespread interest in the Dutch painter. Although a Girl With a Pearl Earring and the 2003 movie of the same title are rarely in need of introduction, some might find it surprising that the exhibition had already made its way to the silver screen in a movie directed by David Bickerstaff.
See every crack in the paint.
Consequently, Vermeer’s example makes a strong case in presenting the trend of shifting towards the virtual experience as a (partial) substitute for the physical, with an abundance of online resources which explore and explain all possible aspects of his works. Two examples worth mentioning are Essential Vermeer website curated by Jonathan Johnson and a KPN backed (who is one of the sponsors) Rijksmuseum’s virtual tour narrated by Stephen Fry – Closer to Johannes Vermeer (visited by 800 000 people and awarded 2 Webby awards: for the best Websites and Mobile Websites Cultural Institutions and one for Metaverse, Immerse & Virtual Arts, Fashion, Retail and Culture. Next to that, Google’s Meet Vermeer Project, a collaborative website between institutions in possession of Vermeer powered by Google Arts & Culture, is perhaps the most interesting, thorough, and engaging of them all. It includes an augmented reality gallery with all of Vermeer’s art, pop-culture references, online exhibits, and lectures. Insofar as all this works brilliantly to supplement the physical tours, it would be a stretch to consider these as a replacement.
Nevertheless, with the current shift towards the inclusivity and accessibility to cultural institutions and their collections, especially when these could be easily characterized as cultural heritage, some issues are evident. The above-mentioned tools of the digital space could pave the way to new experiences, simultaneously addressing these issues. Nevertheless, some scholars provide evidence that the digital optimism is ill-informed and online access tends to reproduce the inequalities in cultural participation in the digital space; Rijksmuseum proves to be yet another corroboration of this. It is understandable that the museum is incapable of facilitating all interested in the visit, and that the nature of the exhibition makes it close-to-impossible to replicate elsewhere. To address the variety of audiences, Rijksmusuem had not remained stagnant. In March, they organized sensory-friendly events as well as those tailored to the needs of persons with disabilities, such as deafness or sight-impairment. These events, however, were not on-going throughout the entire duration of the exhibition but rather a one-time special event.
Not to finish this piece on a pessimistic note, the history of Vermeer’s spectacles gives a glimpse of hope for everyone who missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Frits Duparc, a director of the Mauritshuis at the time of Vermeer’s 1995/6 exhibition, claimed on its opening day that it will be “at least three centuries before so many [Vermeer’s paintings] can be assembled again,” which proved to be a slightly inaccurate prediction. Therefore, despite the indubious perplexities the current exhibition necessitated, these catchphrases work miraculously in fueling the show’s popularity, but I would be careful as to their accuracy. Nonetheless, the Rijksmuseum blockbuster is a sight to behold and an experience, both aesthetic and social.
Filip Radzikowski (Center for Art Law Legal Intern, Summer 2023), a graduate of Bachelor of Laws at Maastricht University’s European Law School, currently completing his Master’s in International and European Trade and Investment Law at the University of Amsterdam. Passionate about arts and art markets, he is looking forward to further his professional development on the nexus of these interests and the academic legal background, contributing to addressing the future challenges and participating in the popularization of art and law.
For readers interested in the Vermeer and his contributions to the flourishing field of art and law, I suggest the following texts:
- Gareth Harris, Vermeer blockbuster officially breaks record at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, The Art Newspaper, (June 5, 2023), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/06/05/vermeer-blockbuster-officially-breaks-record-at-amsterdams-rijksmuseum. ↑
- Philip Kennicott, There will never be another Vermeer show as great as this one, The Washington Post, (Feb. 7, 2023), https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2023/02/07/vermeer-amsterdam-exhibit/. ↑
- Jane Levere, How And Where To See The 28 Vermeer Paintings Recently On Display At The Rijksmuseum In Amsterdam, Forbes, (June 30, 2023), https://www.forbes.com/sites/janelevere/2023/06/30/how-and-where-to-see-the-28-vermeer-paintings-recently-on-display-at-the-rijksmuseum-in-amsterdam/. ↑
- Karen K Ho, Curator Behind 1995 Vermeer Retrospective Talks About What Goes Into Mounting a Blockbuster Exhibition, ARTnews, (Mar. 16, 2023), https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/curator-arthur-wheelock-johannes-vermeer-rijksmuseum-national-gallery-art-1234660742/. ↑
- Nina Siegal, Up Late with Vermeer, as a Blockbuster Comes to and End, The New York Times, (June 6, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/05/arts/design/vermeer-rijksmuseum-exhibition.html. ↑
- Rijksmusuem, Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer exhibition most successful in its history, (June 1, 2023), https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/press/rijksmuseum-s-vermeer-exhibition-most-successful-in-its-history. ↑
- The website has been visited by 800 000 people and awarded 2 Webby awards: for the best Websites and Mobile Websites Cultural Institutions# and one for Metaverse, Immerse & Virtual Arts, Fashion, Retail and Culture; for more see: https://winners.webbyawards.com/2023/websites-and-mobile-sites/general-websites-and-mobile-sites/cultural-institutions/249469/closer-to-johannes-vermeer and https://winners.webbyawards.com/2023/metaverse-immersive-virtual/general-virtual-experiences/arts-fashion-retail-culture/257533/closer-to-johannes-vermeer.
- Gary Schwartz, The Vermeer Exhibition of 1953, Gary Schwartz Art Historian, (Apr. 23, 2023), https://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/416-the-vermeer-exhibitions-of-1935/. ↑