First there was the government shutdown, then came the blizzard. For 20 days this winter, the capriciousness of politics and nature closed down much of Washington, including its renowned museums. When the doors opened again, art lovers defied Arctic cold and lined up as early as 5 a.m. in front of the National Gallery of Art in competition for the 2,500 highly coveted free tickets given away to the public daily.
More than 300,000 people came to pay their tribute to what Earl Powell, the gallery’s director, calls a “once-in-a-lifetime-event.” Johannes Vermeer is the first exhibition ever devoted to the 17th century Dutch master. It was organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, the Hague, where it will be displayed at its only European venue March 1 through June 2.
After working on their ambitious goal for more than seven years, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Frederik Duparc, the exhibition’s curators, were able to assemble 21 of Vermeer’s 35 existing works, including loans from Berlin, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and New York. Even Queen Elizabeth II contributed to this exhibit with The Music Lesson.
The unique retrospective brings together works from all stages of Vermeer’s career. Like most of his contemporaries, he started out with grand biblical and mythological scenes – so-called “history paintings” – then creating some cityscapes, among them the famous View of Delft. This great panorama of the artist’s hometown is one of eight paintings that were restored for the exhibition, and was seen for the first time outside of Europe.
Vermeer’s masterpieces, however, are the intimate genre scenes. His portraits of women, lost in thought or absorbed in household activities, writing a letter, or playing an instrument speak of tranquillity and purity. Vermeer depicts the commonplace but manages to give those simple scenes, as the curators say, “a sense of gravity and timelessness.” Vermeer makes everyday life look precious and extraordinary. It seems as if he had captured these images in a moment when the world held its breath.
Art critics also praise Vermeer’s superb technique. His paintings are rich in light and shadow, and he mixed his own colors, sometimes even adding ingredients like grains of sand to achieve certain effects. Also fascinated with perspective, Vermeer experimented with the vanishing point and the camera obscura.
Although very little is known about Vermeer, his works provide an insight into the Dutch painter. Born in Delft in 1632 as the son of an innkeeper and art dealer, he lived there his entire life. He was a member of the local painters’ guild and recognized as an important artist who lacked financial success. To support his wife and 11 children, he was forced to sell other artists’ works. Nevertheless, he was broke when he died at the age of 43. Though Vermeer’s talent was never misjudged in the way of his fellow countryman Van Gogh, it was not until the 19th century, when French critic Thore-Burger praised his work, that he was rediscovered. Only then was Vermeer, next to Rembrandt, recognized as one of the masters of 17th century Dutch art.