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Vermeer - Catch it if You Can

March 04, 2023

Vermeer - Catch it if You Can

Getting 80% of Vermeer’s known works under one roof is quite an achievement; the 20% refuseniks mostly citing the fragility of their treasures whose travelling days were over. It’s unlikely to happen again in my lifetime if ever, so off we went to the city of space-cakes and tulips to get up-close with the Old Masters’ work, an artist and era that’s captivated me from a young age.

A direct Eurostar from our local St Pancras to Amsterdam made the journey quite effortless. We stayed at Soho House who’ve taken a large-footprint building overlooking a canal, at the edge of the nine streets. Listed with UNESCO World Heritage, this network of alleyways and streets sits in the Centrum district, a 17th century al fresco museum that pays homage to the Dutch Golden Age.

The Rijksmuseum galleries are beautifully laid out and busy. We spent about 90 minutes viewing the 28 artworks, and felt some pressure not to linger too long at the prime position in front of each painting. Vermeer’s work suspends space and time whilst it draws you into quiet scenes of profound stillness and focus, a magnetic bewitching pull that noticeably increases the closer you get. The meticulous textural detail and beauty of these simple everyday events mesmerises the viewer into meditative solitude. 

Johannes Vermeer (Jan Vermeer) 1632 – 1675 specialized in simple interior scenes of middle-class life. Most of his paintings are set in two rooms in his house in Delft, often showing the same rearranged furniture, clothing and decorations. It’s unclear who Vermeer apprenticed with as a painter or where this was.

Vermeer frequently used rare pigments including exorbitantly expensive ultramarine, derived from ground lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan. He charged higher than average rates for his work, many of which were purchased by a local patron collector which may have held back any potential international profile.

When his father Reijnier died in 1652, Vermeer took over the family art business, becoming an art collector and dealer but he never went abroad. At 23 he married a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolenes, who gave birth to 15 children, 11 of whom survived infancy. 

On 15 December 1675 Vermeer died after a short illness aged 43. His wife blamed her husband's death on the stress of financial pressures. Catastrophes, wars and invasions had collapsed the art market damaging Vermeer's business as both a painter and an art dealer. She had 11 children to care for so asked the High Court to cancel her husband’s debts. In a petition to her creditors, she described his death as follows:

“...during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy. In a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead”.

Localised celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death until 200 years later when Vermeer’s work was rediscovered. In 1866 Théophile Thoré-Bürger’s essay attributed 66 pictures to him, although only 34 paintings are universally accepted as Vermeer’s work today. He had no known followers or studio and left no prints or drawings.

On view at The Rijksmuseum until 4th June. 

 Michael Van Clarke





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