Mar 06 2023 Watch

Vermeer in America: A Charlie Rose Special

It is the blockbuster art exhibition in the world so far in 2023.

The Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands is showing 28 paintings by the renowned 17th century Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer. It is the most complete showing of his works that have ever been shown together and the first major display since an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. from Nov 12, 1995 to February 11, 1996. That exhibition had 21 Vermeer paintings, the Rijksmuseum has 28— seven more than at the National Gallery. 

Jason Ferrago of The New York Times said of the Rijksmuseum exhibition: “It will, almost surely, go down in history as the definitive exhibition of this artist, never to be replicated.” Ferrago concluded: “Really, the show is just about perfect: perfectly argued, perfectly placed, as clear and uncontaminated as the light streaming through those Delft windows.”

Philip Kennicott, the culture critic of The Washington Post, was also enthusiastic: “In 1995, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the blockbuster Vermeer show organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Curators had gathered 21 of the Dutch artist’s some three dozen extant paintings, many of which rarely if ever traveled. Lines snaked around the block, the museum was overwhelmed by the fervor, and entrance passes were issued to control the crowds. Now the world gathers once again for a great conclave of Vermeer. On Feb. 10, the Rijksmuseum will open an exhibition that includes 28 of what it argues are 37 known Vermeers, an even more impressive logistical accomplishment than the assemblage almost three decades ago. It turns out that the National Gallery exhibition was only a once-in-a-generation event, while this one almost certainly is the last great Vermeer show of a passing age in the history of museums, grand narratives, and Western culture.

If you cannot get to then Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by June 4, 2023, when the Vermeer exhibition ends, here is the next best thing. I hosted, in 1996, “Vermeer in America: A Charlie Rose Special,” which is available at my website, and includes description of the paintings and historical analysis of Johannes Vermeer by art historian, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., who curated the Vermeer at the National Gallery. 21 of the Vermeer paintings were on exhibit. The paintings which show Vermeer’s genius and reflect Wheelock’s analysis are the same. They have not changed, there are just a few more of them in Amsterdam.

It is believed Johannes Vermeer completed approximately 40-45 works in his hometown of Delft, in fact many in two rooms of his house, but only 36 are in existence.

Of his known 36 paintings, one, “The Concert”, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 1, 1990 and has not been recovered. Some Vermeers  were too fragile to travel to Amsterdam, some were prevented by bequest and fragility.  Two of his most famous, “The Art of Painting” and “The Astronomer” are not in the exhibition. “The Astronomer” had been committed by the Louvre to the Louvre Abu Dahbi, in the United Arab Emirates and “the Art of Painting” was declared too fragile to travel by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Not much is known of the life of Johannes Vermeer.

He lived in Delft,  born in 1632  and died in 1675, leaving debt and 11 children. Vermeer was only 43 at death, his huge fame yet to come. Vermeer’s real greatness was undiscovered for several centuries until recognized and supported in the mid nineteenth century.  Then he became associated with other pre-impressionists like Rembrandt and Velazquez. His works are now considered masterpieces. Here is what Jason Farrago of The New York Times said of Vermeer’s paintings: “Now Vermeer stops traffic; he diverts planes. And you wonder: That luminousness, that inner calm, how could this not stop everyone’s heart like it stops mine.”

There is great fascination about Vermeer, from how few paintings to what he painted and how he painted. It seems most of his took place inside. There are only two cityscapes, “View of Delft” and “The Little Street”.  Then, at his death, an inventory of possessions was discovered, listing many of the objects used in his paintings which occurred in two rooms. There is considerable speculation if he used a camera obscura and other optical tools to impact his work.

There is also much discussion of how his paintings impact his audience. There is almost a cult status with books, feature films and celebrity testimonials, in pursuit of how his art connects in a world of social media and frantic pace.

Notwithstanding all the pop culture attention and reproduction, as Phillip Kennicott noted it is the work itself: “Now I’m done, because nothing I say about Vermeer can compare with the inexhaustibility of Vermeer himself. I went in thinking I had already seen these paintings, or at least that I knew them, and it might be necessary to quibble with an exhibition that includes only Vermeer and none of his supremely gifted contemporaries. But I was wrong, and I was deeply moved. And now I want to go back and see them one more time, perhaps for the last time, before time runs out.”


View of Deflt


The Little Street


Woman in Blue


Woman Holding a Balance


Girl with a Red Hat


Girl with a Pearl Earring