Sunday, July 21, 2013


What was the first Vermeer you ever saw? It's one of those questions like 'where were you when the Armstrong first stepped on the moon?' The first Vermeer I ever saw was 'The Milkmaid' in the Rikjsmuseum in Amsterdam. They have four Vermeers there, though it was a long time ago and I don't recall seeing the others. The Rikjsmuseum summarises Vermeer's life and work:
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Today Johannes Vermeer is one of the most celebrated Dutch 17th century masters. Yet for centuries little importance was attached to his name. Works now known as Vermeers were attributed to other artists. It was only in the 1870s that he was rediscovered and 35 paintings identified as his. The son of a silk worker who bought and sold art, Vermeer lived and worked in Delft all his life. He may have served his apprenticeship under fellow townsman Carel Fabritius. In 1653, he joined the local artists guild, which he led at various times. Vermeer’s early paintings of historical scenes reveal the influence of the Utrecht Caravaggists. His later paintings are meticulous compositions of interiors featuring one or two figures, usually women. These are intimate genre paintings in which the subject is engaged in some everyday activity, usually in the light of a nearby window. Vermeer could render the way light plays on objects like few others. The Rijksmuseum has three domestic interiors by Vermeer and one outdoor scene: his world-famous Little Street. 
'The Milkmaid' - Vermeer (1657-58) (source)
Following a visit to his home town of Delft in Holland (where there are no Vermeer paintings) the next of his paintings that I saw was in the Mauritshuis in The Hague - possibly his most well-known and well-loved painting (and the subject of a novel), 'The Girl With The Pearl Earring' - she's touring the USA this year. The Mauritshuis has three Vermeers, including one of his rare landscapes, 'View of Delft' - the town where he was born, lived, worked and died.

'The Girl with the Pearl Earring' - Vermeer (1665) (source)
Once you realise that there are only 35 Vermeers, and most of them intriguing and lovely, it can become an interesting challenge to find them all. Visiting a new museum you might happen upon one of the exquisite interiors or thoughtful young women in a domestic scene, and cry "a Vermeer!", a bit like 'Stout Cortez' on spying the Pacific Ocean. Exploration rewarded.

Over the years I've enjoyed this small thrill in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (apparently they have five, though I saw three on display: 'Young Woman with a Water Pitcher', 'Woman with a Lute', and 'Study of a Young Woman'); the Frick Museum  in New York (three lovely ones - 'Officer and Laughing Girl', 'Girl Interrupted at Music', and one of my favourites, 'Mistress and Maid'); the Louvre in Paris (two, including the 'Astronomer' and the lovely 'Lacemaker' - said to be the second most popular painting in the Lourve, after, of course, Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa'); the Staedelmuseum in Frankfurt (one - the wonderful 'Geographer'); and the Dresden Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister - the Dresden Old Masters Picture Gallery, (two, 'Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window' and 'The Procuress'); and the Steetliche Museen in Berlin ('The Glass of Wine' and 'Girl with a Pearl Necklace').

The Queen also has one which often hangs in Buckingham Palace, which can see if you take the summer tour, or if it is hung temporarily in an outside exhibition.

'The Geographer' - Vermeer (1669) (source)
And such exhibitions happen - Dresden based one around it's 'Girl Reading a letter at an open Window' in 2010; There was a particularly rich one in Rome last year, in the old Papal Stables, the Scuderie del Quirinale, featuring several Vermeers from private collections, as well as some early works and some of the startling best. There I could chalk up sightings of 'The Little Street' from the  Rijksmuseum; 'St. Praxedis' from The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation in Princeton NJ (a rare one from 1655); 'The Girl with the Wineglass' from the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; and the star of the show, 'Girl with the Red Hat' from Washington's National Gallery of Art. There was also one of the New York Metropolitan's Vermeers, one from the British National Gallery, and 'Young Woman Seated at the Virginal' (1670-1672) from a private collection in New York (only recently accepted as a true Vermeer.) The final painting shown was 'The Allegory of the Catholic Faith' (1670 -1672), one of NY Metropolitan Museum of Art's others that I hadn't viewed before.

'Girl with a Red Hat' - Vermeer (source)
At the moment, The National Gallery in London has an exhibition entitled Vermeer: The Art of Love and Leisure. It features the National's own two Vermeers, two versions of a 'Young Woman at a Virginal', and includes exhibits of musical instruments from the period and occasional concerts of typical music. It also hangs with the two virginal players the lovely 'Guitar Player', usually displayed in Kenwood House in north London.

'Guitar Player' at home in Kenwood House, UK
(currently under renovation) (source)
The Queen has also loaned her 'Music Lesson', the painting that often hangs in the Buckingham Palace State Apartments, to The National for this exhibition, completing the musical theme.

'The Music Lesson' - Vermeer (source)
Vermeer lived only a short life, born in 1632 and dying at 43 years old in 1672.  Read more about Johannes Vermeer.
National Gallery Exhibition website
Guardian review: Vermeer: The Art of Love and Leisure

If you have been bitten by the Vermeer bug, you'll find the website Essential Vermeer very helpful in listing all the known paintings and their locations. It includes a handy complete catalogue and an impressive amount of detail about the paintings, their provenance, whereabouts and exhibitions which feature them.

Some museum website provide excellent digital reproductions with useful zoom-in features; but nothing beats seeing the paintings in reality and well-displayed. The pics on this post do not do them justice. Get out there and find the real thing!

There is one Vermeer, however, that you might find it difficult to view: 'The Concert' was stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum, Boston in 1990 and - so far - has not been recovered. It is thought to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting, with a value estimated at 200 million dollars. Trying to fence it has possibly proven difficult, though it could be hanging on some private Vermeer-lover's wall right now. Let me know if you find it.

Happy Vermeer hunting.

Detail from 'The Milkmaid' 

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