An exhibition of paintings by Johannes Vermeer caused a frenzy in Washington DC in 1995. The National Gallery of Art was booked to capacity, and there were lines of hopeful visitors round the block, despite sub-zero conditions outside.
Vermeer has just returned to Washington, and the gallery staff expects a full house, but have things changed now? Why would you bother to go to a museum to see great art? With the tap of a finger, you can see masterpieces up close on your screen; you can get nearer than any museum attendant would ever allow.
In seventeenth-century Holland, public exhibitions of pictures were rare. People generally saw paintings in private collections, in artists’ studios, for sale at fairs, or sometimes as prizes in lotteries. They would be astonished to see the careful hanging conditions in today’s galleries: the spacious rooms, the special lighting, the deep colours on the wall, and the huge crush of people kept at a respectful distance.
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting presents one of the world’s most famous painters in context amongst other artists of his day. But Vermeer himself never saw so many of his contemporary’s paintings together. He never saw so many of his own all at once, either. They were sold and left home. His pictures were made for individuals, who viewed them in darker, much smaller spaces. They may have been seen in daylight when the weather was good, but otherwise, they were appreciated in the dimness of a gloomy afternoon, or lit by candlelight, on a cold dark evening. Some would have been protected by a curtain or a box and maybe were only taken out to be enjoyed in private.
This personal quality endures in Vermeer’s pictures. There is something in them that encourages each viewer to feel that these paintings were made for them alone. We have to wonder then, what would propel anyone to come and see them amongst a crowd? What is it that cannot be conveyed in a poster or photograph?
Paintings say more to us in person than they ever can in reproduction. As we present ourselves to the canvas, so it presents itself to us. Its size relates to our size; we judge its scale; and we read it naturally, as we see it vertically in front of our eyes. We now understand how the artist moved his arm to work, how he moved towards his canvas and away; we see the change and direction of the brush and the texture and weight of the paint.
Vermeer may have borrowed themes from other painters. But his work is different. Unlike the others on show, his pictures blaze from the walls, as if lit internally. The subjects draw us in close and make us stand and look. Gradually, we become attuned and start to understand the rhythm of the image. We let our eye wander only where the artist allows: we stop where he stops; we move when he moves. We find and re-find the focus, and see the repetitions of shapes, and their perfect fit in the structure of the composition; see the slight shifts of hue, the depth of tone. We feel the light cool air of Delft stream in around us, feel the smoothness of pearl and pewter, feel the softness of feather, fur, and silk. We block out the hubbub around us and listen to the silence.
The women stand in radiant rooms, caught in moments of thought. Will they smile at us; will they speak? We wait to see, torn between disbelief at the illusion and a longing for it to be real. We stand a breathing space away from the place Vermeer stood when he created them.
We turn our face towards the light in the painted window and wait for the image to develop on our retina, wait for it to leave an indelible impression on our memory.
What do we hope for when we go to a gallery to see a painting by Vermeer?
We hope to make a connection with something that is greater than ourselves, with something that will outlast us. We want to have been close to genius.
Featured image: “Seventeenth-century Dutch pigment pot and traditional hand-made brushes.” Collection Jane Jelley.