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'Vermeer': a landmark retrospective exhibition exploring the Dutch artist’s oeuvre

Rijksmuseum's extended research and curatorial project brings scholarship and conservational insight relating the 17th century Dutch painter to the digital realm.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : May 22, 2023

The Johannes Vermeer mega exhibition, currently on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is the 'first and last' of its kind. The 17th century Dutch artist is equally known within the hallowed halls of art history as he is in popular culture, with the Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665) being one of his most recognisable artworks worldwide, though less is known about his own life, including his guild training and apprenticeship. Having opened in February 2023, the exhibition tickets have been sold out since the first weekend, with little clarity on whether the show will be accessible to a larger public. With original ticket sales (over 100,000 as reported by the official museum website) reportedly at a price of €30, the inevitable resale value rose to a spectacle over Ebay auctions, which ARTnews reports as being unable to verify as legitimate.

A Lady Writing, 1664-67, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer | Vermeer | Rijksmuseum Amsterdam |STIRworld
A Lady Writing, 1664-67, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer Image: Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

For the first time, in the largest retrospective on Vermeer, 28 of the 37 surviving paintings attributed to his oeuvre are being shown together, after years of research by a team of art historians, scientists, and conservators from Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. New insights include underpaintings that reveal tendencies in the artist's approach towards the medium. Vermeer (1632-1675) lived and worked in Delft, and is primarily known and revered for his mastery over the naturalistic style of painting, where he particularly depicted domestic scenes, along with his soft and detailed treatment of light. The photorealistic quality and pinpoint accuracy of his paintings have been noted and even theorised upon recently, citing the use of camera obscura as a devotional mechanism in the Jesuit faith at the time as an influence on the artist. It is also notable that many of his paintings depict women in their domestic spaces where the scenes convey a sense of interiority and even intimacy.

Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1659–61, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer| Vermeer |Rijksmuseum Amsterdam| STIRworld
Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1659–61, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer Image: Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

One of the specialised outcomes of this project is also the digitisation or digital conservation of the paintings, where 36 works are presented in a digital showcase titled Closer to Johannes Vermeer, hinting at a sense of aspirated intimacy. The year 2022 also brought to light Rijksmuseum’s research, conservation and digitisation project for another masterpiece in the museum collection, namely Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1642 painting The Night Watch. Becoming one of the most detailed digital scans of an artwork, the image consists of 8,439 individual photographs, taken with a 100 mega-pixel Hasselblad H6D 400 MS camera, with additional AI input on colour, sharpness, and the process of stitching the images into a single 5.6 terabyte file. Whether tongue-in-cheek or not, the project is titled Operation Night Watch.

The digital exhibition of Vermeer’s works allows one to view each of the artworks in astonishing detail, through an interactive interface. One can zoom in on single dabs of pigment, the cracks in the ageing canvases, and even minute threads that reveal taut intentionality in the artist’s work. Even British writer and comedian Stephen Fry wanted a taste of Vermeer’s bread pudding, as he commented in the official virtual tour. As the gleam of the device yearns for touch, the screen blocks and encases the desired image. Vermeer’s image is cited as using lighting effects that are particular to the camera, with the example of The Lacemaker, a painting he made between the years 1666 and 1668. In this artwork, the eponymous woman in the frame is depicted in the middle of her handiwork, where the thread in her hand appears to be in focus as seen through the interaction with the digital image through pinch and zoom. Meanwhile, loose threads on the left side of the pictorial frame appear to be minutely blurred, and out of focus.

Exhibition view of Vermeer at Rijksmuseum, 2023 Video: Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

In Vermeer’s world, hands form the crux of many domestic scenes as they are emphasised in their depictions with musical instruments, handiwork, household chores and so on. There is always touch, contact, and skill to be suggested. Vermeer’s treatment of intimate contact enlivens the imagination through its scenographic potential with unparalleled technical prowess that allows the frame to hold and contain scenes from daily life.

The Lacemaker, 1666–68, oil on canvas mounted on panel, Johannes Vermeer | Vermeer | Rijksmuseum Amsterdam| STIRworld
The Lacemaker, 1666–68, oil on canvas mounted on panel, Johannes Vermeer Image: Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

With the digital accuracy of Vermeer's oeuvre also comes the burden of preserving works of art in a time capsule down to the pixel—a Sysiphian task against their past and future deterioration, a sort of future-proofing that allows monumentalising the works of art and further the development of art historical scholarship. One wonders about the preservational instinct and the role of digital technology in aiding or altering this experience, and how one can encounter Vermeer’s luminosity whether on canvas or screen.

Mistress and Maid, 1665-67, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer | Vermeer |Rijksmuseum Amsterdam | STIRworld
Mistress and Maid, 1665-67, oil on canvas, Johannes Vermeer Image: Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The 'Vermeer' exhibition is sold out. However, all of Vermeer's works can still be viewed online through 'Closer to Johannes Vermeer'.

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