Johannes Vermeer

A review by Mark Harden.

The exhibition "Johannes Vermeer", on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. November 12, 1995 through February 11, 1996 before moving to The Hague's Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, was the first ever exclusively dedicated to the paintings of the celebrated seventeenth-century master of Delft. This show brought together twenty-three of the thirty-six works attributed to Vermeer, presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a thorough survey of his stunning work.

Vermeer chose as his motifs moments from ordinary life. He often portrayed individuals transfixed in quiet contemplation or in the performance of some seemingly mundane task: pouring water or milk, reading or writing a letter, donning jewelry. Yet the images are rendered with such expressive virtuosity that these moments are transformed into aspects of eternal truth.

The means by which Vermeer accomplished this transformation is one of the arcane mysteries of his art. The inviting realism of his paintings makes them accessible to nearly everyone. A closer examination of Vermeer's technique, however, reveals that he often altered reality in order to achieve a more powerful expression of his theme. The manipulation of light and shadow, in particular, served to intensify aspects of his composition.

The preparations for the exhibit have resulted in valuable additions to Vermeer scholarship. Most of the works underwent cleaning prior to the show, which not only presented their pristine appearance, but revealed many hitherto unrecognized subtleties in technique. Specialists have subjected the paintings to x-radiograph and infrared reflectography. These state-of-the-art methods provide a behind-the-scenes look at how Vermeer planned and executed the works. In many cases they reveal changes he made to his original composition, providing insight into his creative process.

Few biographical details of Vermeer are known. He left no writings. No facts have come to light regarding his artistic training and there are no records of any commissions he may have received As a result, art historians have had to focus exclusively on the paintings themselves. This concentration on technique, omitting biographical detail in the critical interpretation of Vermeer's work, has clearly contributed to our comprehending his art as an expression of eternal truths transcending the ostensible subject matter.

This exhibit was unfortunately affected by the federal government shutdown. It is a sad reflection on the state of affairs in Washington that budgetary gridlock limited the number of people able to view this extraordinary display. The only consolation is the knowledge that the art of Vermeer will be remembered long after the names of today's politicians have been swept into the dustbin of time. While no reproduction can substitute for the experience of viewing the genuine work of art, we at Glyphs hope that this review conveys at least a taste of the exhibit for those who were unable to see it in person.

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Mark Harden is the art editor at Glyphs.