Intimate Heroism: Vermeer in His Time and Beyond

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Thirty years ago, I wrote a poem that ended, “I’ve never lived in a city without a Vermeer.” My cities were, by pure coincidence, New York and Boston. But my interest in Vermeer borders on obsession, and I’m still wrestling with why his paintings are so particularly seductive to me. There’s always the ravishing beauty of the painted surface, the elegance of structure and detail, but also the balance of bravura and a kind of restraint—the way the usual mundane, anti-heroic subjects of Dutch genre painting, however beautiful they are in the work of his contemporaries, take on qualities of the spiritual and even the heroic, qualities that are more like—and sometimes equal—the more overt aspects of spirituality and heroism in, say, Rembrandt. “Rembrandt ist Beethoven, Vermeer ist Mozart,” I overheard someone say to herself looking at a Vermeer. (Could we add Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy? Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman? Or Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell?) That complicated combination of dazzle and modesty may be an essential difference between Vermeer and his contemporaries, including Rembrandt.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, Oil on canvas, ca. 1657, The Frick Collection, New York.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, Oil on canvas, ca. 1657, The Frick Collection, New York.

My first “favorite” Vermeer was the so-called “Officer and Laughing Girl” in the Frick Collection, and I continue to be moved by the poignance of her stoic smile (she’s not really laughing) as she faces the ominous silhouette of the officer. The threat to her happiness is the map on the wall behind her and the sliver of open window that suggest a world to which he will return without her. When I moved to Boston, it was reassuring that there was a Vermeer there too—The Concert, an image of harmony and balance, as opposed to the three disreputable figures in the painting on the wall behind the three performers (van Baburen’s The Procuress, a painting still in Boston).

Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, Oil on canvas, 1663-66, formerly The Isabella Stewart Gardner Collection.

Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, Oil on canvas, 1663-66, formerly The Isabella Stewart Gardner Collection.

The still unsolved theft of The Concert nearly twenty-seven years ago is still a source of personal loss. A $10,000,000 reward for the return of the stolen Gardner paintings is still being offered. If anything, this sense of defeat has only increased my need to see other Vermeers.

This year, my partner and I decided to revisit the Netherlands, the home of seven Vermeers (there are eight in New York). Neither of us had been there since its two major museums reopened after extensive renovation. We had missed a major show at the Louvre and the National Gallery of Ireland called Vermeer and the Masters of Dutch Genre Painting, but it was coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and I was determined to see it, to make this year a consolidated opportunity to see as many Vermeers as possible.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the "Night Watch," Oil on canvas, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the “Night Watch,” Oil on canvas, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

First stop, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—a gigantic Dutch-Victorian fortress, with a road for cyclists cutting through it. The great Hall of Honor, where most of its best paintings hang, is upstairs—quite a hike from the entrance. Rembrandt’s monumental Night Watch is at the far end, almost filling the whole rear wall, the one painting with a crowd of people always in front of it. The Militia Company of District II (its original name) was not originally a night watch, and after centuries of grime and layers of varnish were removed, it’s no longer a night scene. Spots of bright sunlight ignite the chiaroscuro, with its complex activity, large-scale and small, in three dimensional vividness—banners, a rifle being fired, a woman carrying a chicken. Off to one side is a small contemporary copy of the way it looked before it was trimmed in 1715 to fit a new space—not almost square, as it is now, but more horizontal, Cinemascopic, with a more dynamic structure than currently remains.

Nearby are several other wall-filling paintings, including a slightly earlier “portrait” of another militia company (District XI) by Frans Hals—another explosion of technical showmanship but not as dynamically organized as the Rembrandt, yet with more interiority among the figures and more swaggering, “heroic” poses. Along the sides of the Hall of Honor are rows of smaller chapel-like niches, which hold, among other masterworks, the Rijksmuseum’s greatest RembrandtsThe Jewish Bride; the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, each face a complete portrait, each figure with his own body language and individual identity; a self-portrait as the Apostle Paul—all heroic figures, even at their most poignant.

Should you be contemplating a trip to Amsterdam, among the other varied treasures of the Rijksmuseum are an exuberant loving couple exuberantly painted by Hals, the valiant Windmill at Wijk braving a threatening sky and a heart-stopping view of Haarlem by Jacob van Ruisdael, one of Pieter de Hooch’s most intimate paintings of a woman de-lousing her child’s hair, Johannes Verspronck’s touchingly elegant young girl in blue holding a feather, a chilling little van Gogh self-portrait, and the earliest painting to enter the collection, Jan Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan—a four-by-five-foot canvas depicting a swan awkwardly trying to protect its nest from an invasive dog (generally considered a political allegory about the autonomy of the Netherlands).

Currently on loan for two years while the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden is being restored, is an enormous 16th-century triptych by Lucas van Leyden, The Last Judgment, with its sense of vast biblical space, classical nudes, and victims of Bosch-like tortures. This imposing work also has one of the more surprising details of any painting in the museum—the protective hand of an angel clapped against the bare bottom of a young man presumably about to begin his heavenly ascent.

And then there are the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeers.

Or, at the time of our visit, only three of them, since the fourth was part of the traveling Vermeer show. Still there were the magical Little Street in Delft, The Milkmaid, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter—each of these small masterpieces quite different from the others. The delicately unassuming Little Street, with its miniature figures, including two children playing on a sidewalk, is one of Vermeer’s only two surviving exterior city views (the View of Delft is in The Hague). The Milkmaid, with its primary colors and vibrantly painterly milk pouring from a pitcher—in which a servant is capable of the same serious concentration and dignity as her wealthy employers—lifts the earthy to the monumental. In the Woman in Blue, a magisterial pregnant woman in a blue smock, a great pyramid in her unshakable stability, reads a letter in front of a large wrinkled map of Holland covering the wall behind her. She’s one of Vermeer’s most poignant yet unsentimental figures, heroic—Vermeer’s kind of interior heroism—in her longing.

It’s also one of his most expressively geometrical patterns, an image that surely influenced the expressive geometry of another Dutch painter centuries later, Piet Mondrian. 2017 marked the centennial of the movement called De Stijl, of which Mondrian was one of the founders. His work was much on display in Holland last summer, including an illuminating major retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (through 2020), which has the world’s largest Mondrian collection. Along with many of Mondrian’s early landscapes and figurative paintings (including a massive crimson windmill looming against a dark blue sky) was his late unfinished lozenge-shaped masterpiece Victory Boogie Woogie. There were also personal items, including Mondrian’s own copy of Josephine Baker’s 1926 78 rpm Odéon recording of George Gershwin’s “That Certain Feeling”.

On this visit to Amsterdam, hospitable friends offered to take us to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, famous for its extensive collection of van Goghs. The K-M is a low-slung modern building with glass walls in the middle of a pastoral national park. On view at that moment was a series of some two dozen mostly small paintings leading up to one of van Gogh’s earliest masterpieces, The Potato Eaters. But the most astonishing room held the K-M’s Seurats, including several visionary harbor scenes and his late, large, experimental, controversial, and influential Le Chahut (the Can-Can), with its almost cartoon-like line of high-kicking dancers (two women and, if you look carefully, two men), their legs flying over the heads of the pit band. These paintings made me think about the relation between Vermeer’s occasional pointillist technique and the way Seurat’s lifetime of exploration became an entire movement.

But more Vermeers were in store, in The Hague, at the Mauritshuis—perhaps the museum most like the Frick Collection in New York or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, both originally residences and both also famous for their Vermeers. If the Rijksmuseum is a very successful restoration, the Mauritshuis is a brilliant one. Of course, it’s on a smaller scale—a small 17th-century palace—but everything from the welcoming new entryway with museum store and superb café to the elevator between the two floors of the main galleries has been treated with thoughtfulness and imagination. The top of the elevator, for example, is covered with the same tiles that cover the upper floor, so that when the elevator is on the lower floor, the top of it actually blends in with the floor upstairs. It’s a museum that was meant to be a pleasure to visit, and so it is—now more than ever.

I had the forethought to contact the press office to make sure that what I wanted to see would be on view, and it turned out the director of the museum had heard a piece I did on NPR’s Fresh Air about the small show of masterpieces from the Mauritshuis at the Frick Collection. So we were invited for coffee and a delightful, illuminating visit with the director, Emilie Gordenker, who was born in Princeton. She was clearly delighted with the restoration, and thrilled about a recent acquisition: a floral painting by Roelant Savery (Vase of Flowers in a Stone Niche, 1615) that now hung next to a startlingly similar but slightly later painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert (Vase with Flowers in a Window, 1618) already in the collection. She pointed out some of the subtler similarities in the paintings—three-dimensional trompe l’oeil insects that are buzzing and crawling around the illusionary vases of flowers. (Even if you don’t understand Dutch, you can see her excitement about these two paintings in this brief video: http://www.arttube.nl/videos/wjsvtk-11-mauritshuis.)

The museum houses some of the most memorable and famous paintings of the so-called Dutch Golden Age: Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, a powerful self-portrait, and a portrait of a puffy elderly man, as ruthless as it is endearing. There’s also Saul listening to the young David playing his harp, and a deeply sympathetic painting of two Moors. After the book by Donna Tartt, the astonishingly painterly little goldfinch chained to its perch by Carel Fabritius might even be more famous than the Anatomy Lesson. There’s also Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields, a small canvas with a grand vista. And Holbein’s eloquent portrait of Henry VIII’s falconer almost equally a portrait of the falcon.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

But the most famous painting in the collection is Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. Vermeer’s miracle is that the girl—we don’t know her identity—is breathtakingly alive. The slight separation of her lips, the little drop of moisture in the corner of her mouth, the piercing, inquisitive, pearl-like eyes, everything—like the pearl earring itself, surely a metaphor for the girl herself—reflecting light, radiating light. Even the crazed surface suggests both fragility and survival.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 - 1661. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 – 1661. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

And across the room an even greater painting: Vermeer’s View of Delft. Here not just a single figure but the whole city is shimmering with life, the buildings, the water, the sky as alive as the people. Light and shadow have a heartbreaking presence: fragility and survival—hovering dark, heavy clouds giving way to patches of clear blue sky. Vermeer’s birthplace, not very far from The Hague, has changed a lot in the 350 years since he painted this scene. Yet even now if you visit his vantage point, you can see why he found the view so captivating:

View of Delft. Photo Lloyd Schwartz, 2017.

View of Delft. Photo Lloyd Schwartz, 2017.

Johannes Vermeer, Diana and her Nymphs, c. 1653 - 1654. Mauritshuis.

Johannes Vermeer, Diana and her Nymphs, c. 1653 – 1654. Mauritshuis.

The Mauritshuis has a third Vermeer—his mythological painting Diana and Her Companions, perhaps the earliest of his paintings to survive, in which, as the leading American Vermeer scholar Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. (the American curator of the Vermeer show now in Washington) writes, the nymph washing Diana’s feet has decidedly Christian overtones. It’s one of this quiet painter’s quietest paintings, all the more surprising because it has five full-size human figures, more than in any of his other figure paintings (View of Delft has more people in it, but they are miniatures, bystanders overwhelmed by the space they inhabit—the painting isn’t about them).

We made one more museum stop in Holland, the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. But the two paintings we wanted most to see—Bosch’s Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child and Bruegel’s Tower of Babel —were in a traveling show of treasures from the Boijmans in Japan. Among the great Boijmans paintings still there were its remarkable Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ (now almost certainly confirmed as a genuine van Eyck), Carel Fabritius’s piercing self-portrait, Rembrandt’s loving portrait of his son Titus reading, and a marvelous Mondrian with one blue and one yellow rectangle (Composition No. II, 1929). The Boijmans may not have a Vermeer, but it has one painting by Vermeer’s most famous forger, Han van Meegeren (“Look!” I overheard someone exclaiming a few years ago at a different museum, “It’s a real van Meegeren!”). A beatific Grünewald drawing, Virgin and Child in the Clouds, was on view, but many of the museum’s greatest drawings were not. Some of them were at Bosch to Bloemaert, a show of great Netherlandish drawings from Rotterdam at the National Gallery of Art, including a handful of rare Bruegel drawings (that show ended January 7).

In today’s museum world, works of art, even the rarest and most valuable, seem regularly to be traveling, so there’s never any guarantee that you’ll get to see what you came a long way to see. On the other hand, that traveling also allows for such astonishing exhibitions as the National Gallery’s 1995 Vermeer retrospective (Vermeer’s very first one-man show!) and the current Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, both curated by the National Gallery’s Arthur Wheelock.   

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You have only until January 21 to see the amazing show now at the National Gallery of Art. Back in 1995, the show called simply Johannes Vermeer included 21 of the master’s 35 known paintings—paintings from the National Gallery’s own collection (they have four), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Mauritshuis (the first time View of Deft had ever left Holland), the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Picture Gallery (the Queen’s Collection), Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and the National Galleries of Scotland and Ireland. Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting includes only—only!—ten Vermeers (plus there are two from the National Gallery’s own collection that are not directly part of this show but are still hanging in their usual room down the hall). But how fascinating to see them in the context of other Golden Age Dutch painters with similar subjects—paintings perhaps inspired by Vermeer or even paintings Vermeer himself may have been inspired by.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655. Mauritshuis.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655. Mauritshuis.

Like Gerard ter Borch’s painting of his half-sister Gesina writing a letter (or a poem? Gesina was also a poet)—one of the most quietly Vermeer-like paintings from the Mauritshuis. She even has a pearl earring. Considered by Arthur Wheelock “the first-known portrayal of this subject in Dutch art,” it was painted a decade before Vermeer started to paint his own letter-writing women, though he had earlier depicted women reading letters. Upper-class women in the third quarter of the 17th-century in Holland could read and write, and even paint. Vermeer knew ter Borch, the older master best known for his uncanny satins. This show suggests that his paintings of women writing encouraged Vermeer to take up the same subject.

I was nervous about getting to Washington. In December 1995, the government shut down twice, and there was a bad snowstorm, which meant the National Gallery had to close repeatedly. Many people came to Washington only to miss the show. Eventually, there was private support to keep the Vermeers open, even when the rest of the museum was off limits. This time, once again, there were threats of a shutdown, so it was a relief to actually get there. And this time, the press department offered me the opportunity to meet with Arthur Wheelock, whose work on Vermeer I’ve admired for many years, and who generously guided me through the show.

The first thing that struck me was how much easier it was to see the paintings I was already quite familiar with. Here they were hung with more space around them, and more carefully lit. The first painting in the show is The Lacemaker. Wheelock pointed out something I’d never focused on myself—that not only is the Lacemaker making lace, but she’s also wearing a lace collar.

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, Oil on canvas, 1670-1671. Musée du Louvre.

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, Oil on canvas, 1670-1671. Musée du Louvre.

The painting glowed—far more beautiful than in even the best reproduction. At the Louvre, it hangs in the corner of a narrow corridor, catty-cornered to Vermeer’s Astronomer (which is also in this show—I wouldn’t want to visit the Louvre and discover that both of its Vermeers were in Washington. On the other hand, this show opened at the Louvre, and that’s how the politics of exhibitions work). The two paintings are hard enough to see at the Louvre. Photo-snapping tourists crowd that corridor, and the constricted space makes them difficult to view even under the best of circumstances. Not the case in Washington.

In Washington, The Lacemaker is hanging next to another painting of a lacemaker by Nicholas Maes. It’s a quietly lovely painting, in which Maes depicts a woman at work, earning a living. Money-bags are hanging next to her desk. But Vermeer’s image is not about someone making money. This is one of Vermeer’s most iconic images of concentration, an image of someone creating something beautiful out of the most delicate threads, creating art. The threads are white and red, pouring out of a blue sewing cushion; the lacemaker is wearing a yellow satin blouse. Working with primary colors, Vermeer is not, like Maes, just giving us information. He’s offering us a revelation into creativity itself.

The Lacemaker is the first painting in the show, but it’s not actually the first painting you see. When you enter the galleries, the only painting you can see is in the distance, through several doorways, centered on a wall three rooms away. It’s Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace, from Berlin—framed by the receding doorways, and here flanked by other paintings of women looking in a mirror, showing off their jewels, or studying and evaluating their own beauty. But Vermeer’s woman is making a more profound discovery. As Wheelock puts it in the show’s catalogue, it’s “as though the woman has just seen herself in the mirror for the first time.” It’s an image of self-knowledge and truth. The woman and the room she is in are bathed in light. Wheelock told me that an x-ray shows the woman originally standing in front of a large map, like the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. But Vermeer painted it out, letting us live in that room like the light itself, rather than calling our attention to a world outside.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, Oil on canvas, ca. 1662–63. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, Oil on canvas, ca. 1662–63. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One of my favorite Vermeers in the show is the Metropolitan’s A Woman with a Lute. The Met has five Vermeers, more than any other museum, but they are in one of its dreariest, most overcrowded rooms. Woman with a Lute is in relatively poor condition, with significant areas suffering serious abrasion. But its lone figure has one of Vermeer’s most intense expressions. As the woman tunes her lute, she stares out the window. Her laser eyes have a fierce concentration. The concentration is pure Vermeer, the ferocity is unusual. The light from the window is both luminous and gray—might it be raining out? A large map fills the wall behind her. Like her, we are all too aware of an outside world. How far away is the person she’s waiting for? We can barely make out the viola da gamba under her table. How long before his return? Here the painting hangs on its own little wall projecting out from the longer wall of the room, and is brilliantly lit. Abrasions and all, it has never looked better, and it’s electrifying.

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, Oil on canvas, ca. 1670-72. National Gallery, London.

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, Oil on canvas, ca. 1670-72. National Gallery, London.

Fascinating to compare this to the Vermeer on the opposite wall, a late painting from London and another musical soloist: Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. Her blue satin dress with its puffy linen sleeve is gorgeously painted—masterful—yet her face is one of the few in Vermeer with an utterly vapid look.

The exhibit is actually arranged not by artist or date, but by subject: figures playing music, making lace, weighing gold, drinking, getting examined by doctors, tending to their pets, writing and receiving letters, courting and being courted, looking in mirrors or standing with their backs to the viewer, contemplating the universe. Some of them are aware of being observed, want to be observed, while others are rapt in concentration. They are in elegant rooms flooded with light, or rooms seen through shadowy doorways, or nearly in the dark. I found the arrangement extremely satisfying, not merely academic, giving the viewer the chance to compare how the various artists from that same historical moment, with their homogeneous audience, approached similar subjects—subjects revealing their culture.

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632–1675), The Astronomer (1668), Oil on canvas, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632–1675), The Astronomer (1668), Oil on canvas, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

One of the subjects is science, and this show includes one of the most remarkable pairings in a display of Vermeers. In the late 1660s, Vermeer produced two pictures—surely pendants—almost the same size and each with a single male figure. In one, a geographer is looking down in thought at a map spread across his table; in the other, an astronomer is reaching out to turn a celestial globe. It’s the same man, very likely microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He was born in Delft the same year as Vermeer, and later served as Vermeer’s executor. There are no other contemporaneous portraits of him, but in an image of him from decades later he’s wearing a similar robe. Vermeer, with his interest in optics, must surely have had discussions with him. I asked Arthur Wheelock’s opinion, and he had no doubts. The Geographer is in the collection of the Städel in Frankfurt; The Astronomer is in the Louvre. I don’t think they’ve been exhibited together in my lifetime—and possibly not since Vermeer’s. (See my article about The Astronomer’s visit to the MFA Boston in New York Arts.)

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632–1675), The Geographer (1669), Oil on canvas, Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632–1675), The Geographer (1669), Oil on canvas, Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

So this was a phenomenal opportunity. The two paintings share a small temporary wall in the middle of the room and are separated only by a scintillating little Gerrit Dou painting of another astronomer. I wish they hadn’t been separated at all. The Louvre’s Astronomer is seriously in need of cleaning, while the Geographer has been restored with sparkling success. They hardly look like they were painted less than a year apart.

But they are a miraculous pair. The Astronomer is one of Vermeer’s supreme masterpieces—every angle in the painting seems to open out to the world and beyond. And the beautiful, thoughtful young men in both paintings have that classic Vermeer look of profound and selfless concentration—figures thinking beyond the self in their effort to understand the world and the cosmos. Both paintings are signed and dated (the Geographer twice!). These paintings must have had particular importance to the artist.

I’m giving shorter shrift to the National Gallery’s own Vermeers, because they will always be there (or at least, when they are not on loan elsewhere). But they are wonderful paintings. The elegant Lady Writing—is she looking up at us because we’ve just interrupted her, or because she’s pausing to find the perfect word? And another masterpiece, Woman Holding a Balance—one of Vermeer’s most beautiful and thoughtful women, and perhaps, like the lacemaker, the geographer, and the astronomer, another surrogate for Vermeer himself. She looks pregnant (no other artist from this period seems to have painted a pregnant woman; on the other hand, Vermeer had eleven children). She’s standing in front of a large painting of The Last Judgment. As opposed to Pieter de Hooch’s more mercenary Woman Weighing Coins nearby, more than gold or pearls are being weighed

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, Oil on canvas, 1670 - 1671. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, Oil on canvas, 1670 – 1671. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

There are two other Vermeers in the show, both in some ways unusual. One is the Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid, from Dublin, which was also in the National Gallery’s 1995 Vermeer show. The palette is muted and opalescent—gray and brown, pale green, black and white (the tessellated floor tiles), small patches of blue (the maid’s apron) and dark red (a table carpet). Practically the whole left half of this canvas is just a wall, a window, and curtains.

It’s also more directly narrative than most Vermeer images. A woman is hunched over her table, writing—we can barely make out the expression on her face. Some things at first a little hard to decipher are lying on the floor in front of the table. A crumpled-up piece of paper, a stick of sealing wax, and a red wax seal. Is the crumpled page a letter the lady has just read with dismay, or a bad draft of the letter she’s now re-writing? The crisp creases in her white blouse rhyme with the sharp edges of the crumpled paper, as opposed to the softer folds of the drapery. Behind her is a huge painting of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes (it’s the same painting, attributed to Peter Lely, as the one on the Astronomer’s wall, but vastly larger). And next to her, right in the middle of the painting, standing calmly on guard, is her maid, her arms folded, looking out the window with another inscrutable expression. What’s the story? But how much do we really care about the story when that room is filled with such interesting light?

Johannes Vermeer, The Love Letter, Oil on canvas, ca. 1669 - ca. 1670, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Johannes Vermeer, The Love Letter, Oil on canvas, ca. 1669 – ca. 1670, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Most of Vermeer’s paintings are serious and introspective, but he’s not completely without a sense of humor. Not the rowdy or lascivious humor of Jan Steen or the occasional satire in Dou or Frans van Mieris. I’m thinking of the absent Vermeer from the Rijksmuseum, called The Love Letter. It’s in the final room of the show at the National Gallery, on a wall with paintings that deal with looking through doorways. One of the most remarkable paintings in the show is Samuel van Hoogstraten’s View of an Interior, which is just an image of a doorway and the room behind it. The only human figure is the young woman in the painting hanging on the wall of that room (it’s a ter Borch, a painting that is also in this show). Vermeer is quite likely to have known this van Hoogstraten, which dates from the decade before his, and there are some striking similarities, including a finely painted broom leaning against a wall, a pair of house-slippers, the black and white floor tiles, and paintings on a far wall.

But in the Vermeer, we’re not just peeking into a room, we’re looking at—spying on?—people: a homely but wealthy housewife being handed a letter by her smiling maid. She’s holding a cittern (perhaps the maid has interrupted her playing), and there are pages of music lurking in the shadowy closet we’re looking through. It was once a very popular painting—as a child I had a trading card with that picture. It’s not profound, but it’s dazzling in its contrasting light and dark, and amusing in its subject matter. I was sorry to miss it in Amsterdam and delighted to see it in Washington.

Pieter de Hooch, An Interior, with a Woman drinking with Two Men, and a Maidservant, Oil on canvas, probably 1658.

Pieter de Hooch, An Interior, with a Woman drinking with Two Men, and a Maidservant, Oil on canvas, probably 1658.

Of course, there are many terrific paintings in this show not by Vermeer, and though very few share the luminosity and introspection of the Vermeers, a few do. One is certainly ter Borch’s tender image of his half-sister writing a letter, one of the gems of the Mauritshuis collection, combining the modesty and earnestness of her expression with the magnificence of her clothing. The show’s best de Hooch, Woman Drinking with Two Men, from London’s National Gallery, is one of his most spaciously architectural and light-filled interiors, encompassing tessellated floor, glowing window-panes, and wood-beamed ceiling—an interior comparable to some of Vermeer’s.

Pendants by Gabriel Metsu in the National Gallery of Ireland

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Another gem consists of a pair of two Gabriel Metsu pendants from the National Gallery of Ireland, one depicting a young man writing a letter and the other a young woman poring over perhaps that same letter, while her maid lifts a curtain covering a seascape on the wall as a little dog watches her (Wheelock pointed out that while there are many dogs in these paintings in this show, there is only one cat). The meticulously refined Metsu and ter Borch were among the most popular genre painters of their time; contemporary sales records show their paintings got among the highest prices.

In the catalogue, the pendants appear on facing pages—the young man on the left, the young woman on the right. But in the show, they’re hung in the opposite order. Arthur Wheelock was particularly pleased with this decision. On the wall above the head of the woman reading the letter is a small mirror, which reflects a fragment of the barely open window below. This makes spatial sense only if the viewer is standing to the right of the mirror, so the painting of the woman has to be on the left.

The young man is the superior half of the pendant and the more Vermeer-like—less busy, subordinating dazzling technical display (of which there is plenty) to an understated sense of character. This young man is clearly wealthy, cultured, worldly, and self-assured—well-dressed in black and white. He’s half-turned to his writing desk, his legs crossed at the ankles, shown in the act of casually but carefully choosing his words. There’s a pastoral painting in a massive gilt frame behind him. He’s sitting by a window that’s been flung open, and visible behind the panes next to him is a globe of the world. We feel tremendous affection and hope for him. And great respect for the artist.

Yet in the midst of all the artistic ferment of this brief period, one artist transcends the aims of all the others, an artist whose small and intimate images present what few of the other artists do—not only a quiet and heroic dignity and an innate, inward sense of their place in the world, but also an inner, essentially spiritual radiance that is its own form of heroism in the world, maybe even at times bordering on the tragic sense of the fragility of life. And the celebration of that transcendence is a central part of this extraordinary show.

To hear a conversation between two of the exhibit’s curators, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., from the National Gallery of Art, and Adriaan Waiboer, from the National Gallery of Ireland, click on this link.

The next big show to feature Vermeer, the largest collection of Vermeers ever to visit Asia, will be “Making the Difference: Vermeer and The Dutch Art,” at the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo, October 5, 2018-February 3, 2019, and at the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, February 10, 2019-May 15, 2019. Four paintings, including the Rijksmuseum’s The Milkmaid, have already been listed, and at least four more titles are expected to be announced in the coming months.

For the best source of information on all things Vermeer, including current and future exhibits, see the comprehensive website, Essential Vermeer:.

About Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.