Vermeer star in the Rijksmuseum

by Alain Chivilò


From 10 February to 4 June 2023, the most important exhibition dedicated to the painter Johannes Vermeer (Delft, baptized 10/31/1632 – buried 12/1675) and at the same time the most visited in history of Rijksmuseum was held in the Honor Gallery.

In continuity with the concluded event, from 7 June until 10 October 2023, six paintings by Johannes van der Meer continue to remain on display in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honor. Two loans such as “Girl with red hat” (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and “Young woman seated at the virginal” (The Leiden Collection, New York) stay on show with the four works by Jan already present in the collection: ” The Milkmaid”, “View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’”, “Woman reading a Letter” and “Love Letter”.

Back to the exhibition just ended, the museum management has decided to limit the number of visitors in order to allow greater enjoyment of the event. A serenity, an intimacy from Vermeer’s works has been transmitted to the people who have managed to plan a visit. Although access was limited, in sixteen weeks the total number was 650,000 presences representing 113 nations.

The management of the Rijksmuseum has communicated the numbers of the exhibition officially to the whole world:

• the exhibition featured 28 of the artist’s 37 works, including Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid.
• 7 paintings had never been on show in the Netherlands, including the three paintings from the Frick Collection in New York and the recently restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.
• 55% of visitors came from the Netherlands.
• Among international visitors, the top 15 nations were:
1, France 17%; 2, Germany 16%; 3, UK 16%; 4, United States 14%; 5, Belgium 14%; 6, Poland 4%; 7, Italy 3%; 8, Spain 2.3%; 9, Switzerland 1.6%; 10, Canada 1.3%; 11, Ireland 1.1%; 12, Austria 0.8%; 13, Japan 0.8%; 14, Sweden 0.7%; 15, Finland 0.6%.
• Visitors rated the exhibit with an appreciation score of 8.7. Probably for the cultural job carried out at an international level, a vote higher than 9 could have been there, but as we know it’s very difficult according to.
• The exhibition was conceived by the architect and designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
• Irma Boom designed the catalog and was responsible for all the graphics. More than 100,000 copies of Vermeer’s catalog have been sold, more than any other exhibition catalog in the history of the Rijksmuseum. Additionally, the Rijksmuseum published Vermeer. Faith, Light and Reflection by Gregor J.M. Weber. The book Miffy x Vermeer has been published for children.
• On the Closer to Vermeer website, nearly 800,000 people have been transported into the world of Vermeer narrated by Stephen Fry. The website has been awarded two Webby Awards and a Golden European Design Award.
• Two podcast episodes (in Dutch) were released, Life and Work of Vermeer and Camera Obscura and Faith; The episode on Vermeer’s life and work is the Rijksmuseum’s most listened to podcast ever (more than 27,000 downloads).
• The Rijksmuseum has also contributed to the television program De Nieuwe Vermeer (NPO1/Omroep Max).
• Two documentaries have been made on the exhibition. Director Suzanne Raes has been following preparations for the exhibition of her film Close to Vermeer and Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition has appeared in the Exhibition on Screen series.

• An audio description tour was available for blind and visually impaired visitors and guided tours were organized on 31 March during which paintings were described, objects were made available to hear and music was played on the instruments of the Vermeer paintings. Sensory evenings were held on 12 March and 3 May. A lecture in Dutch Sign Language and a closed captioning lecture for deaf and hard of hearing visitors was held on 19 March. All the velvet curtains in the preparation have a second life. Some are reused in other museums (Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort and Museum Gouda), while others are transformed by BORO*ATELIER into new products sold in the Rijksmuseum shop.

The exhibition, not only as a planetary construction, represented an opportunity to study the works, life and technique of master Jan. Among the officially communicated results:

material technical research provided a better understanding of the underpainting of the Milkmaid. It reveals that Vermeer used quick brushstrokes to establish the composition. The can and board visible in the underpainting, but not in the final painting, indicate that Vermeer continued to seek tranquility and the perfect composition during the painting process. More on this: Rijksmuseum reveals major discoveries on Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid – Rijksmuseum.

New art historical research shows the influence of the Catholic Jesuit order in Delft on Vermeer’s life and work. Vermeer also came into contact with the camera obscura, the precursor to the photographic camera, through the Jesuits. More on this: Revelatory new insights unveiled in new Vermeer biography – Rijksmuseum.

Contrary to what was previously assumed, it is revealed that Pieter Claesz van Ruijven was not alone, but explicitly together with his wife Maria de Knuijt, the most important patron of Vermeer.

The research will continue over the coming months with the following schedule: the Rijksmuseum will examine the paintings View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague), The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), Saint Praxedis (Kufu Company Inc., on loan to National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo) and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). The research on Vermeer’s paintings is conducted in collaboration with the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp and will be published in 2025, celebrating 350 years since Vermeer’s death.

As displayed, the Vermeer exhibition in his home Netherlands was winner. Only within the Rijksmuseum the atmospheres, sensations, emotions and infatuations created in visitors feel unique become ad hoc. Outside it would have been a game of style always successful but not with the same intensity. In summary, a success of a museum, the Rijksmuseum, but above all of a painter, Johannes Vermeer.


Jan Vermeer. Vermeer 2023 exhibition. Rijksmuseum


©AC, NDSL, AM, Alain Chivilo

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