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The Mystery of Johannes Vermeer

As an artist, he is hailed as a master for his use of light, rich pigments and the serenity of his interior scenes; As a man, however, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is still very much a mystery.

Part of his work – about three dozen paintings – captures some of the only clues of this virtually forgotten artist of the 17th century. Today, even one of his masterpieces can be the centerpiece of a museum, making the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam extraordinary.

Twenty-eight of Vermeer’s paintings, most of his life’s work, are brought together in what co-curator Gregor Weber calls a once-in-a-lifetime show.


“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55), most of the works of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master, is on display as part of the Rijksmuseum’s once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

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Doan asked, “How long have so many Vermeers been together?”

“No, no,” he replied. “I don’t think Vermeer himself ever saw his own drawings together to such an extent.”

Weber said he dreamed of such an exhibition, and the dream came true when he heard that New York City’s Freak Collection, which owns three Vermeers, was closing for remodeling. “And if you get them, of course you can go on with all the other collections,” he said.

The Rijksmuseum already had four. Others are on loan from around the world: New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin. And what may be Vermeer’s best-known painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” traveled from Mauritius to The Hague.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664-67) Johannes Vermeer.

Moritshuis, The Hague.

Weber compared “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to the “Mona Lisa” for its captivating gaze. He inspired a book, which became a film. But his celebrity came late: “The painting was forgotten—forgotten, forgotten, forgotten, forgotten,” he said. “And it turned out to be the end of the 19th century. A man living in The Hague bought the painting for a little more than two guilders (about $40 today). It’s nothing!”

How Vermeer was almost lost to history is a story that traces back to his hometown of Delft in the Netherlands.

Art historian David de Haan notes that, during Vermeer’s lifetime, neither the artist nor his art left Delft; There was his chief patron. “It didn’t do much good for his reputation, the fact that he had little work and most of the paintings stayed in Delft,” he said. “However, they have passed into various private collections.”

Vermeer painted slowly, about two pieces a year. One of them was “Little Street.” To find the building’s location, a researcher used tax records.


Johannes Vermeer’s painting “House Scene in Delft”, also known as “The Little Street” (1658-59).

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Records of marriages and deaths are on display at the Prinsenhof Museum, where de Haan is curator. “From that, we have to piece together some insight into what his life was like,” he said. “It’s a bit of a puzzle.”

There is no known self-portrait, although some have suggested that the figure on the left in “The Procuress” may be the mysterious painter who fathered 15 children and died in 1675 aged just 43.


Detail from “The Procuress” (1656) by Johannes Vermeer.

Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden.

His widow wrote that Vermeer “was unable to sell any of his art,” “fell into such decay and degradation,” and “as if he had fallen into madness,” and died suddenly. Documents reveal that he traded Vermeer’s art for bread.

“So, the local baker had these, what, priceless artifacts?” asked Doan.

“Yes,” said De Haan. “It’s strange that you now imagine that a baker has three paintings by Vermeer? But that was the case.”


“Scene at Delft” (1660-61) by Johannes Vermeer.

Moritshuis, The Hague.

“Scenes from Delft” may have saved Vermeer from obscurity. Almost two centuries after the artist’s death, a French art critic, Théophile Thor-Berger, viewed the painting, describing it as “magnificent and most unusual”. He became obsessed with the then obscure artist and helped establish Vermeer as a master of the Dutch Golden Age.

Ige Verslype is a researcher using new technology to analyze Vermeer’s paintings. He told Doane, “Vermeer is doing things that we don’t see with other 17th-century painters—very unusual formations of paint layers, unusual use of certain pigments. So, he’s really experimenting in his paintings, and that’s what amazes me.”


Art experts use modern technology to analyze the 17th-century artist’s work – here, his “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (1662-64).

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Some works so precious, and never so many in one place, the show sold out in two days. The exhibition runs only until June. Not surprisingly, other museums want their Vermeers back.

“Where does Vermeer sit in the pantheon of great painters?” asked Doane.

Weber replied, “It depends on your artistic sensibilities. For me? Over the top.”

For more information:

Produced story by Michael Bufano. Editor: Joseph Frandino.

See more:

From 1996: A landmark Vermeer exhibition


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