Vermeer: The Mystery of His Mastery, Revealed? [VIDEO]

By Michael KurcfeldMay 20, 2023

Vermeer: The Mystery of His Mastery, Revealed? [VIDEO]
FOR ANYONE who has ever stood in front of a painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), the exhibition of his work mounted by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is something of a miracle. Featuring 28 of the 37 works attributed to him (35 for certain) on view, this biggest-ever array of the Dutch master’s transcendent art was gathered by virtue of the never-to-be-repeated cooperation of lending institutions that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Mauritshuis in The Hague—13 lenders in all. Apparently, none but a few holdouts could resist the idea of such an expansive celebration of the artist’s genius in the country in which he staked his incandescent claim on art history.

This mighty coalition has enabled a quantum advance in scholarly and scientific research that has made the elusive mystery of Vermeer’s technique far more transparent—revealing what an actual marvel of trial-and-error invention his oeuvre required in order to be realized. It also pulled back the veil on the extent to which Vermeer, a Protestant who married into a Catholic family, was actually influenced by his pious Jesuit neighbors. Despite the fact that we still don’t know much about his appearance, though there are theories about some of the male figures in his paintings, Vermeer the man has gotten a lot closer to being understood. We have a clearer picture, for instance, of his financial struggles after several nations, including France and England, made war with Holland in 1672, severely impacting the local economy to the point that he was no longer able to sell his paintings to support his enormous family. The pressure finally killed him three years later, at age 43, and left his widow deep in debt.

The exhibition’s limited run (sold out in the first week of being announced) has allowed fortunate early-bird ticket holders to absorb, in the flesh, the mostly small-scale intimate domestic scenes that have made Vermeer universally revered, in exhibitions that have appeared in all corners of the globe. And not only in our era: French collectors descended upon le peintre célèbre in his upstairs atelier in Delft as his renown grew. But his primary collector was recently discovered to have been a wealthy local woman (and not her husband), Maria de Knuijt, who had known the artist since he was a child, supported his craft, and ended up with at least 18 of his works. Imagine the spiritual felicity of living with 18 Vermeers, gazing upon them at one’s leisure. It is believed that her interest in more personal portrait subjects is what impelled Vermeer to turn away from Christian and mythological sources toward the intimate, outwardly secular renderings of well-heeled women for which he has become famous.

It’s all about the light, of course. “Light is color and color is light,” affirms one curator. Vermeer’s preternatural observational prowess allowed him to decipher exactly how natural light plays across the planes and textures we all barely notice in real life. Yet when captured in paint, absorbed by the incredulous eye, illumination becomes a magic act that never ends. The tiny but resonant dramas that Vermeer created continue to astonish even our jaded 21st-century senses, and there is no mystery as to why painters, photographers, and filmmakers perpetually seek out these images for inspiration. For photographers and figurative painters in particular, Vermeer’s knack for composition is a deep reservoir—cropping just so, placing subjects and objects just so, adding textures just so, with a canny embrace of perspective. And for filmmakers, the art of constructing scenes of human moment that are pregnant with layers of veiled meaning is likewise grasped with gratitude.

In room after room, one sees scenes of such studied tranquility that it comes as a surprise to learn that Vermeer’s household was a teeming asylum, with some 11 children, a wife, and servants. It is easy to understand how his meticulous work became a refuge of calm meditation, and for those of us who peer into these chambers of the artist’s mind, it allows entry to a time and place that no other art has come close to depicting with such vivid, granular realism.

The Rijksmuseum has done a wonderful job of organizing the works into themes, with insightful accompanying wall texts, such as “Early Ambitions,” “Letters from the Outside World” and “Gentlemen Callers.” In “Reflecting on Vanity and Faith,” for example, Vermeer focuses on women standing next to tables laden with symbolically endowed objects. In Woman Holding a Balance, “a lady stands at a table with precious jewels. She holds a pair of scales to determine their monetary value. Hanging behind her is a painting of the ‘Last Judgment’ from the Bible, making it clear that one day she too will be ‘weighed,’ that is, judged.” Vermeer’s impulse to layer in the moral values of his era is visible throughout his oeuvre.

By today’s measure, Vermeer inhabited a tightly circumscribed and quite unegalitarian social sphere, much of which appears overtly or by intimation in the calculated detail of his pictures. What transcends all of this, one hopes, is the universal psychology—if there is such a thing—of men and women dressing in finery, playing music, reading and writing letters, suspended in reverie … connecting to each other, to themselves, and to the divine.

The technical wizards of the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, using state-of-the-art devices that can analyze chemical composition and distinguish underlayers abandoned as unworthy by the artist, have discovered a catalog of pigments and their sources—in one case, a lapis lazuli so precious that a patron must have subsidized Vermeer to acquire it—as well as early detours and undoings that shed much light on his evolving technique. It all reveals a perfectionist so driven to probe the subtle laws of perception that curators are still debating perhaps the most fascinating conundrum of all: did Vermeer make use of a camera obscura, and if so, to what extent? Even David Hockney has jumped into the fray, convinced that Vermeer must have used the device to achieve what he did. It is almost certain that Vermeer was exposed to its optical revelations via his Jesuit neighbors, as the Jesuits were apparently smitten with the camera obscura as a way to more clearly “see” and worship God’s creation.

To most contemporary eyes, if the diverse crowds that are currently huddled around the works displayed at the Rijksmuseum are any proof, Vermeer’s intimate tableaux, at some point pleasurably inscrutable, have the power to transport one in ways that seem timeless, and which make happy voyeurs of those who can gaze at the paintings without simply snapping photos of them and moving on. By witnessing the work of a man who patiently taught himself to see, maybe it is possible for the restless modern mind to slow itself down enough to start seeing in a more penetrating manner. If Vermeer possesses a superpower, it is the ability to suspend time—his subjects’ time and our time—in the prism of a single imagined room, in the modest frame of a painted canvas.

VERMEER, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is on view through June 4, 2023.


Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist, originally from the print world, but since 1990 working in electronic media. He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist, originally from the print world, but since 1990 working in electronic media. Since founding Stonehenge Media, he has produced film and arts coverage for,, Huffington Post, PBS, Bravo, Yahoo Movies, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, and He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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