The Milkmaid, the Maid, and the Rijksmuseum: Overdosed on a Light, Luminous Moment of Middle-Class Life
Art historians doubt the authenticity of two paintings by Vermeer held in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They were the only paintings among his authenticated works that were completed on wooden panels.
So while the museum was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, its curators, conservators and scientists used powerful new technology to look beneath the paintings and try to figure out exactly whose hand was responsible.
Standing in front of “The Milkmaid,” Rijksmuseum conservator Anna Krekeler explains what emerged from the scans, not least the objects Vermeer overpainted: a rack of hanging jugs behind his subject’s head and a large fire basket for drying clothes on the floor. He painted them out to simplify the image. His focus is purely on the maid and that jug of milk she pours for eternity, here and on countless fridge magnets.
We’ve known for a long time that Vermeer is a painter of light and Luminous moments of 17th-century Dutch middle-class life. He captures arresting scenes of women reading, a housemaid pouring milk, and a young girl wearing a pearl earring.
Yet, we don’t have many to enjoy. One picture at best five in any single museum is what the normal Vermeer experience will look like. The Rijksmuseum’s show is an altogether different, almost hallucinogenic experience. We depart overwhelmed, having seemingly overdosed on Vermeer — “Vermeered,” you could say.
Scholars disagree about exactly how many paintings Vermeer left behind. The National Gallery in Washington is now put at 34 by the Rijksmuseum. Whichever it is, having 28 of them in one place is unprecedented. Advance ticket sales for the blockbuster exhibition, which opens Friday, have already exceeded 200,000.
Dibbits says it’s exciting. I have a dream about having all the paintings together. Having 28 here is something we never thought possible.”
Even this number is subject to debate. “Girl with a Flute” isn’t the work of the master, but of an unnamed follower, according to the National Gallery. The painting is in the hands of the Rijksmuseum, but it does not agree with the re-attribution. When “Girl with a Flute” flew across the Atlantic it became just another example of a work by Johannes Vermeer, according to the head of paintings and sculpture at the Rijksmuseum.
We walk around the exhibition. His words stream out and his passion is palpable. Every time Weber looks at a Vermeer, he seems to spot something new, he says, smiling.
The conventional wisdom is that Vermeer took his time — perhaps no more than two or three pictures a year, across two decades of painting. New research suggests that he could be very quick with his strokes, attacking the canvas with sketches and underpaint.
Verslype and his ” Woman in Blue reading a Letter”: 10 years of work in the lab and a lifetime of art by Vermeer
Verslype restored ” Woman in Blue reading a Letter” 10 years ago. It’s been in the lab for three weeks. Again, there have been revelations.
“It has a very subtle look and feel to it,” Verslype said of the painting. The greenish and brownish first layer he built it up with was Ultramarine, a blue color that was used in every layer from the chair to the walls.
Ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli, was the era’s most expensive pigment used. The regular use of it by the painter suggests that his career must have been successful. He was forgotten after his death. His work was rediscovered by a French art critic almost two centuries later.
Now, the auction record for a Vermeer stands at $30 million, the sum fetched by “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals” at Sotheby’s in 2004. Most Vermeer enthusiasts agree is that it was a good but not a great work. Steve Wynn bought it and later sold it. Its current owner has lent to the Rijksmuseum show. It’s anybody’s guess what a great Vermeer would fetch at an auction in the $100 million or more range.
Despite the help from experts, we still don’t know a lot about this painter and his life. Born an innkeeper’s son in the city of Delft in the Dutch Republic in 1632, he died there penniless in 1675, aged just 43. He left a wife and 11 children, with another four children having pre-deceased him.
He thinks he fainted a little. “This artist with such glowing light. I was surprised. And since then? “I’ve been busy with Vermeer. A lifetime He replies. At 18, Weber made a camera obscura, or a pinhole camera, to see if Vermeer had used one.
Standing in front of the tiniest of paintings, “The Lacemaker’ (measuring 9.5 inches by 8.25), the curator explains how Vermeer saw things differently from his contemporaries — and how he understood the viewer’s gaze. Vermeer obviously centered his image on the lacemaker and the expression of intense concentration on her face as she works the fabric with her hands. There are red and white lace threads in the foreground. They are abstract, “like melting wax,” says Weber.
There are so many paintings you can’t take in one visit. The experience has to be slowly absorbed, reflected on and then repeated. The Vermeers need to be seen again.