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Jan Vermeer in Amsterdam: The Club of Mysterious Beauties


In the middle of last week, 150,000 tickets were already sold: the baroque painter Jan Vermeer is being honored in Amsterdam. Why are his soft counterworlds so popular today?

Enlarge image

Vermeer's »Milkmaid«, created around 1658/59: forerunner of the mindfulness pendant

Photo: Rembrandt Association / Rijksmuseum

Does Amsterdam still suffer from its own popularity?

Before the pandemic, the city complained about the many tourists, the approximately 900,000 residents were annoyed at being outnumbered.

The famous Rijksmuseum alone was visited by 2.7 million guests a year.

The queues of visitors in front of the brick building were part of the cityscape, inside it was usually so crowded that you could hardly make out any pictures because of all the people.

This phenomenon is called overtourism, and the Rijksmuseum on Museumsstraat was the symbol of it.

Of course, the people of Amsterdam still preferred the cultural tourists to the party people who came to party and didn't even book a hotel room.

Despite this, the picture galleries were sometimes uncomfortably crowded.

However, Corona then led to a calm that nobody wanted.

Now, of all things, the painter of silence marks the return to the hustle and bustle.

An exhibition of works by the Delft Baroque artist Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) begins next Friday.

And never before, according to the museum, has the demand for tickets in advance been so great.

By the middle of last week, 150,000 tickets had already been sold.

It almost sounds paradoxical when the director raves about Vermeer's art in the volume accompanying the exhibition (the German edition is published by Belser Verlag): »In a world in which so much is beating down on us, the domestic intimacy of his pictures keeps time for one for a moment.« Because in the museum they long for the fact that at least the visitors come in droves again.

That's why the website advertises superlatively for Vermeer's "greatest retrospective of all time".

Only 37 works survive

So is everything going to be as turbulent as it used to be?

Does this show of old masters mark the end of Corona for museums?

Or is it like in the concert industry, where the superstars attract a lot of audiences, but everyone else still has to struggle with a lack of demand?

Vermeer is definitely a superstar.

The show is also a sensation because it is the first comprehensive presentation of his art in almost 30 years and Amsterdam has even more works to offer than the museums in Washington and The Hague back then.

The man from Delft painted little in his short life, and some of his work has also disappeared, only 37 paintings have survived.

The people of Amsterdam have been trying to get items on loan with great success for many years and can now show 28 originals.

Many fans will have to travel a long way just for this coup.

Vermeer liked to paint interiors and especially female figures, you could say he invented the housewife or at least reinvented her for art.

In the Amsterdam show, Vermeer's wives are now visiting each other, so to speak: the "milkmaid" from the Rijksmuseum collection, the "lute player" from the New York Frick Collection, the "letter-writer in yellow" from Washington, the "guitarist" from London.

The »Young Lady with a Pearl Necklace« from Berlin joins them, and the »Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window« from Dresden.

Vermeer's now perhaps most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is borrowed from The Hague.

This is how the club of nameless and mysterious Delft beauties meets.

Because although Vermeer often showed scenes that seem ordinary at first glance, they are also quite puzzling.

Women, that much is certain, were the most important projection surface for his art.

But he does not create portraits, but creates exemplary figures.

He makes them look like real people, but they stand for a – his – higher truth.

So realistic and yet so mysterious

The curiosity of many Old Master fans for new research results should be great, for convincing answers to the question of why this artist painted the way he painted, so strikingly realistic and yet so mysterious.

Above all, the experts wanted to get closer to Vermeer as a person.

Because much of his life in Delft in the 17th century may have had an influence on his art.

There are little things like the furniture in the house (which probably also appears in the pictures), but also the major developments, the wars of that era, which were also felt in Delft.

He grew up as a child of the middle class of the time, and his real first name was Johannes.

His father Reynier Jansz was first a weaver, then an art dealer and innkeeper.

The painting son would later take over the trade.

When Jan Vermeer was 22 years old, a powder store exploded in town.

This catastrophe was called the »Delft Clap of Thunder«.

Many houses were destroyed and more than 100 people lost their lives.

Eventually, Vermeer created a soft counterworld in his art, perhaps in response to his noisy, uncertain presence.

Interestingly, even some of his legendary everyday scenes are reminiscent of devotional images.

The light, the soft colors, the atmosphere, everything is so sacred, every movement depicted as a spiritual procedure.

Even pouring milk becomes an act of devotion.

According to experts, although a baptized Protestant, he liked to impart Jesuit modesty.

This had to do with his devout wife, Catharina Bolnes, who was Catholic and whose family had close ties to the strict Jesuits.

So one could understand many a picture as a warning against the all too worldly, also against vanity, and he was never as coarse as the genre painters of his century.

On the other hand, he would certainly have wished for much more recognition for his painting than it received during his lifetime.

When France and its allies attacked the United Netherlands in 1672, Vermeer found himself in financial difficulties.

He had a large family to support.

When he died in December 1675, only 43 years old, ten children were still living in the house, but several more had been born.

He left his wife in debt, and she paid for the shortfall at the bakery with paintings.

His allegory »The Art of Painting« was auctioned against the will of the widow;

the creditors were waiting for money.

Vermeer had had his fair share of years as a painter, but when he died he was not a celebrity.

Two centuries later, he was still considered just one artist among many in Dutch history.

In any case, his pictures did not hang in the gallery of honor in the Rijksmuseum, which opened in 1885.

It only became a big name in the course of the 20th century.

The more confusing, warlike, and industrialized the times, the more in demand was his ideal pre-industrial world.

In 2003, Hollywood gave him another leap in popularity.

American actress Scarlett Johansson became »Girl with a Pearl Earring« in the film of the same name, she actually looked like she jumped out of the legendary painting, her British colleague Colin Firth was Vermeer.

20 years later, in 2023, the world is different again, and visitors to the exhibition will certainly see Vermeer in a new way. Perhaps he, the painter of concentrated calm, is for many the forerunner of the mindfulness followers or the tidying up gurus.

After all, he even painted over people or objects in his pictures so that the depictions appear emptier and more orderly.

It is possible that some want to escape the confusing present with its help – and others simply want to be there when overtourism returns.

Source: spiegel

All life articles on 2023-02-05

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