The Dutch master Johannes Vermeer himself never got the chance to see so many of his paintings in the same place.
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has brought together 28 of Vermeer’s luminous masterpieces from around the world in the largest-ever exhibition of the 17th-century artist’s works.
Curators hope the blockbuster show, featuring about three-quarters of his modest output of about 35 paintings, would also shed light on the enigmatic creator of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid.
“Never in history have 28 paintings by Vermeer been gathered,” Rijksmuseum general director Taco Dibbits said at a preview.
“He didn’t even see that many together himself,” he added.
Famed for their use of light and color and their tranquil yet haunting indoor scenes, Vermeer’s paintings practically shine from the walls of the dimmed galleries at the Rijksmuseum.
The works have been brought from museums and collections around the world, including Washington, New York, Tokyo, London, Paris and Dublin.
“It’s a very happy reunion,” Dibbits said.
Interest is so intense that the Rijksmuseum has already sold 200,000 tickets for the exhibition, which opens on Friday until June 4, the most ever for one of its shows.
Part of the appeal is the mystery surrounding the man often called the “Sphinx of Delft.”
Vermeer (1632-1675) was born into a family of Calvinist traders, but converted to Catholicism after marrying a wealthy woman with whom he had 11 children.
However, there are very few records of his life, and compared with Dutch “Golden Age” artists such as Rembrandt, his work languished in obscurity, until a reappraisal in the 19th century.
Vermeer rose to megastar status with the publication of the novel Girl With a Pearl Earring by US author Tracy Chevalier, based on the painting that has been loaned for the exhibition by the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
The book also spawned a 2003 Hollywood movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
“Wonderful, it’s wonderful,” Chevalier said after viewing the exhibition.
“I’m so glad people are going to see these paintings together and build a picture for themselves of what Vermeer was,” she said.
Most of Vermeer’s works focus on women, often caught in the midst of acts like writing a letter or playing a musical instrument, and Chevalier said he was “just presenting women in the best possible light, literally and figuratively.”
Her favorite in the exhibition — apart from Girl With a Pearl Earring, of course — was The Lacemaker, a tiny work of exquisite beauty loaned by the Louvre in Paris, she said.
Highlights also include three works from the Frick Collection in New York, the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Window from Dresden, Germany, and Woman Holding a Balance from the National Gallery in Washington.
For the curators, who say it is a “once in history” exhibition, Vermeer’s appeal is also about his creation of quiet worlds so realistic that the viewer feels they could lose themselves inside.
“We live in a world today where it’s so hectic,” Dibbits said.
“He had more than 10 children, there was a war going on outside in Europe, yet still he creates these ideal spaces where time stands still,” he said.
However, the exhibition has felt the pressures of the real, modern world, with the authenticity of one of its works — Girl with a Flute — being called into question by the gallery that loaned it.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington last year said it was likely painted by a “studio associate of Vermeer,” but the Rijksmuseum says it thinks it is authentic.
“It’s very important to have these discussions,” Dibbits said.
The magic of the master is still bewitching for staff at the Rijksmuseum.
“For me personally Vermeer is one of the greatest artists in the world,” said Gregor Weber, the Rijksmuseum’s fine arts department head and author of a recent book showing Vermeer was influenced by a pinhole camera that was first introduced to him by Jesuit priests.
“To have three-quarters of his oeuvre together here in Amsterdam under one roof is the crown of my work,” Weber said.
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