A New Look at Vermeer
By most counts, only thirty-four paintings by Johannes Vermeer survive in the entire world. Of these, five are at The Met, more than at any other museum. The ongoing renovation of the skylights in The Met's European Paintings galleries has necessitated putting many works in storage and placing those that remain on view in condensed installations. From the start of the project, we have been committed to keeping our Vermeers—among the most beloved works in the entire Museum—on public view for the duration of the renovation. In October 2018, four of these pictures will be featured in the exhibition In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met (the fifth, Young Woman with a Lute heads to an exhibition in Japan). This summer, however, visitors have the rare opportunity to see all five Vermeers hung in a row on a single wall of gallery 630.
In the previous display, the Vermeers hung on separate walls of the same gallery, strategically placed in dialogue with other examples of "high-life" genre painting by Vermeer's contemporaries. Seeing all of the artist's paintings on a single wall has been a revelation even for those of us who are very familiar with the collection.
These five works represent every stage of Vermeer's career and document his evolution as he gained confidence in the depiction of pictorial space—moving from Maid Asleep, where the figure is anchored in place by the table that juts out of the lower left-hand corner, to the mid-career compositions Young Woman with a Lute and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, where chairs and tables are set further back from the foreground, offering a bridge into the painting. Finally, in the grandiose Allegory of the Catholic Faith, painted close to the end of the artist's life, Vermeer expands his composition to take in more of the room, placing a full-length figure within the perspectival grid of a checkerboard floor.
The Met's five pictures reveal not only Vermeer's growth as a painter, but also the spectrum of his subject matter. They range from the observation of a single intriguing face, or tronie, in his Study of a Young Woman, to the elaborate symbolism of Allegory of the Catholic Faith, a picture that documents how in touch Vermeer was with the mainstream of Italian and Flemish Baroque art. Recurrent motifs, such as the maps of Europe that appear in in the backgrounds of both Young Woman with a Lute and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, also become apparent when the paintings are viewed in a single row.
In this gallery, Vermeer's five paintings now "face off" with three of The Met's other great Dutch masterpieces: Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, which is flanked by his Man with a Magnifying Glass and its pendant, Woman with a Pink. The latter two pictures are normally displayed with other works from the seminal 1913 bequest of Benjamin Altman, but when arranged as a triptych with Aristotle, they attest to the extraordinary achievement of Rembrandt's late style and its ample representation in The Met's collection. As viewers turn from one wall of masterpieces to another, they may come to understand why Simon Schama titled his famous history of Golden Age Dutch culture The Embarrassment of Riches!
This article was updated on July 5, 2018, to clarify the presence of a map in Young Woman with a Lute and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher as a recurrent motif, not a recurrent prop.
View the web feature Met Masterpieces in a New Light for more information about the Skylights Project and explore ways to engage with the Department of European Paintings' collection online.
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