A New Look at Vermeer

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Adam Eaker, Assistant Curator, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of The Met's five Vermeers as installed in gallery 630, 1568–1648, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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.  
A Maid Asleep, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft), ca. 1656–57, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft), ca. 1662, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Allegory of the Catholic Faith, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft), ca. 1670-72, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeer, 1665/1667, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Young Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft), ca. 1662–63, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
View of The Met's five Vermeers as installed in gallery 630, 1568–1648, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

As of October 2018, four of these pictures are 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 had the rare opportunity to see all five Vermeers hung in a row on a single wall of gallery 630.

View of The Met's five Vermeers as installed in gallery 630, 1568–1648, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Before this rehang, the Vermeers hung on separate walls of the same gallery, strategically placed in dialogue with other examples of "high-life" genre painting by the artist's contemporaries. Seeing all of Vermeer'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.

View of The Met's five Vermeers as installed in gallery 630, 1568–1648, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeer, 1665/1667, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Young Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft), ca. 1662–63, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of 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.

View of Rembrandt paintings installed in Gallery 630 at The Met, 1568–1648, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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!

Take a tour of the display in gallery 630 using this 360-degree view.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credits: Story

This article was originally published on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Collection Insights" blog on June 5, 2018.

A New Look at Vermeer

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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