Widely acknowledged as “the retrospective of the century,” the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, from February 10 to June 4, 2023, gave an insight into how strong an artist’s impact on our society can still be. In the Netherlands, Vermeer is a painter who can attract masses on a par with Leonardo in Italy. The media coverage of the event meant that the public response – more than 650,000 visitors – exceeded the ability of this public museum to cope, forcing it to completely change its usual arrangements.
It required considerable effort to find the humble painter from Delft behind a commercial event that was also a geopolitical operation, since heads of state visited the exhibition. Other aspects of the initiative reached historic highs. These included the cost of insurance policies, as assembling and displaying this invaluable heritage brought unprecedented risks.
If galleries are increasingly aware that, in order to enhance a work of art, it is necessary to highlight the artistic ambience that constitutes it, the Amsterdam exhibition, which simply presented 28 paintings by Vermeer, would seem somewhat lacking. However, we cannot but praise the organizers who allowed the general public to see Vermeer’s uniqueness. His paintings “are too perfect for the scenes depicted to be anything but a starting point. With him, the very distinction between history painting and everyday painting, portrait, landscape and still life, loses all importance. The intention of these paintings is neither psychological nor moral. It is not bound to the world of human relations; it is pictorial,” as Tzvetan Todorov remarked. Moreover, the exhibition was carefully prepared as a scholarly study. There was a need for a systematic return to art historian John Michael Montias’ analysis from the 1980s, which has influenced all subsequent studies of the painter.