In 1995, the National Gallery of Art opened an exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer that attracted enormous crowds. Lines stretched around the block and people set up camp on the sidewalk in hopes of snagging timed-entry tickets. Despite two government shutdowns and a major blizzard, about 300,000 people came to see the gathering of 21 of the 35 extant works by the beloved Dutch painter.
The National Gallery's new "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting," organized in conjunction with the National Gallery of Ireland and the Louvre in Paris, is not a reprise of that exhibition. Instead, the curators have gathered about 65 works by contemporaries of Vermeer, all of whom were working from 1650 to 1675, one of the most exciting periods of the golden age of Dutch painting. The show includes 10 works by Vermeer, along with those of Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu and Frans van Mieris, among others.
It serves as a capstone on an extraordinary run of monographic shows devoted to individual Dutch painters in the years since the famous Vermeer blowout of 1995. Under the guidance of Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the gallery's curator of northern baroque paintings, the gallery has surveyed painters who worked in the vibrant art business along and in competition with Vermeer, including ter Borch, who invented ideas Vermeer borrowed, Metsu, who rivaled him at the brilliance of rendering everyday life, and van Mieris, whose exceptionally refined and detailed work occasionally surpassed that of Vermeer in its concentrated power and vision.
The goal isn't to reaffirm or question the public's sense that Vermeer was the greatest painter of his age. Rather, the exhibition lays out a web of connections, between the works on view and the artists who made them, as they invented what was then unprecedented new subject matter: the elegant side of everyday existence. Artists had painted peasants in their revels and beautiful women in their baths. But when painters such as ter Borch turned to contemporary (rather than mythological or historical) figures in refined but recognizably quotidian pastimes — writing letters, washing hands, fussing over a pet, seeing a doctor — they were asserting something just a bit arrogant: that their own world was ready for the same glamorous spotlight that religious and historical painting had turned on the grand characters of the spiritual and political past.
The exhibition is full of twists. Perhaps most surprising is how a relative paucity of subject matter inspired a profusion of imitations, variations and adaptations. These painters didn't turn a camera on the domestic world to gather up its infinite riches and variety. Rather, they turned time and again to certain stock scenes, varying the details, adding new figures, overlaying new ideas on the foreground, or cluttering up the backgrounds with curious interlopers. Often, what we think of as Vermeer's distinctive vision was a minimalist distillation of a scene that others had filled with more matter and incident. When other painters depicted a woman dressing in the company of her maidservant, Vermeer preferred a solitary scene; and even his most solitary scenes are often thinned out and sparse, as if the detail and context has dissolved in watery light.
The paintings are organized thematically, and clustered to show affinities. Four paintings look at an idea that seems to have originated with ter Borch, a solitary woman writing a letter. His image shows a young woman with a blue ribbon in her hair writing on a lightly folded piece of paper. A rug is bunched up on the left side of the table and an ink stand has caught a glint of light. The model was probably the painter's half-sister, Gesina, who was an accomplished woman but is depicted as delicate, modest, earnest and quietly engaged in what is likely a love letter. Behind her, the thick draperies of a bed can be seen.
Variations on the basic elements of this scene occur in nearby paintings by Metsu, van Mieris and Vermeer, all of whom add one key element: Unlike ter Borch's fully absorbed young woman, the women they depict addresses the viewer directly. Metsu's elegant lady, dressed in a sumptuous fur-lined coat, smiles with the confidence of a seasoned socialite, while van Mieris's figure is seen in candlelight, perturbed perhaps, either by the intrusion of the viewer, or the intimations of mortality that haunt her thoughts. And what of Vermeer?
In this painting, and others, the figure seems slightly vacant. We can't be sure of what she is thinking, and the soft fuzziness of the image suggests a soft fuzziness to her thoughts. There is melancholy and intelligence in the finely painted woman of van Mieris, and great esprit in the figure of Metsu. But Vermeer's woman seems more connected to the world we know, precisely because she is vague and isolated and perhaps lost in a mental lapse, a momentary sense of not knowing what time it is, or to whom she is writing or what's next on the day's agenda.
Reflexively, we tend to think of Vermeer's world as more real than that of other painters, but what emerges from this exhibition is that Vermeer's world is just as contrived as those created by his contemporaries. It may eschew the dramatic chiaroscuro of van Mieris's letter writer or Dou's 1665 "Astronomer by Candlelight," or the heightened theatricality or sentimentality one finds in Jan Steen or Pieter de Hooch. But seen in succession with other Vermeers, and in contrast to the product of other artists, paintings such as Vermeer's "Woman With a Pearl Necklace," "The Astronomer" and "The Geographer," begin almost to cloy. The same light through the same window achieves the same miracle, which is to make us crave our own dissolution into this perfect existential moment.
It's a magnificent accomplishment, but it wasn't flawlessly executed every time. In a grouping of paintings that show "doorkijkjes," or "through views" that give the viewer access to an interior space through a shadowed door in the foreground, Samuel van Hoogstraten plays Vermeer's cards better than Vermeer. His space feels more spare and remote, and although he makes reference to a famous painting by ter Borch, he clears his interior of people. Vermeer's "The Love Letter," which depicts a similar space, also includes a little dramatic episode. A woman who has been practicing her music seems surprised by a letter, and that surprise allows time and specificity to flood into the picture. The artist has cluttered up his canvas with the suggestion of actual consciousness and engagement, and the conjurer's trick falls flat.
Without comparison to the works nearby, the failure might not be so obvious. But after viewing the rest of this endlessly absorbing exhibition, you understand the risk the artist took, and why it was almost certain to misfire. Vermeer has gathered together multiple tropes — woman with a stringed instrument, woman reading a love letter, and the doorkijkje view into an interior space. There were at least three balls in the air, and the juggler couldn't quite pull it off. The lute suggests self-absorption, the letter suggests longing, the maid standing nearby suggests surprise and the physical space suggests the usual luminescent cocoon of Vermeer's best interiors. There is too much to resolve.
It's a relief to see Vermeer fumble something. It punctures what was always a rather distracting and silly idea: that he was somehow more perfect and true to life than other painters. But the pleasure here isn't in pulling Vermeer down to a more manageable sense of genius. Rather, it is the depth of insight we receive into his contemporaries, who aimed at different things and achieved them perhaps as often as Vermeer finessed his particular ambitions. The gift of "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting" is to receive all the rest of Dutch painting in its fullness.
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 21. For more information, visit nga.gov.