This, as we already probably know by now, is Vermeer month. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is mounting the first major exhibition of the Dutch artist and their advance ticket sales have far outstripped any previous show. So, it’s a big deal. But it’s not just the Rijksmuseum. The Mauritshuis in The Hague is presenting a complementary show on Jacobus Vrel, a contemporary of Vermeer whose subject matter was often very similar.
The Museum Prinsenhof, in Vermeer’s home town of Delft, has, of course, its own important contribution to make.
There are only thirty six or thirty seven Vermeer paintings (the experts can’t agree) so we are all familiar with most of them – sadly none of them can be seen here, they are all in Amsterdam. What the Prinsenhof exhibition aims to show us is the artist’s background, his environment, his contemporaries and his friends, family and local trades-people. We meet his mother-in-law, his notary, Willem de Langue, of whom there is a fine 1626 portrait by Willem van der Vliet, and we meet the baker to whom Vermeer owed in excess of six hundred guilders, equivalent to three year’s worth of bread for his whole family, and who finally took two paintings in lieu of cash. We also learn about St Luke’s Guild, the association of artists and craftsmen that was central to the artistic life of the city. The Guild’s old building now houses the Vermeer Centre.
This nicely laid out exhibition, curated by David de Haan, has brought together over one hundred objects to give us a more complete insight into the life and times of one of Holland’s greatest seventeenth century artists.
It must be a constant source of disappointment and chagrin to the citizens of Delft that not one single Vermeer painting lives in his home town. However, the city has a wealth of archive material, paintings and engravings by contemporaries, pottery and lots more besides that almost makes up for it. This exhibition contains many pictures of Delft – its churches, houses and views which really give us a feel of what life must have been like then. There is a painting of the greatest disaster to ever hit the town – the explosion of the gunpowder store on 12th October 1654. The blast destroyed huge swathes of the city and could be heard as far away as the island of Texel, eighty kilometers away. Although Vermeer and his family were not hurt another important Delft artist, Carel Fabritius, famous for his painting The Goldfinch, lived nearby and was killed.
So, with or without going to the Rijksmuseum exhibition, the Prinsenhof show is a must see. There is a fine catalogue available in English and an audio guided tour, also in English, so there is no excuse for not studying and enjoying all of the fascinating pictures, documents and artifacts on show. Michael Hasted 6th February 2023
Photo by and © Michael Hasted 2023
Vermeer’s Delft runs at the Museum Prinsenhof until 4th June
Click here for Wendy Fossen’s review of Jacob Vrel
Click here for Wendy Fossen’s review of Vermeer at Rijksmuseum