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Scots National Galleries Displays Early Works Together for First Time in “The Young Vermeer”

With only 37 works in existence, it’s hard to find a Vermeer, let alone three of them, in any one place. Only five museums can boast that—the Frick (3), the Met (5), the Mauritshuis (3), the Rijksmuseum (4), and the National Gallery of Art in D.C. (4). By the way, in case you weren’t counting, that makes New York City the best town for Vermeers with eight examples and the U.S.A. the best country overall with a whopping 12 out of 37 known works (go us). But for a brief time later this year, The National Galleries of Scotland will be joining that exclusive list of museums when it puts together three early works of the Dutch artist that have never been displayed together before in their “The Young Vermeer” exhibition.

Johannes Vermeer is best known for his beguiling faux-realism—a combination of groundbreaking work with perspective, form, and color and a yet-unmatched facility with light and shadow. His paintings, made from the early 1650s till his death in 1675, are not strictly realistic, but offer a hyperreal vision of the magic of light dancing through windows, across a woman’s face, or over local landmarks. But these three early works show another Vermeer, one going through the early growing pains as a young artist. Already home in Scotland’s National Gallery Complex, his “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (1655) seems dark and muddled compared to later works—more chiaroscuro than playfully bright. As well, it’s an example of pro forma religious iconography, typical for the time, but not for later Vermeer who specialized in capturing life straight out of Delft and not the Bible. “Diana and her Companions” (c. 1653-54), which will be on loan from the Mauritshuis, also dwells on a favorite subject of painters from the past, antiquity, but shows some of the real-world quiet moments that would become the painter’s stock in trade. Finally, “The Procuress”, Vermeer (1656), which will be visiting from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden is another odd bird in the Vermeer cannon. Almost as dark as a Caravaggio and just as baudy in content, “The Procuress” captures drinkers (one of whom is clearly the artist) and either a hostess or madame (your choice) in full, rude motion. Neither is typical for Vermeer, a converted Catholic and, from what we gather, a bit of a control freak whose models use simple, steady poses. Together for the first time since they left Vermeer’s studio, the three works offer a glimpse of the artist we know growing out of a young painter we don’t. What exactly clicked in Vermeer’s head to vault him beyond these early efforts we may never know. But here we get to see him toying with possibilities that, in the end, gave way to a unique genius.
To experience Vermeer’s works through a tour of his home town of Delft, pre-order a copy of “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters”
“The Young Vermeer”
December 10, 2010 to March 13, 2011
The National Galleries of Scotland
National Gallery Complex
The Mound, Edinburgh, Scotland
+44 131-624-6200
Top—Detail of “Diana and her Companions”, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1653-54, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, Gravenhage, Netherlands
Bottom (left to right)—”Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, Vermeer, 1655, courtesy of The National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, “The Procuress”, Vermeer, 1656, courtesy of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.

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