In early February of 1996, on the last weekend before it was to close, I went to see the exhibition of Johannes Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Twenty-one canvases, approximately two-thirds of all the known Vermeers in the world, had been assembled—the first time since 1696 that so many of the Dutch master’s works had been seen in one place at one time. Since its opening the previous November, more than 300,000 people had descended upon the exhibition, despite one major setback after another. Budget fights in 1995 had led to two government shutdowns and the shuttering of institutions such as the National Gallery. Then came the blizzard of ’96, and the two feet of snow that paralyzed the region. When the gallery finally reopened, a frenzied mentality set in, with lines forming as early as five A.M. and patrons waiting four or five hours to receive the 2,500 free tickets handed out each day.
A friend of mine wanted to see the paintings, too, and with the temperature barely above zero, we set off in a taxi, arriving shortly before six in the morning. There we found a line of hardy souls, bundled up in parkas and scarves, already stretching from the gallery’s entrance down Constitution Avenue, nearly around the block. We took our spots in line, and began an agonizing wait. We did what we could to keep warm, moving around, jumping in place, rubbing our hands. And when the cold became truly intolerable, my friend and I took turns holding our place in line, allowing each of us the chance to sprint to a nearby coffee shop, for a few warm minutes of respite.
Despite it all, there was much conviviality in line. Strangers chatted, others sang. Many had traveled from far away, and the atmosphere was a strange mix of block party and religious pilgrimage. Only when a rumor began spreading that Vice President Al Gore was inside getting a private tour did a serious grumble break out in the crowd. Nobody knew whether it was true, but populist nerves were raw in those days—much had been made of the gallery’s unmarked courtesy desk, where preapproved celebrities, dignitaries, federal officials, and wealthy donors, among others, could receive courtesy passes to the exhibit without having to stand in line. Not long before, on a similarly frigid day, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming had cruised to the front of the line, trading barbs with the disgruntled masses en route, and proceeded into the gallery unrepentant, later to emerge from the exhibition beaming: “I have surfeited and glutted myself with Vermeer, and I will go back again!”
After 10 o’clock, the doors finally opened, and by the time we made it to the front of the line, shivering before the imposing marble columns of the gallery’s neoclassical façade, most of the crowd’s energy had dissipated. All of us wanted only to head inside, collect our tickets, and warm up. We were the fortunate ones. In just one hour, all of the day’s tickets had been distributed—hundreds of people would go home empty-handed.
We filed up the stairs, through the rotunda, into one of the light-filled garden courts, and, after one more line, into the special exhibition hall. A considerable crowd had amassed, and once inside, the crush of people made viewing the paintings difficult at best. There, spread out in five rooms, were the images I had known so well from books: the blue-robed geographer surrounded by his maps and books and globe, frozen in a moment of pensive inquiry; the girl with a pearl earring, her turban and dress as beguiling as her jewel-like lips and porcelain skin; the young woman with her water pitcher, bathed in an alluring, intoxicating light; the exquisite view of Delft, the cityscape as prominent as the great sky above, filled with sunlight and ominous clouds … And yet, it was impossible to gaze upon those pictures, to study, to ponder, to consider all that Vermeer had managed to accomplish in canvases so small. Details were hard enough to see; considering the larger questions of light and color, perspective and composition, allegory and symbolism was all but impossible. There were simply too many people. Crowds formed around every canvas, jostling for position. Just when I would find myself in front of a painting, heads would dart in and out of my sightline. Not that I had expected the reverential air of a cathedral, but this was a noisy scene of barely restrained chaos. Unable to really engage with any one painting, we were swept along, painting after painting, room upon room. It was like taking the Vermeer express tour. In just half an hour, we were out the doors and soon back in the rotunda, full of frustration and regret.
It was the era of the blockbuster art show. The Vermeer exhibition had been preceded by a major Claude Monet retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago and was followed by an equally significant Paul Cézanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hundreds of thousands of visitors spent hundreds of millions of dollars—a boon to local economies. These were national, even international, extravaganzas, living up to the quip of the art historian Albert Elsen, who once defined the art blockbuster as “a large-scale loan exhibition which people who normally don’t go to museums will stand in line for hours to see.”
The first megashow of this kind was “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which opened in London in 1972 before embarking on a world tour. Over the next few decades, museum directors, even those with stewardship over impressive permanent collections, began to realize that blockbusters bestowed upon their institutions considerable prestige, to say nothing of the massive amounts of revenue. From the visitor’s perspective, seeing an artist’s works assembled in one place had a particular appeal—how better to understand the scope of an artist’s development over the course of a lifetime? And to be confronted with 20 Vermeers or 160 Monets or 170 Cézannes all at once would theoretically make for a powerful experience.
It wasn’t the concept of the blockbuster that I had found troubling 20 years ago, but the idea of making Vermeer the subject of such a show. Few artists seem more unsuited to a hurried and harried viewing experience. One must shut out the noise of the wider world to enter the mysterious worlds portrayed in his small canvases. Consisting of no more than a few figures, but typically showing just a solitary woman engaged in some domestic activity, these pictures are as tranquil as still lifes. A young woman pouring milk from a jug, reading a letter, holding a pitcher of water, making lace, or gazing into a mirror—Vermeer imbues these everyday rituals, by virtue of his mastery of color and the expressive possibilities of light, with great feeling and poetry. They are intimate, quiet scenes, and almost all of them are enigmatic in some way—to puzzle out their mysteries requires time and attention. In Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, for example, the questions come almost at once. Why are the woman’s pearls laid out on the table, partially covered by a sheet of paper? What does her letter say? What causes her to adopt that curious pose, lips parted, head tilted ever so slightly? Has the letter been sent by a lover, someone at sea perhaps, as suggested by the map of the Dutch states of Holland and West Friesland hanging behind her? Most compelling of all: Is the woman pregnant, as Vincent van Gogh had suggested in 1888? Or is her bulbous blue jacket simply typical of the oversized clothing worn by Dutch women in the 17th century, a time when pregnancy would not have been depicted in art? Nothing about this canvas—or Vermeer’s other paintings, for that matter—is easy or clear.
All great works of art demand careful study, but with Vermeer, the viewer plays a crucial role. When looking at The Love Letter—in which a maid interrupts her lady’s music practice with the delivery of a letter—we may feel like an intruder, as if we have happened upon a scene we are not meant to see. Vermeer depicts a moment fraught with nervous tension; to look at the picture is almost uncomfortable. Elsewhere, Vermeer seems to invite us inside, parting a curtain in the foreground of a painting or having a figure smile coyly at us. Either way, we enter the story. We cannot hurry past such paintings. We need time to inhabit them. We need space and quiet. Ideally, we need solitude.
To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the exhibition of 1995–96, the National Gallery recently borrowed Woman in Blue Reading a Letter from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and on a pleasant Wednesday morning in October, I went to see it. The gallery was quiet that day—a few tour groups and schoolchildren on class trips. Not far from a large room of Rembrandts, in the small, nondescript Gallery 50A, I found the Woman in Blue, in the company of four other Vermeers from the gallery’s permanent collection (Girl with the Red Hat, Girl with a Flute, Woman Holding a Balance, and A Lady Writing), as well as several other Dutch paintings.
How different this experience was from that of two decades before. A few people flitted in and out of the room, and I heard the occasional subdued conversation, but I was able to study the paintings at my leisure, without interruption. Standing before the Woman in Blue, I took in details that I had missed before: the brass nails on the empty chairs; the luminous pearls on the table; the interplay of light and shadow, with the left side of the room bathed in soft, gentle light; the depiction of ships on the map on the wall; the woman’s delicate, lovely face; the curls of her hair. The longer I looked at the painting, the more I was drawn into her world—I began to feel as if I were the one who had just delivered that fateful letter into her hands, causing her lips to part as she was overcome by … what? Surprise? Expectation? Unease? Something magical seemed to be happening as I gazed upon the languid hue of the woman’s jacket, what Van Gogh had called a “celestial blue”—created by grinding pieces of Afghan lapis lazuli and mixing the powder with oil. I would stare at the canvas, and the blues appeared richer, more calming, just as the reds in Girl with the Red Hat seemed to sharpen and intensify the longer I looked at them. In the peace and quiet of Gallery 50A, stories began to take shape in my mind. Questions led to further questions; answers floated up and fell away—the paintings do not yield up their secrets easily. I must have remained there for about an hour, and after leaving the room initially, I turned around and returned for another 10 minutes or so. One of the guards gave me a knowing smile. I had surfeited myself on Vermeer. Far away from the chaos of the blockbuster, my imagination was aflame.
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