WASHINGTON — Around 1656 or 1657, the young Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer decided to give up history painting. Rather than depict biblical and mythological scenes as moral guideposts, a category of painting then held in the highest esteem in artistic circles, he decided to concentrate instead on more intimate scenes of contemporary life in Delft, the picturesque town where he lived his entire life. It's lucky for us that he did, for during the next 20 years Vermeer made unprecedented paintings that galvanize viewers, even to this day.
In making the switch, Vermeer accomplished a remarkable feat. Through an extraordinary technique of expressive formal perspective bathed in an inexplicable light, modest images of ordinary middle-class experience were infused with the imposing gravity and monumental seriousness hitherto reserved for history painting. His pictures captivate in part because they give value to the mundane--namely, you and me and the utterly ordinary things we do--endowing it all with quiet grandeur.
What had prompted Vermeer to make such a decisive change in the direction of his art? Nobody knows. In fact, question after question about his career linger unanswered. Less is known about Vermeer's life and circumstances than about perhaps any other great artist of the established Western canon.
Even seeing his work has been a problem. Never has there been a retrospective exhibition of Vermeer's paintings. Few exist--just 35 are known--and so highly prized are they that their owners (mostly museums) are loathe to let them out of their sight. The last time a significant group of Vermeers was seen together in one place was on May 16, 1696, at the Amsterdam auction of the collection inherited by Jacob Dissius, whose father-in-law, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, had been the artist's principal patron.
All of which conspires to give "Johannes Vermeer," the exhibition that opened here Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, the justifiable rank of once-in-a-lifetime event. Or even once-in-many-lifetimes.
As at the Amsterdam auction 299 years ago, a total of 21 pictures are in Washington. (The show will only be seen at the National Gallery and, next March, at the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, where two additional works from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum will be included.) One of the 21 paintings, "Young Girl With a Flute," is attributed to the circle of Vermeer. Still, curators Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Frederik J. Duparc have pulled off a show that had long been thought impossible.
You will doubtless find yourself regretting the absence of certain pictures, chief among them the climactic "The Art of Painting," Vermeer's comprehensive statement on his aesthetic endeavor from late in his life, which hangs in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Be assured, however, that the hunger for still more is only a sign of the show's success.
Among the coups is the inclusion of "The Music Lesson," from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II and almost never on public view. And "View of Delft," the justly famous cityscape that sparkles beneath an operatic sky, has never before been seen outside Europe.
A half-dozen paintings have also recently been cleaned for the event. Given that light is a character equal in significance to any human being portrayed in Vermeer's most compelling images, the freshness of these contemplative pictures can leave you slack-jawed.
The show begins with all three of Vermeer's known history paintings, made when he was 23 and 24. Displaying a classical dignity and idealizing restraint, they're of most interest for their latent clues to his subsequent work.
One is the ambiguous, unspecified space within which the mythic or religious scene takes place--the goddess Diana and her attendants in a common wooded glade, Christ in the vaguely delineated house of Mary and Martha, Saint Praxedis kneeling in a generically classical courtyard. A history painting, because it records events fabricated or long gone, is built from an image that only the artist's mind has seen. When Vermeer gave up history painting and turned to subjects of contemporary domestic life in Delft, he fused the highly particular features of 17th-Century Dutch interiors with this sense of controlled, visionary inventiveness. The results are odd and enchanting.
Vermeer's domestic paintings typically show an enclosed interior. A chair, a carpet-covered table or a curtain occupies the foreground plane, establishing a protective visual moat between the viewer and the scene. The world outside is usually represented in one (or both) of two ways: as a graphic symbol, often in the form of a map or a painting hanging on the rear wall; and as pure, radiant light, which streams through a side window that never allows even the slightest glimpse of an actual landscape outdoors. Vermeer's light gives magical life to the interior event.