The last foreign military invasion of the United States (which included the burning of the White House) took place two centuries ago. Half a century ago, a different kind of British Invasion brought us the Beatles and the Stones. This year, America faces yet another foreign invasion on a small scale physically, but on a mammoth scale culturally. Through a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the art world stars, 14 of the 36 paintings currently acknowledged to be painted by Johannes Vermeer, including the novel– and movie-inspiring Girl With Pearl Earring (detail shown above), are all within the reach of a train ride between a handful of East Coast museums. For American art lovers on a budget, the idea of Vermeers coming to them rather than the alternative might be an opportunity too good to miss. For international Vermeer followers, the bunching of masterpieces makes an American vacation heaven and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor the train to paradise. For American museums looking to boost attendance numbers and revenue, the Vermeer invasion might be the cure for what ills them. But is the Vermeer invasion too much of a good thing?
You couldn’t have planned it better if you tried. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City already boasts five Vermeer paintings in their collection (Woman with a Lute, Study of a Young Woman, A Maid Asleep, Young Woman With a Water Pitcher, and Allegory of the Catholic Faith). Now, thanks to The Frick Collection’s exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, you can add 4 more Vermeers (the aforementioned Girl with a Pearl Earring plus Officer and Laughing Girl, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, and Mistress and Maid) to your New York City stop (at least until January 19, 2014). Trek down to my hometown, the City of Brotherly Love, for a single Vermeer—Young Woman Seated at a Virginal—on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through March 2014. Make your final stop in Washington, DC, and see the final 4 Vermeers (Woman Holding a Balance, Girl with a Flute, Girl with the Red Hat, and A Lady Writing) at the National Gallery of Art.
A recent New York Times piece on the Vermeer invasion featured some of the world travelers who “collect” Vermeer viewing experiences. A Japanese molecular biologist boasts that he’s seen 34 of the 36 Vermeers. He accepted a visiting professorship in New York City for this year just to be positioned to catch the glut of Vermeers conveniently. Randy Kennedy, the author of the Times feature, also spoke with Tracy Chevalier, the author of the novel Girl With a Pearl Earring. Chevalier, a completist who’s met all 36 Vermeers in person, feels that “one of the reasons people are drawn to Dutch painting now is because it’s not religious, by and large. It’s people sitting around playing cards or a woman mopping the floor, or it’s a fish market or an interior of a home. I think we like to see that window onto a middle-class world that is not all that different from our own. There’s something like us in there.” Regardless of the reason, crowds are flocking to the four venues to see the Vermeers before they get away.
The benefits of the exhibitions are obvious. The promise of checking off nearly 40% of your Vermeer “bucket list” in one trip certainly will draw more people than any single exhibition or permanent collection would have. The revenue generated by the Frick show of paintings from the Mauritshuis while it’s closed until mid-2014 for repairs will help offset those repair costs as well as keep the paintings in the public eye. Although the insurance costs for a Vermeer show must be astronomical, the small size of the paintings themselves as well as their good condition make international travel feasible, something you can’t say about the works of, say, Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, whose Sistine Chapel Ceiling and Last Supper, respectively, aren’t going anywhere, ever. Vermeer may be the last great Old Master who can come to your hometown.
The negatives of this Vermeer invasion are less obvious. When I heard that the paintings were on tour from the Mauritshuis, I flashed back to my own experience of visiting the Louvre and finding a black and white reproduction where Vermeer’s The Astronomer should have been. The original was on tour. Fortunately, Vermeer’s The Lacemaker was still home, but I felt that my Vermeer experience was somehow 50% poorer. The Mauritshuis is closed, of course, but this temporary displacement might be profitable enough to entice future trips for their Vermeers, whose profit would be the Dutch people’s aesthetic loss as well as an invitation to others to visit not just Vermeer, but also the land that shaped him. There’s something to be said for experiencing a work of art not just in a museum, but on the art and artist’s native soil to get a feel for the culture behind it. I might never get to Amsterdam, but the promise of seeing a Vermeer there helps keep it on my list.
For me, the biggest drawback of all these Vermeers in one place is the law of diminishing returns—the idea that you can get too much of a good thing. I’ve been in the Vermeer rooms at the Met and the National Gallery of Art and struggled with the crowds to get a good look at the paintings, whose small size shocks most people at first. It’s the same problem people encounter at the Louvre when trying to see the Mona Lisa—there’s not enough masterpiece to go around. Forget about having a thoughtful, prolonged experience. Move along now, there’s people waiting. Take the Mona Lisa experience and multiply it by 14 times for the Vermeer invasion and I wonder how many people are truly enjoying the works versus how many people are checking items off a list and brandishing their “collection” like some kind of badge of culture. Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeing as many Vermeers as you can, but my question is how many are you seeing versus how many are you actually experiencing? For an artist acclaimed for the intimate scale of his art, such a chilly lack of intimacy the Vermeer invasion promises flies in the face of all the art stands for. So, take the Vermeer invasion challenge, if you dare. But remember that Vermeer himself challenges you to stop, look, and think along the way.