Vermeer’s greatest show in the world is a must-see

Seen from the top of the pier, across the slow waters of the River Schie full of dark reflections, the distant center of Delft is hit by the early morning sun. Soon people will be walking its streets, with their yellow cobblestones and freshly washed tiles, while children play in front doorways and servants are at work, glimpsed in the darkness of a side alley.

Opening Johannes Vermeer’s magnificent exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, two paintings of these morning scenes immediately immerse us, taking us on a journey through Vermeer’s art, spread across 10 rooms. We pass from views of the city to private interiors, between the sacred and the profane; from domestic life, with quiet music and private moments, to religious devotion and lewd scenes. All this in an exhibition of only 28 paintings.

Your eyes jump here and there, but Vermeer manipulates you at every angle, glossing over some things, bringing others to the fore

These were created over 20 years, between 1654 and 1674. There are only 37 known paintings by Vermeer. Some are disputed, an unknown but probably small number have been long lost, and one was stolen from Boston in 1990 and has never resurfaced. Some paintings cannot be loaned. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna hesitated to lend The Art of Painting (1666-68), ultimately refusing to lend one of its major exhibits. This is the most important omission here, in what is the largest ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work. Vermeer’s last major exhibition, in The Hague, was a hectic and crowded experience. Here, art has room to breathe.

A girl reads a letter, her faint reflection caught in the angled glass of the window. There is a rumpled rug on the table in the foreground between her and us, and above it a tilted bowl of fruit catching the daylight. A green apple appears as large and round as her forehead. On the back wall is an image of a naked Cupid, looking down at us. This image within the image knows we are watching and she also knows we know it, while the girl herself believes she is not being watched. The situation is doubled by the fact that this painting, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, also hangs in a small room by itself, and we are there with her.

Elsewhere, a milkmaid pours milk and prepares a basket of bread. She’s alone in the kitchen, a situation somewhat underlined by the blank wall behind her, pockmarked with small craters and scratches in the plaster, and by the bare fingernail sticking out of the wall and casting her shadow above her head. Such a small thing, on a daylight-lit wall. A work space therefore, where you could hear the sound of the milk flowing and you could smell the grainy crust of the bread and its tufts of crumb.

I understand this familiar scene not only through sight, but also through the milkmaid’s senses. It is an invocation of the ordinary, elevated to the wonderful. Our being there with these women, unaware of being seen, feels like a kind of privilege, as we meet them in their solitude, absorbed in their occupations.

The exhibition is filled with these moments, guiding us through Vermeer’s career much as the artist himself guides and directs us through his painted scenes. The eye jumps and darts here and there, but Vermeer manipulates us at every angle, attracting and blurring things, glossing over some things, bringing others to the fore. All the details of his art can be keenly observed – from the clouds passing over Delft to the pinnacle on a Spanish chair, the froth on an Anatolian carpet and the glitter on an earring – but they are more than inventories of the visible. Although he was a devoted observer of the surface of things, which he became within a few years, Vermeer was no realist. His paintings are careful and complex constructions. Their meticulously crafted artifice is all fiction and allusion, tempered both by worldliness and curiosity and the Catholic faith to which he converted upon his marriage.

And Vermeer certainly never sat in a darkroom, copying the upside-down image projected onto the darkened wall. He was not a copyist, although influenced by the Jesuits’ scientific and quasi-religious interest in optics, he understood and was interested in the way light illuminated objects in a darkroom – and used its effects, just as he used single-point perspective to measure and build the architecture of his painted spaces. Artists are always interested in whatever technology they have available. Vermeer wanted to see more, by any means.

It is impossible for us to look at his art without thinking about photography and filmmaking: Vermeer enlarges and enlarges, keeps us in the doorway and captures us with details that reveal themselves over time. In The Love Letter, a maid has just brought her mistress a letter that they are eagerly discussing. We seem to walk past the door, like guests infringing on a private moment. The maid’s clogs, bucket and broom are left in the doorway. These items appear to have been left in a hurry. We are not meant to override them.

Vermeer’s art is filled with such detail and intricacy, whether it be the light passing through a wall, a dancing reflection in a wine glass, the tiniest sliver of view on a window ledge, a human drama unfolding before us. There is nothing trivial here. He also directs us to things we can never know: people are always focusing on unreadable letters, or looking over the edges of the picture or through windows at things we can’t see.

They play unfamiliar music and have conversations that we can never eavesdrop on but only guess. We are kept on the brink, sometimes teetering. A man looms behind a seated girl, holding a jug of wine. Her face half-shadowed, she waits and watches her drink. Feel her power, her passive and perhaps reluctant obedience. A woman holds her necklace, thinking of her and staring into the light through the window. She is a girl interrupted and lost in thoughts of her.

But it’s not all such exceptional work, nor so compelling. Vermeer’s earliest painting of Santa Prassede, squeezing blood from a martyr’s severed head into a jug, is a copy of an Italian painting. The modeling of his head is somewhat slippery and strange, the color largely flat and cumbersome. The anatomy of Diana and her nymphs is terrible (no wonder the Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren chose this phase of Vermeer’s art to concoct the frauds of her in the 1940s).

Vermeer’s later Allegory of the Catholic Faith, meanwhile, is a swooning monstrosity. Only carefully observed details work. Even the glass sphere that dangles overhead – a Jesuit symbol of inner light and the expansiveness of the free soul – seems to be based on observation rather than fervent invocation of the transcendent; its little flashes of refracted and reflected light are wonderful.

Mystery and enigma are attractive. Who is that woman with the red hat or the one with the pearl earring? What’s in that letter? What is that girl looking at from the window? What is he thinking? Who is approaching? This exhibition finally offers us not only Vermeer’s painted spaces, but the space to be with them and to occupy their unfolding strangeness. Unmissable.

• Vermeer is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from 10 February to 4 June

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