The current Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is the second one ever to be held there. The first took place in 1935. For the 114 days that the present exhibition is running, the Rijksmuseum is admitting 450,000 visitors, about 4,000 a day. Some people, like me, find it too crowded. The 1935 exhibition was on view for only 13 days, and drew 123,000 visitors, about nine and a half thousand a day. Another reason to be glad that I hadn’t been born yet.
In the early days of October 1935, the director of the Rijksmuseum, Fritz Schmidt-Degener, was seized with a fit of ambition. He had a Rembrandt exhibition going, which in honor of the museum had opened on 13 July, exactly fifty years after the inaugural ceremonies for the building itself. Upon opening, it was scheduled to close three months later, on 13 October. But at the beginning of the month, he got a better idea. Before coming to the Rijksmuseum in 1921, Schmidt-Degener had been director of the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam. Now his successor there, Dirk Hannema, was holding a museum-glorifying exhibition of his own, in honor not of an anniversary but of the inauguration itself of a new building. (A modern landmark, now closed for renovation for the foreseeable future.) This was the first exhibition ever held with the name Vermeer in the title: Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed: Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte. Vermeer, his predecessors and followers, especially Carel Fabritius (Barent was also included), Pieter de Hooch and Emanuel de Witte. The timing had a four-day drop on the Rembrandt exhibition in the Rijksmuseum, with a scheduled opening date of 9 July and a closing on 9 October 1935. (Initially it was supposed to open on the first of June, but the building took longer to finish than anticipated.)
Vermeer had been a hot-ticket item for years, and Hannema was making a big splash internationally with his show. Schmidt-Degener decided to harness some of that glory for his own museum. Using the clout of the Rijksmuseum to force the hand of his successor at Boymans, he finessed an amazing deal. He agreed with Hannema that thirty-five of the 140 paintings in the Boymans exhibition would come to Amsterdam for an impromptu Vermeer exhibition to accompany the one on Rembrandt, which was about to close. The first loan letters went out to the owners on 7 October, for an opening on the 21st! Both museums went into revamp mode and changed their closing dates. The Rembrandt exhibition was extended to 3 November, and that in Boymans, which was going to be extended to 30 October, was now curtailed to 20 October. Think about it. Between closing time in Rotterdam on the 20th and the Rijksmuseum opening the next day thirty-five paintings had to be crated, transported to Amsterdam, unpacked and hung.
In two weeks at most, the Rijksmuseum produced a Vermeer catalogue twinned to the one for the Rembrandt show.
It was even given the same title page, changing only the name of the artist, with the dedication to the founding of the Rijksmuseum. The change of venue was accomplished in a day, and on the evening of October 21st Dirk Hannema delivered a lecture on Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum, for the Royal Antiquarian Society (Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, or KOG). The house was packed, with the burgomaster of Amsterdam lending cachet to the event.
The show of forty-one paintings to which the Rijksmuseum gave the title “Vermeer exhibition,” including several from the Rijksmuseum that had not been in Rotterdam, had only six Vermeers, two of them from the Rijksmuseum. Yet, the success was mind-bogglingly phenomenal. In all of his thank-you notes to the lenders, after the exhibition closed, Schmidt-Degener wrote (quoting from the one to Lady Beit):
“The exhibition has been admired by 123,000 visitors, including the Royal Family.” In two weeks, then, the Rijksmuseum had twice as many visitors to its Vermeer show as the 61,749 Boymans drew to its own in three months. Of course it helped that the show ran concurrently with the last weeks of the Rembrandt exhibition, but still…
What were these Vermeer shows about? In structure, both – especially the one in Boymans – were instructive and exploratory, Hannema and Schmidt-Degener were in search of a spirit of Delft that informed Vermeer’s art, and they placed him, properly, in that environment. From the start, however, the exhibitions were also something of a publicity stunt, about numbers as well as art. In the introduction to the Boymans catalogue, Hannema boasts that he is “bringing together the largest number of works by Vermeer as well as Fabritius, de Hooch and de Witte, that has ever been seen in our time.” For the latter three this was true, but for the star attraction, Vermeer, Hannema was tilting the scales. By the standard established by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot in 1915 and still accepted by the Rijksmuseum in 2023 (see Schwartzlist 414), the Boymans exhibition included eight paintings by Vermeer. This was the same number that had been shown in a monster exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1929, Dutch art, 1450-1900.
Of the 920 displays in that exhibition, the largest ever held on Dutch art, it was Vermeer’s Girl with the pearl earring that was chosen as the cover image. The world really did not have to wait for Scarlett Johansson before she became a public darling.
Her attraction was so powerful that the organizers allowed themselves to be tempted to show a smiling sister, a painting that enjoyed the sanction of a recent attribution to Vermeer by Wilhelm von Bode, the generalissimo of the European museum world. Otherwise, the choice of paintings labelled Vermeer by the Royal Academy was conservative and has held credence in the century since.
That cannot be said of Dirk Hannema’s choice in Rotterdam, six years later.
To top the London figure, Hannema padded the selection with five mediocre paintings with at most a passing resemblance to Vermeer. As expedient as this measure was, we cannot accuse Hannema of hypocrisy. He really believed in these paintings, and in later life spent good money of his own acquiring more non-Vermeers. Although a visit to his exhibition by the notorious forger Han van Meegeren is undocumented, he must have seen it and have been encouraged to sell Boymans Vermeers of his own, which he did three years later with astounding success. Dirk Hannema’s dilution of Vermeerness, we could say, opened the door to imitators.
The urge to claim to be able to show more Vermeers than anyone else surfaced again in 1995, with an exhibition of Vermeers not in context but in glorious isolation, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Introducing the show to a huge crowd of international journalists in the Mauritshuis on 7 November 1995, the museum director Frits Duparc said,
This is the first time that so many works by Vermeer could be brought together. And it will be at least another three centuries before so many can be assembled again.
Three decades was more like it. The Rijksmuseum has been able, in the show now running, to show five more Vermeers than the twenty-three from 1995, enabling the overhyped claim of Big, Bigger, Biggest. What made the difference is mainly that the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden agreed to lend its two, and the Frick Collection its three Vermeers.
Is there a moral to this story? I’m afraid there is. It was put into words by my two best, departed friends in Dutch art history. In 1977 Horst Gerson wrote a review in the Burlington Magazine of Albert Blankert’s pioneering book on Vermeer (1975). I quote, and second, the commendation:
He performs the valuable service of […] warning us against the excessive prestige that old art in general and Vermeer in particular has enjoyed in the modern world.
I felt this strongly at the illuminating exhibition of 2017, Vermeer and the masters of genre painting: inspiration and rivalry, held in the National Museum of Ireland, the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art. There, paintings by Vermeer were hung in the company of similar motifs by Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris and others. Making the comparisons (the Vermeers did not always outshine the others) and seeing the differences (what was Vermeer leaving out?) was a delightful exercise. The Vermeer-on-a-pedestal exhibitions of 1995 and 2023 are not about exploration but adulation. They feed a cult of artistic personality that gets in the way even of sheer delectation. There are better ways to harness Vermeer’s undeniable hold on the public. Like Dublin-Paris-Washington and, for all its exaggerations, Hannema’s show on Vermeer and his Delft coevals.
See also Justine Rinnoy Kan, “The Vermeer exhibition of 1935: a major debut in historical perspective,” Oud Holland: Journal for Art of the Low Countries 134 (2021), nr, 4, pp. 210-34, and, for all things related to Vermeer, Jonathan Janson’s indispensable website Essential Vermeer.
© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 23 April 2023.
This column is derived from a lecture I delivered on 20 February 2023 in the Rijksmuseum auditorium: “Vermeer tentoonstellingen van 1935 tot 2023.” The lecture was held for the Royal Antiquarian Society, making it the direct successor to Dirk Hannema’s presentation on 21 October 1935. To my disappointment, the lecture was not attended by the burgomistress, Femke Halsema. But that was my only disappointment. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and the reception by the audience of my somewhat undermining message could not have been more appreciative.
On Thursday the 20th Loekie and I went to another solo exhibition, on the Dutch artist who became a society hit in Paris, Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), in Singer Museum, Laren. The research and texts, by Anita Hopman of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) are exemplary, and the hanging was tasteful. But the art, we agreed with each other, was annoyingly superficial. I hate to say it of the work of any artist, but it came across to me as insincere, latching onto values to which it does not even try to do justice. The biggest kick I got was noticing a certain comparison with an image we had seen the evening before, in a tv program (also a bit lame) on Edward Hopper, another foreigner in Paris.
Edward Hopper, detail of Soir Bleu, 1914
Oil on canvas, 92 x 183 cm
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1208)
Kees van Dongen, detail of poster for the Salon d’Automne, Grand Palais, 1929
Maybe no more connection than that they both make use of a cliché for images of women dressed and made up in ways that signal sexual availability, but it sparked me to compare the two artists in ways that were not complimentary to van Dongen. Hopper’s kind of emptiness is endlessly engrossing, van Dongen’s – just empty.
The Hopper documentary taught me something about him that stunned me. From 1913 to 1967 Hopper lived and had his studio at 3 Washington Square North in Greenwich Village. From 1956 to 1958 I had an evening job at the NYU Division of General Education, which was housed in 1 Washington Square North. (In the Google Street View photo above on the right corner.) In such proximity I must have seen Hopper and his wife Jo more than once in those years. Could I have become acquainted with them? From what was said about Hopper himself, not much of a chance.
More bad luck in a museum visit this month. The Allard Pierson Museum of the University of Amsterdam has a very interesting exhibition of maps from its rich collection. (Acquisitions to which I have been able to sponsor in my role as board member of the Steenbergen Fund.) Look at this photo of the placing of the label to a wall-sized display.
Yes, that’s it, bottom left. Only to be read by sitting on the floor, and even then printed nearly illegibly on a green fond. The museum let the vainglorious designers go to town with the material with zero consideration for interested visitors.
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