Close to Vermeer

There are 37 known paintings by the artist Johannes Vermeer, although one, The Concert, was stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and has never recovered and another, The Girl with a Flute, has been disputed.  As Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum curators Gregor Weber and Pieter Roelofs began their attempt to mount the largest Vermeer exhibit in an effort to tell new stories about the artist and his work, director Suzanne Raes followed them, painter and curator Jonathan Jannson and conservators Abbie Vandivere and Anna Krekeler as they got “Close to Vermeer.”

Laura's Review: B

Essential Vermeer opened in February 2023 and closed on June 4, its curators having successfully gathered 28 of the artist’s paintings in an exhibit unlikely to ever be repeated, at least in this lifetime.  Over 650,000 tickets were sold with demand so great the museum extended its hours to 11 p.m. on weekends.  For those who didn’t have the great fortune to attend in person, we have Raes’ insider look at just what the folks who mounted Essential Vermeer think makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.

The first to weigh in with some amount of wonder is Weber, who tells us that although da Vinci declared black was to be used for shadows, ‘somehow Vermeer knew that warm yellow light has cold blue shadows.’  Anna Krekeler studies the Rijksmuseum’s own ‘The Little Street’ under a microscope, marveling that what are so clearly bricks become dots of paint and how the whole painting would become uninteresting but for the red shutter Vermeer included in the right hand corner.  Abbie Vandivere, her braids dyed ‘Vermeer blue,’ is in awe at being able to view ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ ‘undressed,’ i.e., out of its frame.  The paintings are subjected to a type of x-raying that allows experts to see when things were added, like the birdcage in ‘Girl Interrupted in Her Music,’ or, as in the case of ‘Pearl Earring,’ discover lines that reveal her background was a curtain.

We’re also made privy to the diplomacy, bartering and détente necessary to pull this off.  Raes informs us that fully a third of Vermeer’s work resides in the U.S. and we follow Weber and Roelofs to The Frick Collection and The Met in New York as well as the National Gallery in D.C.  A painting will be loaned for a reciprocal loan in the future.  There is a bit of a kerfluffle after the National Gallery declares ‘The Girl with a Flute’ to not be Vermeer, stating some convincing arguments, one involving the way he used ‘green earth’ in his skin tones, only for Roelofs to declare otherwise later. 

And despite these experts obvious love for the artist (Weber chokes up several times), there is a lot of criticism for his ‘A Young Woman Sitting at a Virginal,’ a late painting no one disputes is his work, but which is a near copy of ‘A Lady Playing a Guitar’ with several aspects borrowed from others.  It is deemed ‘unoriginal.’  It is also the only privately held Vermeer.

There is little known about Vermeer, although we can see his back in ‘The Art of Painting,’ know he was married and had fourteen children, lived next door to Jesuits and died at the age of 45.  His use of the camera obscura, something covered extensively in the 2014 documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” is discussed, a drawing of an old woman done by a neighbor all but certain to have been traced using the device.  The experts here seem to dismiss the idea that Vermeer himself did this, although it is unclear why.

Raes doesn’t identify every painting as it comes into discussion, although there is a titled slide show of all the works gathered at the end of her film.  We learn why some paintings were not included, but not all, just as we’re given pieces of the story the exhibit is going to tell without being given a full overview.   “Close to Vermeer” may leave us with some questions, but it also gives us new facets of the artist’s work to consider while inviting us inside the curation of a formidable exhibit.

Robin's Review: C+

Gregor Weber, the well-known curator of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is near retirement and sets in motion his most ambitious dream – put together the world’s largest exhibit of the works of Johannes Vermeer in “Close to Vermeer.”

After having the chance to see some of the world’s great artworks over these past decades, I found that I like Vermeer's wonderful works the most. As with any good documentary, we are educated and entertained in this analysis of the artist far too limited catalog of work – only 37 in total.

What starts out as a document on Weber’s effort to gather as many works as possible for the ultimate Vermeer exhibit – and it does that – shifts gears as it brings into question the authenticity of some of the collected works. This turns into a pro and con discussion with the debate on what “makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”

At just a 79 minute run time, I found that I consider it too long – it packs too much information into what could have been a solid documentary about the trials and tribulations of putting together such an exciting exhibit. At the same time, though, I found it too short – it fails to fully explore the different paths it tries to take. I love all the Vermeer paintings, though.

Kino Lorber opened "Close to Vermeer" in select theaters on 5/26/23.  Click here for play dates.