In either 2013 or 2014 I decided to see every Vermeer painting in the world. I’ve always been drawn to his paintings, and when I found out that there were only about 36 (two are disputed, one is stolen and most likely destroyed), it seemed like a reasnable goal to go see them all.
Many were easy. New York alone has eight, so visiting two museums there got me almost 25% of the way there. The National Gallery in Washington had another four. Others were more difficult. Two are in private collections (how crazy is it that two individuals own VERMEERS?) and don’t go on display often. The Music Lesson, in Buckingham Palace, is only on display during the summer.
Dresden proved to be the biggest challenge for me. In the winter of 2016 I planned a 24 hour layover in Berlin so that I could take the train down to Dresden and go see their two paintings. I took the 2.5 hour train ride and walked 20 minutes in cold drizzle, only to find out that the museum was closed on Mondays. I walked back to the train and headed back to the airport. Five years later I finally succeeded in seeing those Vermeers, after another challenge borne from being unprepared.
Having a mission was fun. The Vermeers were a worthy destination, but having a reason to go to random places was a lot of fun. The Guitar Player is in the Kenwood House, which is a really cool tourable estate in northern London that I would have never visited otherwise. A friend met me in Ireland to see Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid. We ate every meal at a Chipotle clone called Tolteca and watched in awe as a group of about 50 Latvian tourists sang songs in the hostel dining room.
My favorite of all was Girl Reading a Letter at Open Window. It was one of the last I saw and had just been restored and a painted-over cupid had been revealed. I saw it on the 2nd or 3rd day it was on display, so I was one of the first! I’m not sure if it was the painting, the composition, or just the fact that the restoration made it look like it had been painted a week ago, but I found it to be the most captivating. I also really liked View of the Delft, since it was so different than his others. I visited the Delft to go see it, and in retrospect I feel dumb for not finding the spot from which it was painted.
One painting, The Concert, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. The frame still hangs on the wall, so I went to see that. I also read 4 or 5 books about the heist, and it remains the most fascinating heist ever committed. It’s also the saddest because based on everything I’ve read it seems nearly certain that the paintings were all destroyed, and besides the Vermeer, Rembrandt’s only seascape was stolen.
I watched Tim’s Vermeer, which is an incredible documentary to watch even if you don’t care about Vermeer. I then went to a Penn and Teller show, because I knew that they bankrolled the documentary. After their shows they wait in the hall to take photos and say hi to people, so I ran out to be the first one there, told Penn about Vermeer Quest and asked for Tim’s contact info. He gave it to me and Tim has said that I could come see the Vermeer painting that he created in the documentary. That was right before covid started, but now that things are calming down I’ll try to schedule a time to go.
Whether or not three of the paintings were actually painted by Vermeer is in dispute. I had hoped that by seeing all of the Vermeers I’d have a strong opinion about them, but it turns out spending 5 minutes with 36 paintings doesn’t make you an expert. If I were to guess, I’d say Saint Praxedis might not be a Vermeer, Girl with a Flute probably is, and A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals seems most likely of the three.
There is probably no other major artist for whom a similar quest would be possible. Vermeer is a bit of an enigma as he probably only painted about 60 paintings (with 34-37 surviving today), and no sketches or studies have ever been found. I can’t think of any other artist for whom that would be true, although I’m also far from being an art expert.
Vermeer Quest is complete, but I’ll still see Vermeers when I can. I’ve probably seen about half of them at least twice, and I still go a bit out of my way to see them, even if I’ve seen them before. Maybe a new Vermeer will be found in my lifetime and the quest will live on!
Photo is me in front of The Music Lesson, which was my last Vermeer!
Gear post coming, probably by the end of this month. I actually have a ton of new things this time.
The best resource for Vermeer stuff is Essential Vermeer. It would have been 100 times harder to track where they all are without it, and I learned tons from the site.