Once in a Lifetime Vermeer

10 out of 34 ain’t bad. The National Gallery in Washington offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 30% of Vermeer’s work — for free. 

The luxury of having 10 Vermeer paintings in one room cannot be understated. Imagine that you got free tickets to a concert headlined by Kanye West, Beyonce, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and, say, the Rolling Stones. That is the closest analogy one can attempt to draw.

To see these paintings hanging in their home museums would require round trip airfare to Europe, lodging costs and sharply priced admission tickets. An American could expect to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 just to see the single Vermeer at the National Gallery of Ireland.

The last time a group of this size assembled in one location was in the mid-90s also at the National Gallery in D.C. During that time it was actually closed for a few weeks because of the U.S. government shutdown at the time. Thank you, Congress.

The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, c. 1670–1671, oil on canvas on panel, Musée du Louvre, Département des peintures, Paris, Acquired in 1870

Comprehensive exhibitions of this nature rarely come together. Its not simply a matter of artistic bureaucracy or expense either. Flying these pieces around the world opens up incredible risks, from potential damage in travel to increased possibility of theft.

There are only 35 Vermeer paintings in existence and they’ve had a rough time of it.

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer (1668)

The Astronomer spent World War II hidden in a Nazi salt mine turned stolen art cache. While it avoided major damage, the painting bears the scars of the ordeal in the form of a black swastika still stamped on the back.

The Lady Writing a Letter to Her Maid was stolen not once, but twice. The first time by IRA members, the second time but your run of the mill gangsters. The National Gallery of Ireland only got it back in 1993 during an international sting operation.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum housed Vermeer’s The Concert until it disappeared in one of the most famous museum heists in history. Despite the multi-million dollar reward, it has yet to be returned.

The National Gallery also has The Love Letter on display for the exhibition. This piece was actually stolen while on loan to another museum in the 1970s. It’s a testament to its owners at the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam that they’ve ever let it out of their sight again.

Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

With this kind of track record its understandable that most museums hesitate to let their Dutch treasures go zooming around the globe. But, the results do justify the immense risk. Head to National Gallery to them for yourself before they disappear — or just return to their institutions of origin in January.

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