In modern times, Johannes Vermeer is lauded as the preeminent genre painter of the Dutch Golden Age. But this wasn’t always the case: Until the 19th century, two of Vermeer’s contemporaries—Gabriel Metsu and Pieter de Hooch—enjoyed a far higher level of esteem than the artist. Vermeer was so little-known, in fact, that art dealers sometimes signed his works with false de Hooch signatures in hopes of surreptitiously increasing their value.
More than 150 years after Vermeer’s death, a French art critic named Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré-Bürger chanced upon a Vermeer painting entitled “View of Delft” while visiting a Dutch museum. Entranced by the artist’s naturalistic style, Thoré-Bürger set out on a quest to catalogue Vermeer’s oeuvre. In doing so, he rescued the artist from obscurity, eventually ensuring Vermeer’s status as a household name on par with fellow Dutchmen Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh.
Vermeer’s extant body of work is extremely limited, constituting just 36 paintings held in 18 museums and private collections across the globe. But as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times, a new virtual museum created by Google Arts & Culture and the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague (home of “Girl With a Pearl Earring”) joins all of these works for the first time, enabling any art lover with a strong internet connection to embark on an in-depth exploration of Vermeer’s world.
The “Meet Vermeer” experience launched today via the Google Arts & Culture app, which relies on an augmented reality feature called Pocket Gallery to generate a digital exhibition space filled with wall-to-wall masterpieces. In addition to providing high-resolution views of all 36 works—including “The Concert,” a peaceful celebration of music-making stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the infamous 1990 heist—”Meet Vermeer” offers “in-painting tours” that detail the stories behind various creations, as well as feature-length essays on the artist’s life and enduring legacy.
Clicking into specifics works of art yields a trove of little-known scholarly insights. The “Girl With a Pearl Earring" portal, for instance, includes tidbits like why the idealized sitter’s nose lacks a bridge and why the eponymous pearl consists of just two strokes of white paint. Meanwhile, “The Girl with the Wine Glass,” a scene swimming in sexual tension, details the piece’s laden symbolism. Lemons sitting on a silver plate reflect the young girl’s wealth and perhaps serve as a warning against the immoral behavior hinted at by the central couple’s knowing smirks, while the expensive silk dress the girl dons (known as a “tabard,” the gown was strictly upper-class attire) further cements her rank in society.
In a Google Arts & Culture blog post, program manager Lucy Schwartz writes that eight of the 36 digitized paintings draw on ultra-high resolution imaging conducted by the company’s robotic Art Camera. The rest, according to Siegal, were photographed by the museums and collectors themselves.
Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, tells the Dutch daily NRC Handelsbald’s Toef Jaeger that the seven-room AR gallery brings fans of Vermeer as close to the works as they could possibly hope to come. The app also delivers a sense of scale. Based solely on 2-D renderings, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” may appear roughly the same height as Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” but in actuality, the former measures just 2.5 feet tall, while the latter stands nearly 12 feet tall. “Meet Vermeer” places the artist’s works in direct juxtaposition, deftly showing the jump in size from his tiny “Love Letter”—situated at the far-left side of room three, which is dedicated to correspondence—to the larger “Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window” at the other end of the wall.
Each of the rooms in the virtual gallery is organized by an idea. In room one, storytelling takes precedence, with the Biblical “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” and mythological “Diana and her Nymphs” emerging front and center. (Siegal further writes that the three works in the gallery are Vermeer’s earliest.) Five of the remaining rooms are organized by themes that include flirtation, music, and allegories. The final room is dedicated solely to the arresting “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” which continues to make waves in popular culture today, as evidenced by Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel of the same name, as well as the subsequent film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson.
Chevalier herself is featured in the app in an essay addressing the ongoing relevance the Vermeer masterpiece excites. “In considering the painting, there is an immediate beauty that draws us in, and a familiarity that satisfies us,” Chevalier writes. “But in the end, it is the mystery that keeps us coming back to it again and again, looking for answers that we never find.”
Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, tells the Times’ Siegal that the collaboration represents “one of these moments when technology does something that you can never do in real life.” At this moment in time, bringing all of Vermeer's extant works together for a retrospective would prove impossible; not only are his paintings spread out amongst cultural institutions around the world, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Germany’s Gemaldegalerie, but they are also extremely fragile. Convincing museums and private collectors to ship their prized pieces abroad would entail a sea of complications, but by making the project virtual rather than brick-and-mortar, "Meet Vermeer" manages to unite all of the Dutch master's works under one (digital) roof. Thanks to the app, art lovers can now immerse themselves fully in Vermeer's quotidian world, deftly jumping from scenes of domestic bliss to cityscapes and imagined lands with just the click of a cursor.