Archive for March, 2013

Rijksmuseum: Impressions of a Revamped Museum

March 30th, 2013

Drs Kees Kaldenbach, art historian, 29 March 29 2013

After a prolonged period of closing and restoration, nearly 10 years that felt like an eternity, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum will be reopened on Saturday morning 13 April 2013 by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. That same afternoon the building will be open to all visitors. Exceptionally, even for important international art museums, in future it will be open to visitors all year-round, even on Christmas and New Years Day.

Drs Kees Kaldenbach at the Rijksmuseum opening

Fans are holding their breath. Sneak previews are possible only for the happy few. One week beforehand the Friends and Patrons of the Rijksmuseum will be allowed in (the latter paying a whopping 1000 euros annually). Obviously, the international press also gets full and privileged access to roam, say ooh and ah, and to take notes and some photographs.

Professional TV footage with heavy cameras will be finished by then – because of rules about electric fire and security measures involving microphone boom poles, extra professional minders and firemen have to be present. I was one of those lucky few allowed access to the unfinished museum on 28 March 2013 because the BBC was shooting a TV programme to be broadcast on Monday night, 15 April, in the BBC4 TV series “Openings”.

As I am knowledgeable about Dutch fine arts and Vermeer in particular, I was invited there on-camera to say something expressive and worthwhile about the experience of just being there – back in the main Rijksmuseum building – taking in the scenery for the first time in 10 years. The crew, with interviewer art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon also wanted to probe my feelings on seeing the four Vermeer pictures back in their final space in the Gallery of Honour or “Eregalerij” in the upper central axis of the Rijksmuseum. It boasts distinguished neighbours; Rembrandt’s Night Watch beckons visitors at the far end. A special role was also played by my daughter Suzanne, now aged 25, who has only faint memories of the museum as it was. In 2002 it was a maze of ill-lit corridors in which one could all too easily lose one’s way.

As you can see in these fairly poor photographs (click here to access photographs), the cubicles on either side of this Gallery of Honour are now painted grey, with plain wooden floors. Each cubicle has its own dividing wall. As there is no daylight, the lighting is electric here, with advanced LED lights (of the correct colour temperature), beaming from above.

What forms the real and unexpected WOW-effect is the dazzling set of patterns and colours in the front part of the dividing walls and the neo-gothic church-like upper arched structures. These patterns are especially abundant in the front grand hall with the bright leaded glass with stained glass panels inserted. The colours, murals and patterns all around in that hall, painstakingly slow and meticulously restored, form a dazzling riot. It reminds one of Roman Catholic church interiors from France and the Netherlands in the 1880s. (One can visit a beautifully restored, notable example in the Dutch city of Delft: the Maria van Jesse church.) Garish colours; what Italian art lovers would dismissingly label as a “north of the Alps kind of art, produced for women and children”. The original Rijksmuseum architect, Pierre Cuypers was a proud and fierce Roman Catholic. His daring stylistic choice of Neo-Gothic as the style, led to a public outcry in 1885, well before the opening months of the museum, because the edifice looked much like a “Roman Catholic Archbishop’s palace”. There was a deep feeling of betrayal; old school, nationalist Calvinists and politicians abhorred this stylistic choice, as did the royal House of Orange. For them the core of the Dutch state was essentially Protestant-Calvinist, born out of a struggle against the local ruler (victorious over the King of Spain, in 1648). Therefore, Calvinists became solidly anti-Roman Catholic. As a result of this politicized situation, the Dutch king decided not to be present when the Rijksmuseum building opened in 1885.

We now go fast forward. From 2001 on, the building was gutted, and many paintings have been in storage for as long as 10 years. The best works were still presented here as The Masterworks during that time in the small wing at the south end of the Rijksmuseum building. Superfluous paintings and objects were put in permanent storage or wisely lent out, distributed in many other museums and galleries such as the large Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. Some museums abroad received valuable temporary loans of great masterworks, for instance by Vermeer. Loans form a game played on a high level among museum directors. Loaning a very good painting is useful when new exhibitions are in their preparation phase, and other specific loans are requested.

During my sneak preview I have only seen about 20% of the new building. And what I saw bowled me over. Everything in the Rijksmuseum is now spacious, clean and shiny and brilliant and exciting. One of the amazing architectural design decisions is re-creating the two central voids on the left and right of the building, positioned to the side of the central Gallery of Honour axis. They are now again completely empty and covered by glass in order to let a flood of daylight into many galleries, even down to the basement bookstore level. Thus these bright, light-filled halls are akin to the bright sculpture hall in the Louvre.

Back in the 1950s, these spaces were completely filled with a maze of rooms, clogging the visitor’s natural orientation and hindering obvious pathways.

All the way on top at the front of the building below slanted rooflines, a series of completely new galleries have been opened. I saw only the 20th century gallery containing a 20th century Dutch airplane and a section about De Stijl including Mondrian, WW2 objects and 1930s style rooms.

Basements, formerly unused except for by staff and the heating plant, have also been revamped and are now also filled with art objects.

The stated revolution in the Rijksmuseum presentation policy and style is that furniture as well as art and design objects have now been placed side by side with paintings from the same period. They form each other’s context, backdrop and sphere of influence.

I also saw a throng of trainees, the future new, official museum guides who were being instructed by the museum staff.

Yes, yes, yes, I can hardly wait to see the other 80% of the Rijksmuseum. To revisit my long-lost friends and personal favourites.


Vermeer in Tokyo tops 2012 art exhibition attendance

March 28th, 2013

Attendance survey 2012: Tour de force show puts Tokyo on top
by Javier Pes and Emily Sharpe
published online: The Art Newspaper , 28 March 2013


Evidently, Old Masters do not grow old.

Not surprisingly, the Tokyo leg of the Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis exhibit—with Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring as the absolute star—racked up 758,26 visitors (about 10,573 a day) and placed first in 2012 attendance for art exhibitions. The exhibitions was staged at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum which was newly reopened after refurbishment.

That Vermeer is somewhat of a mania in Japan, however, is not news.

On the other hand, Modern art dominated the bill in New York and Paris. David Hockney’s large-scale works on canvas attracted a very healthy 7,512 visitors a day.

To see the exhibition rankings, download the pdf.

Coincidences ? (# 2)

March 27th, 2013

Queen Artemisia
Domenico Fiasella, il Sarzana
oil on canvas
39 7/8 x 30 in. (101.2 x 76.1 cm.)
Private collection

A number of years ago, the conservator and Vermeer expert Jørgen Wadum—click here to read an E.V. interview with Mr. Wadum—proposed Dominic Fiasella’s Queen Atermisia as a possible model for Vermeer’s iconic Milkmaid.

True, the statuary pose of the two figures are striking, but where could Vermeer have seen the picture? Is it just a coincidence?

I have not even the vaguest idea.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. published a small black and white reproduction of the somewhat inelegant work in the Johannes Vermeer catalogue (p. 111) of the legendary Washington/The Hague exhibition. Other than the pose, Wheelock found the “enormous moral authority” of both pictures striking. To be perfectly truthful, the queen looks more angry than morally authoritative but the connection remains fascinating..

I had all but forgot the picture until recently I stumbled on the painting at the Christie’s website and though the color reproduction might be of interest. To my knowledge no one else took up the Artemis lead. BTW, it sold for $14,626.

Domenico Fiasella (called “il Sarzana” after his birthplace, 1589-1669) was mainly active in Genova. For those interested in the picture here’s Christie’s catalogue notes:

Artemisia was the wife of Mausolus, the satrap of Caria in Asia Minor. She succeeded her husband on his death in 353 B.C., and was responsible for the erection of a great monument to his memory (although construction probably began in his lifetime). Known to posterity as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was said that she mixed the ashes of Mausolus in liquid that she then drank, thereby, as observed by Valerius Maximus, making of herself a living, breathing tomb. In consequence, Artemisia was understood in the Renaissance as symbolizing a wife’s devotion to her husband.

Did the FBI flimflam on the Stewart Gardner case?

March 26th, 2013

After the mainstream press greeted with enthusiasm the FBI’s announcement about the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist (see information directly below), Christopher Dickey of the Daily Beast, takes a closer look and finds optimism may be unwarranted.

Read Dickeys article here.

How Los Angeles almost got two Vermeers, but didn’t

March 26th, 2013

Dragnetting for Vermeer, I just came up with a very interesting article on the L. A. Times about how the city almost, but didn’t quite get two Vermeers: the Woman with a Lute (now in the MET) and the Woman Seated at the Virginals ( now in the hands of a New York private collector). Click here to read. There are, after all, missed chances—big ones.

Download a High-resolution image of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring for free

March 26th, 2013

Some museums are making high-resolution digital images their paintings available to the public. A detailed and finely calibrated color image of Vermeer’s iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring is downloadable from an NPR article on the two Vermeer paintings currently on display in the USA. Click here, scroll down to the painting , click on it to enlarge and save it you hard drive. Enjoy, it’s the best I have seen so far.

Vermeer’s stunning Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is also accessible on the same page but a far better image can be downloaded (registration required) at the Rijksmuseum.

If you are keen on collecting the best digital images available of Vermeer’s paintings, visit my page here: Viewing Vermeer on the WWW

Will we ever see Vermeer’s Concert Again? Perhaps…

March 23rd, 2013

Vermeer rarely makes news outside the art world; this Tuesday 19, he did.


In a stunning development, the FBI said it believes it knows who was behind one of the most significant art heists in the United States—the Isabella Stewart Gardner 1990 theft of 13 precious works which includes Vermeer’s mid-career interior, The Concert. Can we hope this will lead to the finding of the paintings?

Fingers crossed and read more facts below.

To be honest, I usually don’t connect with art thefts or art forgeries—I am disconcerted that the Van Meegeren page on my website receives more visits than the catalogue entry of The Concert—but the Boston theft story did draw me in. The Concert was the first Vermeer I ever saw from life.

As a fledging art student, outlandishly decked out with a leather motorcycle jacket, tight pants and worn-out, purple Beatle-boots, I did not understand much the first time I stood in front of it. The standing singer seemed disjointed from the composition (I found out later the pigment used for her dress had degraded) and, to be honest, I am still not on good terms with the gentleman’s turned back and sprawling, spaghetti hair. Too, the area under his chair is fairly cluttered, at least when sized up against the miraculous compositional economy of the Music Lesson. But, I had never dreamed that a flat wall could be so amazingly flat (the walls I had painted always looked like filthy white paint clumsily spread out on canvas to dry) nor that a satin dress could be depicted with such amazing force but at the same time, with such amazing delicacy.

For all its technical imperfections, the je ne sais quoi of this painting is still with me and the day I will see it again, if ever that day ever comes, will be more joyful than when I set eyes on it for the first time as a bewildered but resurrected art student.


Thee FBI said Monday it believes it knows who was behind one of the most significant art heists in the United States—the 1990 theft of 13 precious works, once valued at $500 million, from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The announcement came on They did not reveal the suspects’ names, but know that “they are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England.” Officials are quoted as saying “We vetted it out, we don’t make that kind of announcement lightly.” No information was given of whether they were dead or alive.

The bureau also said it believes the Vermeer’s Concert—including paintings by Rembrandt—was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia area and that the thieves unsuccessfully tried to sell some of the artwork in Philadelphia about 10 years ago. The announcement comes on the 23rd anniversary of the theft, which the FBI says is one of the largest property crimes in U.S. history.

Officials did not discuss why they had not arrested the thieves but at times such announcements to try to prompt the suspects into doing something that could lead to their arrest or prompting an innocent person who had seen the paintings into thinking that if the authorities already knew who the thieves were, going to the police would not be ratting them out. *

I am curious to see of the latest FBI report has any connection with the 2011 arrest of the underworld criminal Whitey Bolger (implicated in 19 killings). Rumors have long swirled that Bulger, the head of the city’s powerful Irish American mob at the time, may have played a role, or must have known who did. Some have speculated that he stashed the stolen masterpieces away to use as a “get out of jail free card” if he was ever caught. Robert Wittman, the former head of the FBI’s art squad who helped investigate the Gardner theft, said that “I think there’s a good chance he knows something.”

Another suspect, Robert Gentile, 76, a used-car salesman in Manchester, Conn., was targeted in February 2012. But nothing came of the investigation.

see full coverage and updates on the case at the the FBI website:

see CNN story:

*see New York Times coverage:

A pat on my own back and a big thanks to you

March 23rd, 2013

In 2012, the Essential Vermeer website received the grand total of 484,998 unique visits and 1,692,344 individual page views (from my E.V. Google stats). If your wondering what the cliff fall-off at the end of the year is about in the graph below, that’s the Christmas and New Year holidays kicking in.


Obviously, we are talking about small-time numbers in absolute: a hot video game watering hole or sports site gets that many in a day. BUT, it huge number for an art-related website, especially for a monographic one.

Thanks for your visit, please know it’s more than a number for me!

A lost cause: Vermeer in Italy

March 20th, 2013
Vermeer watching

It is normally not too difficult to calculate the costs of art exhibitions.

It is a bit trickier to calculate their cultural benefits.

Let me take a stab at what may have, and may have not, been gained from the recently closed Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art exhibition held in Rome.

After 8 (?) Vermeers and 48 Dutch seventeenth-century paintings have come and gone from the Eternal City—I happen to live a brisk walk from the Quirinale where the exhibit was staged—my feelings are not good. That is, middle-class Italian museum goers, who know relatively little of Vermeer & co. and as such were the prime target of the exhibition, ahimè, still don’t “get it.”

Setting aside organizational lacunae of the exhibition, there are at least three good reasons why this may be so.

First, Italians are born among and bred on monumental and spectacular works art which are practically ubiquitous. They are blissfully at home with mythological, biblical and historical subject matter and many, sometimes unaware, joust with supreme works of classical art and architecture on a daily basis. For example, just to reach the exhibition, the majority of Romans took a bus or drove their cars (without noticing) either around the Coliseum, through a historic piazza, under a winding Baroque façade or a few yards from colossal Roman statuary.

Once inside the windowless Quirinale, the curious crowds adjusted their eyes and were greeted by small pictures that portray insignificant events—insignificant by anyone’s standard except for those of historians of Dutch Art—which unfold in household environments. There were no unicorns or dragons , heroes or villains, saints or seductresses—nothing even vaguely supernatural, but dollish Dutch women and retiring Dutch men who don’t seem to be doing much of much at all.

Second, although bedecked in fine laces, exquisite satin and pearl jewelry, by Italian standards the Dutch juffers (damsels) on display were not raging beauties. A few visitors confided to me, a bit embarrassed but not really too much, that they were disappointed to discover that Vermeer’s women are homely and have greenish complexions (beauties which populate high Italian painting cannot be counted). In this country, physical beauty and grazia, obsessive concerns since the Renaissance, remain among the most spendable social currencies to this day for both sexes.

Third, most Italians do not identify themselves with their households, or”domesticity”as historians refer to it, the way Northern Europeans and Americans so often do. They don’t much like to tinker or do things at home except to watch television and dine. Sewing, quilt-making, hedging bushes in odd forms, building ships in bottles or even fixing broken things are not popular activities (if at all possible, one always pays someone else to get these kinds of things done). Do-it-yourself U.S.A. mega-stores like Joann’s Craft Center or Home Depot are utterly unthinkable on the Italian soil.

THUS, a good part of the domestic imagery and the exceptional level of craftsmanship which characterize Dutch genre painting falls on deaf ears. And if I had to bet, I would wager that the cultural impact of this “largest-of-all-Vermeer-exhibition-ever-held-in-Italy” was at best marginal. After 20 0r so visits to the exhibition, I encountered no one who had been overwhelmed. After all, the exhibition trailed second place in ticket sales to the concurrent Picasso exhibition in Milan.

The crushing economic crisis did not help.

At least one thing will be remembered. Somehow, the Quirinale and Italian press hammered through the idea that Vermeer’s paintings are special because they were depicted with an inordinate amount of natural ultramarine (powdered lapis lazuli), the most precious and venerated pigments of all times. It is a sin, however, that the pictures by Vermeer on display showed only a scant few small patches of bright blue (the appropriateness of the adjective “bright” is debatable). And if I were to again to accept wagers, this time I would stick my neck out and bet a handsome sum that no more than a handful of art historians would have suspected that (provided they had not known they were by the hand of the Delft master) these passages were painted with natural ultramarine, unless of course, they had brought along under their arms a high-power microscope and knew how to use it.

Let’s be frank—if it’s ultramarine blue that makes paintings special, someone forgot to point out that from the early Renaissance onwards, Italian painting, great and not great, is literally awash with the stuff.

Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have other ideas.

Vermeer’s Woman in Blue still at the Getty

March 13th, 2013