Art preview: The Young Vermeer

WHEN a hotly anticipated new Vermeer show hits Edinburgh's National Gallery this week, we're going to have to redefine the term blockbuster. This free exhibition, a UK exclusive and a Scottish first, showcases the art of one of the world's most popular and mysterious artists. It is guaranteed to draw in the crowds. Yet it's somewhat compact and bijoux, consisting of just three paintings. A blinkbuster maybe?

A gorgeous and pouting Scarlett Johansson in Girl With A Pearl Earring may have persuaded you that you know all there is to know about the man from 17th century Delft whose obsessively detailed and beautifully lit images of introspective figures in quiet interiors have inspired countless fans and the occasional forgery. But The Young Vermeer sets out to portray the little known early years of an artist so elusive that, when he was first "rediscovered" in the 19th century, he was nicknamed The Sphinx.

Even today, we know next to nothing about Vermeer's training and not that much detail about his life - yup, Tracy Chevalier fans, it's called fiction for good a reason. What we do know is that after a century of speculation, attributions, misattributions and fakes, experts agree that there are just three dozen or so Vermeers in existence, scattered in 17 museums across the globe.

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Their popularity rests not just on their rendering of light and technical craft, but the mysterious aura surrounding their subjects. Vermeer's world is both intimately familiar and hopelessly distant. Because his introspective characters' thoughts and motivations are rarely expressed, we can project our own feelings on to them.

A partnership between the National Galleries of Scotland and sister institutions in The Hague and Dresden, the show brings together three paintings now recognised as among the earliest surviving works of the artist. "It's not the Vermeer that most people know," explains Christopher Baker, deputy director of the National Gallery of Scotland, "but we're looking at a young man making his way in the world in the middle of the 17th century… he's just starting out as an artist. What you see in the show is three extraordinary works, including what is probably his earliest painting. He's honing the skills that bear such spectacular fruit in his mature paintings."

The three paintings on show draw on mythology, a biblical scene and a popular "genre" subject. They are the earliest known Vermeer, Diana And Her Nymphs, that usually hangs in the Mauritshuis, the Dutch Royal Collection, in The Hague.

There is the largest known Vermeer painting, Scotland's own Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary, and, at the centre, a work that experts believe truly points the way to the Vermeer we know and love, Dresden's The Procuress, a bawdy brothel scene that the artist paints with characteristic restraint and stillness.

Edinburgh's own Vermeer is thought to mark the moment of the artist's 1653 conversion to Catholicism, an unusual move in a Protestant society, designed to pave the way for his marriage. "It's extraordinary in every sense," says Baker, "It's Vermeer's largest painting, and it's extraordinary in its religious subject. One thought is that it might be a commission or perhaps even a gift for his new mother-in-law. What a lovely thing to give your mother-in-law: a very powerful, very personal gift."

The painting comes with its own extraordinary back story; it was only attributed to Vermeer when the artist's signature was spotted in the corner of the painting in 1901. Subsequently sold in London, it attracted a media storm and was acquired by Scot WA Coats, member of a renowned family of Paisley art collectors who made their fortune in thread. The work was gifted to the nation by Coats's sons in 1927, in memory of their late father. "He owned work by Rembrandt and Franz Hals," says Baker, "but he was most proud of his great Vermeer."

Throughout these three early paintings there are tremendous hints of what was about to come: the glint of gold in a bowl in the Diana, for example, or the visual rhyme between golden braid on a jacket and the gleam of coin in the Procuress. "What he's interested in is the way that light creates form," says Baker, "and also this obsession with trying to capture texture. His skills are being developed in a riveting and often curious way."

Small it may be, but on its earlier outings in Europe this show has garnered much praise. In a world where Vermeer's paintings are so scarce, these three together may provide a unique part of the jigsaw. What does Baker think is the key to Vermeer's enduring appeal? "It's the incredibly sophisticated craft," he says. "These are quiet paintings for busy times." v


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National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Wednesday until 13 March 2011

This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on December 5, 2010