Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), The Lacemaker (c.1669-70). Oil on canvas, 24 x 21 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris © Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ Gérard Blot

A new exhibition on the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer will explore the mysterious appeal of the women in his paintings. Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence features 28 works by master painters of the Dutch Golden Age and four iconic works by Vermeer, including The Lacemaker from the Musée du Louvre in Paris, on show in the UK for the first time.


Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c.1670-2. Oil of canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm © The National Gallery, London. Salting bequest, 1910

Women are one of the key subjects in Vermeer’s works: whether gazing out wistfully at the viewer, or focusing on an activity with an almost eerie calm, they possess a powerful allure. This exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum is the first to focus on Vermeer’s domestic interiors and, by examining them in the context of paintings by other Dutch Golden Age masters, explores the enigma of these women who seem crystallised in a moment in time.


Gerrit Dou, Woman at a Window, 1663. Oil on panel, 38.5 x 27.7 cm © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The vivid realism of these paintings provides a remarkable window into the private world of women in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. These scenes about the home seem hauntingly familiar even today: from the meditative calm of needlework, playing music, reading or simply daydreaming to such mundane domestic activities as cooking, shopping, washing and dressing, minding children, gossiping and eavesdropping. Often framed with a painted window or doorway, the viewer has the impression of having stumbled upon a private moment hidden behind closed doors.


Gerard ter Borch, Woman Washing her Hands, c.1655. Oil on panel, 53 x 43 cm © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Revealing the Dutch Golden Age ideals of the home, feminine beauty and domesticity, the exhibition also explores how artists subtly altered and augmented reality to enhance the magnetic appeal and symbolic import of these painted worlds.

At the heart of this stunning exhibition is Vermeer’s extraordinary painting The Lacemaker (c.1669-70), one of the Musée du Louvre’s most treasured works, rarely seen outside Paris and now on loan to the UK for the first time.


Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), Woman Sewing by a Cradle. Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 38 cm © Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Complementing this painting are three further works representing the pinnacle of Vermeer’s mature career: A lady at the virginals with a gentleman ‘The Music Lesson’ (c.1662-5) on loan from The Royal Collection; A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c.1670) from the National Gallery, London; and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (private collection, New York). Joining these are 28 masterpieces of genre painting from such artists as Cornelis de Bisschop, Gerard ter Borch, Esaias Boursse, Quiringh van Brekelenkam, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Nicolaes Maes, Cornelis de Man, Eglon van der Neer, Jacob van Ochtervelt, Godfried Schalcken, Jan Steen and Jacobus Vrel.


Quiringh Gerritsz. Van Brekelenkam, Confidential Conversation, 1661. Oil on panel, 47 x 36 cm © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Jonkheer J.S.H. van de Poll Bequest, Amsterdam

Dr Timothy Potts, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, commented: “Vermeer’s Women will be a rare opportunity to enjoy some of Vermeer’s most ravishingly beautiful paintings of the intimacy of the Dutch household – frozen moments captured in Vermeer’s uniquely luminous style. Although domestic scenes constitute the principal subject of Vermeer’s work and that of many of his contemporaries, and are one of the most distinctive and evocative aspects of Dutch art of the Golden Age, this will be the first exhibition to focus exclusively on them, and to explore their hidden significance in terms of contemporary Dutch mores.

“Equally importantly, Vermeer’s Women will reveal the extraordinary subtlety and skill of Vermeer’s finest contemporaries, many of whom were far more famous than Vermeer during their lifetimes.”


Gerrit Dou, A young woman at her toilet, 1667. Oil on panel, 75,5 x 58 cm. Donation: Henry Deterding 1936 © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The exhibition is guest curated by Dr Marjorie E. Wieseman, Curator of Dutch Paintings at the National Gallery, London. A new catalogue will be accompanying the exhibition, with essays by Dr Wieseman and two other internationally recognised experts in the field, Dr Wayne E. Franits, professor and chair of the Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University, and Dr H. Perry Chapman, professor of art history at the University of Delaware.


Pieter de Hooch, The Courtyard of a House in Delft, 1658. Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 60 cm © The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1871

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence features works from museums and collections around the world, including the National Gallery, London; The Royal Collection; the Musée du Louvre; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the Mauritshuis, The Hague; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

5 October 2011 – 15 January 2012. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB, UNITED KINGDOM


Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a Window, waving at a Girl, c. 1650. Oil on panel, 47.5 x 39.2 cm © Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris