Vermeer mostly painted women, alone with themselves, engulfed in the task at hand. The protagonist of Woman Holding a Balance, ca. 1662–64, weighs her jewelry in front of a painting of the Last Judgement. In A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, 1670–72, she turns away from the window, but faces a landscape painted onto the inside lid of her instrument. His oeuvre is full of such ironies, or subtle judgments upon his subjects. In one early, atypical work on loan from Tokyo, Saint Praxedis is seen wringing blood out of a sponge, her face the emblem of tranquility as a man lies decapitated behind her, the usually latent existential tension dripping into the bucket, splattering onto the later interior scenes, so famous for being calm. In this exhibition, the very texture of selfhood becomes palpable, and it is not—or not only—pretty.
“We are actually not really interested in blockbuster exhibitions,” Taco Dibbits, the museum’s general director, told me about this year’s most-hyped show in Europe. “We could easily have had two million visitors, but we limited the number of tickets and stopped doing PR after a week.”