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Close to Vermeer Uncovers the Painter’s Mysteries

Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber

You may not have gotten the chance to learn about him alongside Rembrandt or Michelangelo, in part due to the fact that so little is known about this Dutch baroque painter. No one knows how he learned his craft, who is apprenticed under, or  really even what he looked like as he painted so few self-portraits. You’ll likely recognize his most iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, which seems to have surpassed the fame of the artist himself. Suzanne Raes’ new documentary Close to Vermeer seeks to uncover the many mysteries of Johannes Vermeer.

Raes, an independent filmmaker and documentarian whose work has earned her a growing collection of festival awards, gathers a group of expert artists, art historians, collectors, and curators to speak about Vermeer and his body of work as the exhibition of his art at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam draws near. In addition to a brief biography of Vermeer’s little-known life, the film provides a behind-the-scenes look at the process of preparing for such an exhibition, and it’s much more in-depth than you might think. The layout of the exhibit, the order of the paintings, and the arduous process of determining the authenticity and accreditation of his work, all are captured in great detail.

Overhead shot of a woman arraning a series of images of Vermeer's paintings
Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber

What was once thought to be 66 Vermeer originals is now only a mere 35 (or 34, depending on who you ask). This is determined through careful art analysis ranging from scans of a piece to see each layer of paint, a careful study of each brush stroke, or years of research on his personal style. This level of analysis can reveal that what was once thought to be a flat black background was actually at one point a textured green drape. Or prove that a birdcage in a painting was actually added years later likely by a different artist altogether. An entire painting that was thought to be an authentic piece is a much-debated subject in Close to Vermeer. Through these methods of analysis, some scholars come to the conclusion that Girl with a Flute was authentically his, while others found that it was likely created by an associate of his. The film is sure to emphasize that there is still so much to learn about these paintings that date back hundreds of years, and as an extension shows us there is much to learn about art as a whole.

Raes never shies away from these bigger concepts and questions: What is art? Why is it culturally significant? What can art reveal about humanity? Does the reproduction of art lessen its value? By focusing this story on the mysteries of Vermeer we begin to gain an understanding of the answers to these questions. But most of all the film highlights the beauty of art and how it is created. One interview subject is nearly brought to tears discussing the elegance and beauty of Vermeer’s work, telling a story about how he fainted the first time he saw the painter’s work in person. The passion of each interviewee is abundantly clear. Never wanting to cut away from their emotional expressiveness the documentary often makes use of a split screen showing us both the talking head and the artwork they are discussing side by side.

Man leans over a table to get an up close look at Vermeer's painting: The Milkmaid
Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber

The majority of Vermeer’s art focuses on mundane domestic life. The facial features of his subjects are soft and elegant, uniquely shaded with tones of green. This shading technique was distinct to Vermeer, and no one quite knows how this effect was achieved, another one of his many mysteries. His earlier work ranges in style and subject matter, often leaving people to wonder if it is truly his handiwork, but the bulk of his later art is incredibly consistent.

Vermeer turns the mundane mystical with his meticulously composed masterpieces, each of which holds the power to tell a compelling story. Many of these still stories seemingly take place in one of two rooms, as Vermeer was thought to have worked in a studio or continually paint in the same spaces, giving his work a through-line that other artists of the time did not achieve. His rich simplicity is always on display, even in the names of his paintings, some examples being Woman Holding a Balance, The Milkmaid, and Girl Reading a Letter. Mirroring his own compositions, the interviews of the film are often composed in a similar manner. Each framing has great attention to detail, each space having special significance to the subject the expert is brought on to discuss.

Man stands solo in an art gallery of Vermeer's work looking at three small paintings on the wall
Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber

Close to Vermeer allows us to not just see, but experience these rich details that would not be possible in a busy museum. In its own way, it cuts through the crowd so that we can be up close and personal with the art. His small paintings, some as little as half a foot in length, are made to be larger than life in this documentary, where they hold their own on the grand museum walls. The use of a slow zoom in and out on the pieces makes the static paintings feel alive. While there are several experts to lend their knowledge, for the most part, Raes lets the art speak for itself. There are lingering moments of silence that allow the audience to simply sit with the paintings so that they can be truly appreciated. What we know about Vermeer is limited, but Close to Vermeer is a tribute to his talent that gives us the opportunity to see him and his work like never before.

Close to Vermeer opens May 26 at the Quad Cinema in NY, with national expansion to follow.

Written by Cassandra Bauer

Cassandra Bauer is the film critic for The Winonan. Besides watching endless movies, Bauer likes going to local coffee shops, attending yoga classes, and reading celebrity memoirs. She also loves spending time with her friends, working at the movie theater in her hometown, and playing tennis.

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