This year marks the 400th anniversary of the day when the Dutch explorer Henry Hudson turned right at Mannahatta Island and was floored to discover a river named after him. To celebrate that boat trip, the curators of the Met — having already rejected the idea of an exhibit of plaster garden statues of the little Dutch boy and little Dutch girl kissing — asked the curators of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam if they could borrow Vermeer’s famous painting The Milkmaid for a couple of months.
Next thing you know, there I am standing “on line” (as they say in the East) waiting to get into an entire exhibit built around the display of this one painting. Don’t let the photo above mislead you as to the actual size of The Milkmaid. Pointy Hand A indicates the kind of wall-sized enlargement so beloved of exhibit designers. Making the unwashed public feel tiny seems to be as much a goal of museum directors as it is a delight to us, the hoi polloi. Give us an enlarged molecule to stand in, or a capillary to slide through, and we’ll call it a day well-spent. The actual painting is only about 13 inches wide.
As Pointy Hand B tells us, though, no picture-taking was vouchsafed the herd. We had only to drink in the Dutch beneficence in gratitude and shuffle off to the next silk-screened wall-ful of explanatory text in 2-inch type. The Met had turned one painting into a four-gallery affair by bunging in four of their own Vermeers (one was left upstairs for good luck) and other flotsam by contempory painters which we all ignored.
At the show’s entrance, the curators had very cleverly covered a vast wall with repros of all 36 known Vermeers in more-or-less chronological order. I counted the ones I’ve seen in Washington, at the Frick, at Norton Simon, and here at the Met and was surprised to learn I’d seen 13 of the entire bunch. Mrs NiceWork told me of an acquaintance who had made it her life’s goal to see every Vermeer. She planned her vacations accordingly. I thought –I even made that “hmm” sound signifying thought — Vermeer trekking wasn’t such a bad idea, and noted the locations of the other 23.