Taking in Dublin, appreciating Vermeer

Ed Forry

It was a ten-day sojourn to Ireland last month, taking the late evening Aer Lingus flight out of Logan on Friday night, just as Labor Day weekend began. The plane arrived at Dublin Airport at 9 on Saturday morning, the first stop on a journey that would wind its way down the southeast coast of the island, spending one or two nights in Wicklow, Wexford, Cork, and Galway, and seeing the sights in Waterford, Tipperary, and Clare. It was a memorable vacation, and I was delighted to visit parts of the country that for me had remained unexplored.

After some years of overnight flights to the Emerald Isle, I have learned that I usually get little or no sleep on the flight, and the next-day, mid-morning arrival leaves me largely unfit for hopping into a rental car and negotiating the “wrong-side” driving patterns on the Irish roads.
In years past, it was the custom to book a hotel room on the first day in Ireland, hoping to get a few hours of sleep, but that plan often didn’t work out well because the hotel rooms usually were already filled from the night before, necessitating a wearying wait in the lobby until they became available. Not a good way to adjust to driving on the left side of the road.

This time, however, the plan was to stay in a hotel at Dublin Airport, and a room was booked for Friday night, the day before arrival. That way, after a short cab ride, I checked in to the hotel, went right to the room, and by ten o’clock that morning, I was fast asleep, grabbing a few hours of rest before taking in the great city of Dublin.

By three that afternoon, a 25-minute cab ride into center city led to Ireland’s National Gallery, on Merrion Square, where a wondrous exhibition, “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry,” was in its final weeks. The Vermeers were part of a major Old Master exhibition in Dublin, totaling 60 works from public and private collections around the world in a celebration of the reopening of the Gallery’s refurbished historic wings and a new display of the permanent collection.

Limited groups of tickets were available and a 3:15 reservation allowed for a full two hours to view the exhibit, including ten masterpieces by Vermeer, accounting for almost one third of the artist’s known works that remain in the world. (One of his works, “The Concert”, was among 13 priceless works stolen in the infamous March 1990 art heist from Boston’s Gardner Museum.

Among the works on view in Dublin were the National Gallery of Ireland’s own Vermeer, “Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid,” c.1670, and other Vermeers, including “Woman with a Balance,” c.1663–4, “Woman with a Pearl Necklace,” 1663–4, “The Astronomer,” 1668 , and “The Geographer.” In addition, there were paintings of daily life by contemporaries of Vermeer, including Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris.

Dr. Adriaan Waiboer, head of Collections and Research at the National Gallery of Ireland, and curator of the exhibition, explained in a brochure that “Johannes Vermeer is frequently portrayed as an enigmatic figure working largely in isolation, but this exhibition clearly demonstrates how Vermeer’s subjects, compositions, and figure types owe much to works by contemporary Dutch artists, including Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, all of whom were more successful and influential in their time.”

In a press release, the exhibition was said to feature “groups of paintings of domestic scenes – letter writing, in front of a mirror, musical scenes – and the obvious similarity of the compositions shows the interplay between artists – nonetheless Vermeer’s brilliance and originality brings new heights to the subjects and his work takes genre painting to a yet higher level.”

The Vermeer Exhibition, which previously was housed at the Louvre in Paris, closed in Dublin on Sept. 17, and now is on the way to America, where it will open on Oct. 22 at National Gallery of Art, running until Jan. 21, 2018. The Washington DC exhibit will feature an additional five works, and admission will be free.