PARIS • A new blockbuster Vermeer exhibition aims to debunk the myth that the Dutch master was a solitary genius who worked at home, cut off from the world.
The Louvre in Paris has gathered a third of the 17th-century painter's canvasses for the show that opened yesterday - the most ever shown in one place since his death - and they will hang alongside nearly 60 paintings by his friends, rivals and contemporaries.
"We wanted to do away with the stereotype of Vermeer as 'the Sphinx of Delft'," said Ms Blaise Ducos, who is in charge of the museum's vast collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings.
Despite his reputation as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer was all but forgotten after his death in 1675. His reputation was revived only in the late 19th century.
With so little known about the enigmatic painter, who died in poverty, it was assumed that he worked alone at his home in Delft.
All but one of his 34 known works are set within its four walls, from The Girl With A Pearl Earring to The Music Lesson, giving the impression that the artist rarely ventured out, Ms Ducos said.
But "Holland at that time was like New York", an artistic, banking and trading powerhouse, where painters competed for the patronage of its rich merchants, she said.
Vermeer stole and borrowed from his peers, including Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu, Ms Ducos insisted, all of whose work is also featured in the show.
"Vermeer and his contemporaries constantly tried to surpass one another's work in technical prowess and aesthetic appeal," said Mr Adriaan Waiboer of the National Gallery of Ireland, which has also been working on the show for six years.
"Their creative rivalry contributed to the exceptionally high quality of their work."
While The Girl With A Pearl Earring will not be leaving its home in The Hague, Vermeer's other great iconic work, The Milkmaid, has been loaned to the Louvre for the show, which will later travel to Dublin and Washington, DC.
The Dutch Republic into which Vermeer was born was the richest country in the world and the birthplace of modern capitalism. Its wealth was built on a powerful navy and its booming East India Company.
It also produced an unprecedented artistic flowering, with artists led by Rembrandt and Frans Hals producing a staggering five million works in the newly independent Netherlands over the course of the 17th century.
Vermeer, however, was anything but prolific. Although he used the best and most expensive pigments, he was so meticulous and painfully slow at the easel that he died deep in debt at the age of 43.
Ms Ducos said a 2001 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - Vermeer And The Delft School - had already explored his links with other painters in the town.
But the Louvre exhibition extends the web of "possible plagiarism, emulation and quotation" out across the rest of Holland.
Often, as the show makes clear by counterpointing The Music Lesson with his rivals' work, Vermeer was at the end of the chain, often taking other people's ideas and magnifying them brilliantly.
Vermeer And The Masters Of Genre Painting: Inspiration And Rivalry runs at the Louvre until May 22, before travelling to the National Gallery in Dublin in June.
The show crosses the Atlantic in October to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it will stay open until the end of January next year.