In 1995, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., rounded up 21 of the 35 paintings known to have been made by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, the show was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event. About 4,000 people filed into the specially ticketed exhibition each day -- until a partial government shutdown, caused by a budget disagreement between President Bill Clinton and the Republican majority in Congress, forced the gallery to close. The outcry was so loud that Director Earl A. "Rusty" Powell dug up $30,000 in private funds to reopen "Johannes Vermeer" while the rest of the gallery remained shuttered.
Nothing as dramatic as that is likely to happen when the Norton Simon Museum displays "A Lady Writing," an archetypal Vermeer on loan from the National Gallery, Friday through Feb. 2. The Pasadena institution is not funded by the federal government. It is not on the National Mall, where droves of tourists pass by. And the Simon will offer only one work by the mysterious artist from Delft known as a painter of light.
But a Vermeer is a Vermeer, and this particularly luminous masterpiece has been carefully chosen as part of the Simon's exchange of artworks with the National Gallery and the Frick Collection in New York. The program began last year, when the Simon sent a Rembrandt to Washington. Five other paintings in the Simon's collection -- including "The Flight Into Egypt" by Jacopo Bassano and "Still Life With Lemons, Orange and a Rose" by Francisco de Zurbaran -- will go to the Frick in February. The Vermeer will be the first work in the program to land in Pasadena, and word of the Frick's initial loan to the Simon is expected soon.
Making an occasion of a single painting -- and one that measures a mere 17 3/4 inches tall and 15 3/4 inches wide -- may be unusual. But petite exhibitions, which have proliferated as costs of giant loan shows have escalated, can be very popular. The J. Paul Getty Museum's recent exhibition of Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," lent by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, was a big hit.
At the Simon, which concentrates on its permanent collection, bringing in a Vermeer is a big event -- worth pulling out all the stops to make sure the distinguished visitor is seen, studied, discussed and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Choosing the first National Gallery loan to the Simon was "a pretty easy task," says Carol Togneri, the Pasadena museum's chief curator. Vermeer's work, admired by connoisseurs and the public alike, is exceedingly rare. None of his paintings reside on the West Coast, and those in collections of such institutions as the National Gallery, the Frick, the Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris rarely travel. The only time that "A Lady Writing" has been in California was in 1991, when "Great Dutch Paintings in America" appeared at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Although the National Gallery has three other Vermeers -- "Girl With a Flute," "Girl With the Red Hat" and "Woman Holding a Balance" -- "A Lady Writing" captivated Simon curators because it's a breathtakingly beautiful portrayal of a woman who seems to engage directly with viewers, Togneri says. Seated at a desk and adorned with an ermine-trimmed yellow jacket, satin hair ribbons and pearl earrings, she holds a quill pen over a sheet of paper but lifts her head and looks out of the picture, as if responding to someone who has just walked into the room. The subject may be the artist's wife, but her identity is uncertain.
Vermeer lived from 1632 to 1675 and is thought to have painted "A Lady Writing" around 1665, when he was in his prime. It's an intimate scene with a hushed aura that entices viewers to come closer. But unlike jewelry or delicately illuminated manuscripts, which can exert a similar pull, the painting contains relatively few details.
Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery, puts it this way: "There's an absence of detail in Vermeer. So in a way, you become involved as you complete the picture."
In Washington, "A Lady Writing" hangs with other Vermeers in one of three small rooms known as cabinet galleries. They are intimate spaces, comparable in scale to a Dutch home, Wheelock says.
The Simon has no such galleries, and it took some time to come up with a suitable alternative. Initially, the staff considered a small room off the lobby, but it has only one door and can't accommodate many people. The challenge was to put the painting in an appropriate historical context while providing viewing comfort, maintaining security and abiding by the fire marshal's rules.
The curators decided that the Vermeer belonged in the gallery of 17th century Dutch paintings collected by Norton Simon. But that too presented a problem. Larger and much bolder works by artists such as Jan Steen could easily overpower the quiet little visitor. Facing questions about how to organize the gallery and manage the flow of traffic, the Simon called in Stephen Saitas, an independent installation designer who has worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick in New York and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
Instead of hanging the Vermeer on an existing gallery wall with other paintings, Saitas suggested displaying "A Lady Writing" on a free-standing structure in the middle of the Dutch gallery. Visitors will see the painting as they approach the gallery in the northwest wing. Information about the artwork and exchange program will be printed on the back of the temporary structure. "The installation in the gallery will remain the same," Togneri says, "but with the Rembrandts, the Steens and other works in loving embrace of the Vermeer."
The Simon has organized an educational program, including a podcast conversation between Togneri and Wheelock, tours and family events. Wheelock, who has done extensive technical research on Vermeer's paintings, will kick off a lecture series with "What Makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? Searching for Clues in the Conservation Laboratory" at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"I want to help people see why Vermeer's paintings create such a special aura," he says. "I will try to demonstrate how he made adjustments in his images that purified and clarified the forms and the story he was telling, or the mood or character. The scenes look real, but you are not aware of all the shifts he makes that give the paintings a timeless quality. That's one of the things that's special about Vermeer's paintings. They could be from a contemporary world as well as a 17th century world."
Melanie Gifford, a research conservator at the National Gallery, will lecture on "Vermeer's Painting Technique: Time Stilted and Light Made Tangible" on Jan. 3. Anne T. Woollett, associate curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, will talk about "The Intimate Interior: Vermeer and His Contemporaries" Jan. 31.
No one is predicting how many visitors Vermeer will draw. But attendance is likely to soar beyond the usual 40,000 who come to the museum during a typical November-through-January period. "We are hoping people will come just to see this one picture," Togneri says. "It's not often that you get to see a Vermeer in California."
Muchnic is a Times staff writer.
'A Lady Writing'
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Friday through Feb. 2
Price: $4 to $8
Contact: (626) 449-6840