The Dutch Are Going Wild for a Reality TV Show Where Artists Compete to Paint Vermeer’s Lost Masterpieces

The show coincides with the Rijksmuseum's blockbuster Vermeer exhibition.

Maudy Alferink and Nard Kwast in The New Vermeer. Photo courtesy of Omroep MAX.

Fail to snag tickets to the sold-out, once-in-a-lifetime Johannes Vermeer exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum? There’s also a new reality series on Dutch television, in which contestants compete to create paintings that could pass for the work of the Golden Age master.

Titled The New Vermeer (De Nieuwe Vermeer in Dutch), the six-episode series premiered on February 12, two days after the blockbuster museum show, and has been an immediate hit. Hosted by Dionne Stax, the pilot episode drew 1.3 million viewers—over seven-and-a-half percent of the nation’s 17 million population. (The finale will air March 19.)

“This program scores better than most of the other programs we broadcast — documentaries and drama series included,” Jan Slagter, chief executive the program’s network, Omroep MAX, told the New York Times. “What’s important is that it’s about art and culture, but that it’s made in a very accessible way.”

The international buzz about the museum blockbuster is doubtless encouraging Dutch viewers to tune in, as they try to learn more about the artist who is drawing so many international visitors to the country.

At the Rijksmuseum, the show unites 28 of Vermeer’s 37 known extant paintings—the most ever shown together at one time. An initial batch of 450,000 tickets sold out in less than four days, leaving the museum scrambling to meet demand.

The plan is to release more tickets on March 6, either with extended visiting hours or by increasing capacity for each time slot.

In the meantime, there’s always The New Vermeer, which each week challenges two professional to recreate one of the six known-but-lost Vermeer paintings, including The Concert, stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the infamous 1990 heist.

Abbie Vandivere, a conservator from the Mauritshuis museum in the Haugue, teaches contestants on <em>The New Vermeer</em> about how Vermeer made his work. Photo by Mark de Blok, courtesy of Omroep MAX.

Abbie Vandivere, a conservator from the Mauritshuis museum in the Haugue, teaches contestants on The New Vermeer about how Vermeer made his work. Photo by Mark de Blok, courtesy of Omroep MAX.

That piece was well documented in photographs, but for other lost Vermeers we only have a written description from inventories or auction records.

Trying to come up with a convincing Vermeer replica without knowing what the original actually looked like is a tall order, naturally, but the competitors get four months for the challenge.

They also have help from the series’ expert judges, Pieter Roelofs, head of painting at the Rijksmuseum, and Abbie Vandivere, a paintings conservator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. (The latter institution owns Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer’s most famous painting.)

A "Second Little Street" by Titus Meeuws from <em>The New Vermeer</eM>. Courtesy of Omroep MAX.

A “Second Little Street” by Titus Meeuws from The New Vermeer. Courtesy of Omroep MAX.

While the professional painters are doing their best to faithfully replicate Vermeer’s painting techniques and artistic materials as well as period-appropriate props, a parallel competition pits four contemporary artists against one another in the “free category” that aims to channel the Dutch master’s spirit in their own personal style.

That has led to Vermeer-inspired works in all manner of different mediums, including printmaking and stained glass, as well as Lego sculpture and an assemblage made from toys and knickknacks.

In the premiere, painter Nard Kwast bested Maudy Alferink with a canvas of a gentleman washing his hands. The second episode saw artists Titus Meeuws and Kim van den Enden attempt to paint a work that could be Vermeer’s “view of some houses in Delft,” which would be the artist’s third urban scene, after his masterpieces View of Delft and The Little Street.

This week, Arjan van Gent and Adrian de Wolf tackled Vermeer’s missing mythological scene of Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury.

The winning Vermeer recreations will go on view at the Mauritshuis, while the judge’s favorite contemporary-style works will go on show at the Museum Prinsenhof in Delft, the artist’s hometown. (The Mauritshuis is also currently displaying fan versions of Girl With a Pearl Earring in the “My Girl With a Pearl” exhibition through June 4.)

You can’t currently watch the series in the U.S., but the network is streaming a weekly YouTube “Masterclass” from Roelofs and Vandivere with step-by-step instructions on how to how create your own Vermeer canvas.

There’s also a podcast, plus an online gallery displaying all the works from each episode and an opportunity for viewers to send in their own take on a classic Vermeer work to be shared on the series website.

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