A YOUNG WOMAN in a blue night jacket reads a letter that she holds up to her chest. The morning light glints on the metal tacks in her chairs. Her lips are slightly parted, as she is murmuring the message aloud.

THE INTIMACY of Johannes Vermeer's domestic scenes can seem almost voyeuristic.

Some of his figures look at you as if turning towards an intruder. Yet they are also tantalisingly inscrutable, glimpsed from a distance or sealed in private reveries.

In '' Women in Blue Reading a Letter'', you see the light but not the window it is pouring through. You see the letter but not the words.

The painting is among the treasures of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and is among the 28 by Vermeer, gathered from seven countries, in an exhibition.

That is around three-quarters of his surviving works - more than have ever been shown together before, and more than the painter himself would have seen in one go, notes Taco Dibbits, the museum director.

It is a one-off tribute to his genius, and his particular form of it : the fierce, patient genius of perfected technique.

In the absence of letters or diaries, Vermeer's personality is famously hazy.

Still, documents and records plot the outline of his life.

He was born in 1632 in Delft, where his parents ran an inn called the Flying Fox. His well-heeled Catholic mother-in-law may have disapproved of him, a lowly Protestant-born artist.

He had more than a dozen-children. Early on, young and ambitious, he painted big : a myth, a Bible scene, a saint.

In around 1657 his canvases and themes sharank, and he made his leap to immortality. In troubled times, nouveauriche Dutch collectors wanted pictures of refined interiors and everyday life.

Vermeer's contemporaries developed genres and techniques that he emulated, then soared beyond them in his use of colour and perspective and, above all, his unmatched mastery of light.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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