Arts

For Vermeer’s most ardent fans, a Boston homecoming

Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing” (front) in the MFA’s “Class Distinctions” show draws close attention.

You could call them groupies, fanatics, obsessives, or diehards.

But in the more formal parlance of the art world, they’re dubbed “completists” — and they’re coming to Boston.

With last week’s debut of “Class Distinctions,” the Museum of Fine Art’s temporary exhibition of 17th-century Dutch art, two works by the painter Johannes Vermeer have drawn fierce attention from some of the world’s most fervent art fans: “Vermeer completists,” people whose life goal is to see all of the painter’s 36 known works across the United States and Europe.

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They plan vacations around temporary displays. They carve out hours during hectic work trips to dash into far-flung museums. They obsessively track their standings, whittling down the paintings they’ve yet to cross off the list. They will go anywhere to stand face-to-face with a Vermeer.

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It’s a cultural phenomenon that made headlines during major North American Vermeer shows in 1995 and 2013. There’s even a book about completists: “Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir,” a kind of “Eat Pray Love” for people who prefer museums to ashrams.

Part of the popularity of the pilgrimage may stem from its logistical practicality: Vermeer was a slow painter. Unlike attempting to see the hundreds of Rembrandts or Picassos or Caravaggios in the world, viewing Vermeer’s three dozen works is pretty doable.

Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing”
museum of fine arts, boston
Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing.”

The arrival of “A Lady Writing” and “The Astronomer” — on loan from Washington, D.C., and Paris, respectively — is especially exciting for Boston-area completists, who have no Vermeer to call their own. “The Concert,” his only work with a permanent Boston home, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 25 years ago. Newer Vermeer fans don’t have a chance of seeing the full set, at least for now.

Vermeer’s “The Astronomer.”
museum of fine arts, boston
Vermeer’s “The Astronomer.”

And maybe that’s why their zeal has crescendoed.

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“People are completely fixated on the Vermeers — it’s kind of amusing,” said Ronni Baer, the curator of the new exhibition at the MFA. (She admits she’s more of a Rembrandt fan.) “In the last decade or two, all of a sudden it hit this fever pitch. I don’t know what precipitated it.”

Best-known for the iconic portrait “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Vermeer spent his career focusing on quiet scenes of people in domestic moments: wearing pearls or pouring milk, peering into a mirror or out of a window or down at a letter. He’s known for his calculated use of light and illusions to create precise but dreamlike images — like a photo taken with Vaseline glazed over the camera lens, Baer said.

“The world he has created is very exceptional in its perfection and stillness and calculation,” Baer said. “There’s something very magical about it.”

Confession: I am an aspiring Vermeer completist. I discovered him in a book for school when I was 14, the age when art sticks with you for no reason more meaningful than that you see yourself in it. By now I’ve viewed exactly half of his 36 works in person.

It’s a weird fixation, to be sure. What could these paintings of prim white women — with their silly clusters of blonde curls, their genteel routines, their absurd billowing jackets — have said to a black girl from Miami? Yet I continue to find myself engrossed by the quiet dignity of women absorbed in reading or writing or thinking or gazing at their own reflection, bathed in cool lavender light streaming through a window. To see them in person is to feel bonded to these women in a moment of quiet and contemplation, your own stillness elevated into something mythic.

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It’s an addicting feeling.

That’s a familiar sentiment for Tracy Chevalier, author of the novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” a piece of fiction based loosely on Vermeer’s life, and later turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. Her journey started when she was 19 and visiting her sister in Cambridge on spring break. A poster of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” stared out from the wall, and Chevalier was entranced; the next day, she bought her own copy from the Harvard Coop, and made a trip to the Gardner Museum.

“I discovered how wonderful it was being in the same room as a Vermeer, more so than other paintings,” Chevalier said. “When I’m standing in front of one of them, they force me to slow down, to quiet down. It’s like a curtain has been drawn back and you’re not really meant to be there. You’re wondering, can she see me?”

Chevalier didn’t initially set out to complete the set, but at some point, she realized she had seen more than half.

“I realized I was kind of collecting them in a funny sort of way,” she said. “It’s really nice to have a grail in a new city, something you’re especially looking for that isn’t very obvious. You’re not going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. You feel like you have a special bond with the painting.”

That was part of the appeal of the completist journey for Deborah Dameron, a retired public health administrator in Hinesburg, Vt. She, too, discovered her first Vermeer as a teenager at the Gardner Museum. For a long time, she said, she had no idea that seeing all the world’s Vermeers was “a thing.”

“I had naively thought it was my own idea — just my own private little quest,” Dameron said.

She finished her journey last summer on a special trip to Germany with her husband to view the remaining six on her list. After years of elbowing past other art fanatics in crowded museums, peering up close for a few moments before pulling herself away — “I get self-conscious that I’m kind of hogging the painting,” Dameron laughed — the couple traveled to a little-known museum in Brunswick and stood before “The Girl With the Wine Glass.” They were the only people in the room.

“That was an exceptional experience,” she said.

Dameron says she’s not sad that she has no more Vermeers to discover. She plans to travel to Boston to see the “A Lady Writing” and “The Astronomer.” It’s like seeing old friends, she said: The intricate map on the wall behind the astronomer, the tiny images reflected off plump pearl earrings, the plush yellow jacket that appears on the shoulders of so many women in Vermeer’s paintings.

“I always love seeing that jacket,” she said.

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting

in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

At Museum of Fine Arts. Through Jan. 18.

617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@gmail.com.