Who says all the biggest art shows go to London?
A collection of paintings depicting women by 17th-century Dutch masters, headlined by Johannes Vermeer, has smashed visitor records for exhibitions held outside the capital, attracting over 130,000 people since it opened last October.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has seen Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence enjoy phenomenal success, thanks in no small part to its headline piece Vermeer’s The Lacemaker which is on loan from the Louvre in Paris.
The show 32 paintings also includes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated At A Virginal, on loan from the National Gallery, London, A Lady At The Virginals With A Gentleman (The Music Lesson), on loan from The Royal Collection and Young Woman Seated At A Virginal, supplied by a private collector from New York loaned.
The Dutch master, whose small-scale scenes of middle class domestic life made him only moderately successful in his lifetime, is now acknowledged as one of the leading painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence represents a significant collection of only thirty-four pieces left in the world currently attributed to him.
Opening hours at the Fitzwilliam were extended from 3 January until the close of the exhibition on 15 January to cope with the demand, which saw over 100,000 people visit the mueum for the first time in its history. In the last week before Christmas, between 9,000 and 10,000 people had been attending per week, with that figure set to rise as the exhibition comes to a close in January.
The exhibition’s curator Betsy Wieseman told the Guardian: "I cannot think of a more gratifying experience as a curator than to have this level of success; to have so many people looking at, and responding so deeply to, this contemplative quality of silence. It's satisfying that such numbers of people get it."
At only 24.5 cm x 21 cm (9.6 in x 8.3 in), The Lacemaker is one of Vermeer’s smallest paintings, but also perhaps his most revered. It depicts a young woman in yellow deep in concentration as she makes a bobbin lace. According to art historian Lawrence Gowling in his 1952 book on the painter, the piece represents Vermeer’s maturity as an artist. “There is only one 'Lacemaker’: we cannot imagine another,” he writes, “It is a complete and single definition.”
2011 was a strong year for art institutions and exhibitions held outside of London. The Turner Prize – held for the first time beyond the capital – attracted over 150,000 people to the Baltic Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne. Meanwhile further down the country in the Bath the reopening of The Holburne Museum attracted over 20,000 visitors in its first month – the highest figures since it was established in 1916.