How reality TV is bringing back paintings by Vermeer that have been lost for centuries Pipa News

How reality TV is bringing back paintings by Vermeer that have been lost for centuries

A reality TV show in the Netherlands is breathing new life into old paintings, some of which haven’t been seen for hundreds of years.

called The New Vermeerthe hit series challenges artists to recreate the six lost works of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

Vermeer is one of the most famous Dutch artists of all time, but only about three dozen of his paintings are known. Six others have been lost – one stolen from a museum decades ago and others known only from brief written descriptions collected from inventories or auction records around the time of his death in 1675.

“These things have never even been seen,” artist Maudy Alferink, a contestant on the show’s first episode, told me. As it happens host Nil Koksal. “It’s just on a piece of paper — a little sentence — with the information.”

Those little sentences are everything The new Vermeer contestants have to go along as they work to come up with a masterpiece from scratch.

6 lost paintings, 6 episodes

The six-episode series was launched on February 12 and is already a huge hit in the Netherlands, says Josse van Rhee, a spokesperson for Omroep MAX, the channel that broadcasts the series.

Each of the three episodes aired so far has attracted between 1.2 million and 1.3 million viewers, he said. The Netherlands has 17.5 million inhabitants.

The launch of the show coincided with the opening of an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam featuring 28 Vermeers – the largest collection of the artists’ work ever shown. The exhibition was already sold out.

A man is painting behind an aisle in a sunlit room.
Artist Nard Kwast is working on his Vermeer recreation. (Broadcaster MAX)

Every episode of The New Vermeer pits two artists against each other to recreate the same work.

They are given four months to create the piece, and during the process they can consult experts and curators who coach them on Vermeer’s style and technique, as well as historically accurate materials, props and settings.

For Alferink – a self-taught painter – it was a no-brainer to seize this opportunity.

“That’s how I taught myself to paint. I’ve looked at Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, all the classical masters… and now I get the chance to be with all these specialists,” she said.

“It was very special, so I didn’t have to think long.”

In the first episode, Alferink competed against artist Nard Kwast.

He’s always had a passion for the work of the Old Masters, he says, and has plenty of experience making reproductions of their work – but never before without a point of reference.

This time all he had to do was continue with a description that roughly translates to: a gentleman washing his hands in a room with other figures.

Kwas says he started with his homework. He studied the artist’s work intensively, both in books and in museums, and wondered: what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?

“I really need to dive into this,” he said.

A woman with blue braided hair shows something to a man and a woman, while a third woman stands to the side, holding up a blank canvas.
Alferink, center left, and Nard Kwast, center right, prepare to create their reimagined masterpieces. (Broadcaster MAX)

Kwas says he has always appreciated Vermeer for his precision, the way he works with light and his ability to depict these quiet and still moments.

But during the show, he was able to observe in detail how much the artist has improved himself and refined his technique throughout his career.

“I now have a lot more appreciation for his work after this whole program,” he said. “It’s so genius what he does. It’s also so skilled. But there’s also something special about him.”

Two hyper-realistic oil paintings next to each other.  Both have bright pink backgrounds.  On the left, a grinning woman in a cowboy hat holds a handbag that resembles a heart-shaped pillow, with the words "Delete my number" embroidered on it.  On the right, a woman in thick heels and a light pink raincoat sits on a block and spreads her legs.
Two oil paintings by Alferink—Delete My Number, left, and Manspread, right—depict her hyper-realistic style, which she says came in handy when she tried to emulate Vermeer. (Submitted by Maudy Alferink)

Mysterious relationships

In the end, both artists came up with similar scenes in which a maid washes the gentleman’s hand while another woman watches from behind. The specific details differ, but both paintings imply a relationship – or perhaps a tension – between the three characters.

An oil painting in a gold frame hung on the wall.  It shows a man in a fancy hat having his hands washed by an alarmed-looking maid using an old-fashioned pitcher and bowl.  In the foreground in a table with a bowl of lemons.  Behind them, a woman enters the room with a bowl of peaches.
Alferink’s recreation of a lost Vermeer uses peaches and lemons to tell a story. (

Alferink does this through symbolism, painting lemons on the table and a maid entering the room with a basket of peaches.

“Lemons, they mean a sour love or a love gone wrong. And peaches, they mean sensuality and fertility,” Alferink said. “So there’s a storyline between the three people there and … as a viewer you try to figure out what’s going on.”

An oil painting in the style of 17th-century artist Johannes Vermeer depicts a man in fancy dress at a table full of food while a maid washes his hands with an old-fashioned pitcher and bowl.  She looks over her shoulder at a woman in a green dress holding a letter.
Kwast says he infused his Vermeer with subtle hints and nods to the artist’s history. (Submitted by Nard Kwast)

In Kwast’s version, the woman carries a letter instead of peaches. The maid washing the gentleman’s hands gives her a knowing look, almost as if to warn, “Maybe this isn’t the right time to come here,” he said.

“I wanted to create some kind of tension between these people,” said Kwast. “To be honest, I am the creator of this painting, but I don’t know exactly what is happening. But I know that something is happening. And I like this more than [if it was] completely clear.”

Making art accessible

Both Alferink and Kwast are amazed at all the attention the show is getting.

“It’s a bit surreal to me,” Kwast said. “I’m really proud.”

Alferink hopes it will help to introduce more people to not only Vermeer’s work, but also the art world in general. She’s already said she’s received emails from people who were inspired by the show to take up painting themselves.

“I hope this motivates people to visit more museums,” she said. “I really hope so.”

The New Vermeer is not available for viewing in Canada, but the accompanying web series, Master class, is on YouTube. Everyone can tune in here to the digital version of the exhibition in the Rijksmuseum.


Most Popular

Most Popular