During any other time, it may seem odd to find a Dutch painting hanging inside a museum dedicated to Spanish art. In fact, finding a painting by Dutch baroque artist Johannes Vermeer anywhere in Texas is nearly as rare. That’s why it was a bit of a coup when the Meadows Museum in Dallas secured Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter for its new exhibition, Dalí/Vermeer: A Dialogue, on display Oct. 16, 2022 through Jan. 15, 2023.
The Spanish link, as the title implies, is the 20th century Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí, who adored the art of Vermeer so much that he created his own reimagining of the artist’s work more than once. His 1938 painting, The Image Disappears, is the most obvious example, applying his own signature style in a surrealist interpretation of the Vermeer work.
“These works have never been installed together before,” says Amanda Dotseth, Director ad interim and Curator at the Meadows. “And Vermeer in Texas is just a rare treat.”
The idea for the exhibition initially came from the Meadows Museum’s late Director, Mark A. Roglán, when he was contacted by Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum with the request to borrow one of the Meadows’ works by Diego Velázquez. “So, we hatched up this idea that maybe we could collaborate with them on two loans,” Dotseth says, adding that their existing relationship with the Dalí Foundation in Figueres, Spain, made it easy to procure The Image Disappears to complete the exhibition.
Why would Dalí—the eccentric man famous in the mainstream art world today for his images of melting clocks and erotic renderings of the human body—be obsessed with provincial paintings of daily life in 17th century Holland? “Dalí was discovering Vermeer when the rest of the world was kind of discovering Vermeer, partly thanks to the ability to reproduce images in quality,” Dotseth explains. “Before that, you had to travel to see something where it was. And so, there’s this moment in the turn of the 20th century where a lot of these Dutch artists were ‘discovered’ by people outside of Holland for the first time.”
The fact that Dalí’s reverence for Vermeer began before ever seeing the originals in person indicates that it may not have been Vermeer’s technique that initially earned Dalí’s admiration. Studying intricate brushstrokes is more easily done in person, after all. Basing his knowledge solely on black and white reproductions early on, it was more likely Vermeer’s choice of composition and content. Dotseth notes that, because Vermeer is known for his intimate interior scenes of daily life, his enigmatic settings often carry an underlying emotional tension.
In Woman in Blue, for example, a woman is standing at a window while reading a letter. Is it a love letter from a sweetheart away at war? Or maybe just a note from a family member? That’s up to the observer to decide. There’s a pile of other items on the table: More letters, a locked box, even some pearls. “You get this sense that these are the things that are valuable to her,” Dotseth says. “And there’s clearly a whole story there, but we don’t really know what it is. We can’t really access it.”
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675), Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663. Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 15 3/8 in. (46.5 x 39 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest), SK-C-251.
Nearly three centuries later, Dalí created The Image Disappears in response to Vermeer’s piece, presumably as a sort of homage to the original. He was employing his distinctive “double method” at this point in his career; in simplest terms, that’s when two things are seen at once. Someone who’s familiar with Vermeer’s original is prompted to see the woman in the window with her letter. But look twice and you’ll see a man’s face and profile superimposed within that image. (The face, as it turns out, is that of Diego Velázquez, making this a tribute to two artists.)
This side-by-side display of the paintings is the centerpiece of the exhibition, which also includes a lithograph that Dalí created later in his career. In this case, Dotseth describes it as being more of an “edit” of a Vermeer piece. “What it shows, that was interesting to me, is that we have two works of art from different periods of Dalí’s career where he’s trying to accomplish very different things,” she says. “But they’re both grounded in this obsession with Vermeer. It never goes away.”
People may be surprised to know that Dalí visited Dallas in 1952 to give a lecture at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium. A photo in the Dallas Morning News shows the artist standing in a slanted doorway (which he referred to as a “Dalí-ian” door) on the ramp of Union Station. Donning a dapper black mid-length coat, his left arm holds a cane with a curved handle while the hand of his outstretched right arm grasps the door frame. In his own words describing Texas, he declared: “Astonishing! In New York, all black and white. In Texas, all in color. In Italy, everybody dreams in color. In France, not so much. It is very mysterious. But in Houston, I dream in color twice. And then, last night here [in Dallas].”
Dotseth muses on what Dalí’s reaction would be to see his painting displayed next to its inspiration, remarking: “Maybe seeing his own work with that of his beloved Vermeer here in Texas would have inspired new dreams in color.”