Visitors to Google’s homepage on Friday find images of Johannes Vermeer’s beloved paintings, which offer up interior scenes with near-photographic detail. Google typically honors artists on their birthdays, though that’s not the case here—as scholars aren’t sure of the exact date when Vermeer was born. Instead, the occasion is the 26th anniversary of the opening of a Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
That survey has gone down in history because of its still-unmatched scope. There are only three dozen paintings in the world that experts agree are by Vermeer, and the exhibition assembled 21 of them. Some of the paintings were also quite literally being seen anew, given that they had just been cleaned prior to the exhibition’s run.
It is unlikely that any show in the near future will ever provide as full a view of Vermeer’s output. By comparison, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2001 blockbuster “Vermeer and the Delft School” included 15 paintings by the Dutch master.
“New Yorkers can be jaded about the scarcity of Vermeers since eight of them, altogether, happen to be at the Metropolitan and the Frick,” critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in his New York Times review of the National Gallery show. “But clearly rarity has added to his cachet.” The exhibition was flooded with hundreds of thousands of visitors, and on the last day, Vermeer fans reportedly waited 14 hours to get in.
But the National Gallery show, which was co-organized with the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, is also remembered as a victim of government shutdowns in the U.S. The show opened on November 12, only to close again on November 14. Then it reopened on November 29, and closed once more on December 16. With a lack of a budget left to keep the museum running, the National Gallery had to rely on private funding to keep the show open after Christmas.
“It’s just a sliver of the museum that we’re reopening,” Earl A. Powell III, then the director of the National Gallery, told the Washington Post at the time. “But given the uncertainty of when the government furlough will end, we decided to do what we could to make this once-in-a-lifetime event accessible.”
In the end, the second shutdown ended, the museum reopened, and the show remained on view through its closing date of February 11, 1996. In total, the show had been closed for 19 of its 90 days—though that didn’t keep more than 300,000 from seeing it.