One of the world’s most famous paintings, by one of the world’s most famous artists, is coming to Edinburgh next month as part of an ambitious project of loans to celebrate the anniversary of London’s National Gallery.

Who is the artist?

He is Johannes Vermeer or Jan Vermeer – or just Vermeer, if you prefer, because like Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and only a handful of other giants of the visual arts he is generally known simply by a mononym. Born in Delft in the then-Dutch Republic in 1632 to a father who dealt in paintings and ran a pub called The Flying Fox, Vermeer began dealing in art himself while in his early 20s. By that time he was also painting himself. After a few early works dealing with historical subjects, he concentrated almost exclusively on interiors for the rest of his career.

What’s he famous for?

Vermeer was renowned for working very slowly and as a result his output is modest. That and his death in 1675 aged just 43 means there are only a few dozen paintings which have been firmly attributed to him. Of these, Girl With A Pearl Earring is probably the most celebrated, a portrait from around 1665 of a girl in a blue turban half turning towards the viewer. In a survey of the most popular paintings in the world published last year by Time Out New York, Girl With A Pearl Earring placed second, behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and ahead of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss and Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Among his other immediately recognisable works are The Milkmaid, Woman Reading A Letter and The Procuress, which is thought to contain a sly self-portrait – the only one we have of the artist.

What’s coming to Edinburgh and why?

As part of the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of London’s National Gallery, 12 of its most iconic treasures are being loaned to galleries around the UK. Only one is coming to Scotland: Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing At A Virginal. Painted some time between 1670 and 1675 (academic opinion varies) it shows a woman standing by a virginal, a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family. It goes on show at the National Gallery in Edinburgh in May on the exact day the gallery’s English counterpart celebrates its 200th birthday. The painting will be on show throughout the summer and the Edinburgh Festival.

The Herald: Christ In The House Of Martha And MaryChrist In The House Of Martha And Mary (Image: free)

Anything else?

Showing alongside Woman Standing At A Virginal will be the single Vermeer held by the Scottish National Galleries, 1655 painting Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary. It is one of the earliest surviving paintings by Vermeer and also the largest. It was gifted to the nation in 1927 by the sons of industrialist (and noted art collector) William Allan Coats.

How many Vermeers are there?

Incredibly, there are only 34 paintings definitely attributed to Vermeer, with one more attributed either to him or one of his associates. There are also several more which art historians think they know about but which are reckoned to be lost, in private hands or wrongly attributed to other artists of the so-called Dutch Golden Age. In 2023, Amsterdam mounted the largest exhibition of Vermeer paintings ever by managing to bring together 28 of them for an historic (and entirely sold out) blockbuster exhibition which saw over 650,000 people visit the city’s Rijksmuseum. Even today, the Netherlands only has seven Vermeers, with the rest scattered around the world. New York has several and there are four in London, but even Paris and Vienna have only three between them – which makes Edinburgh’s Vermeer even more special.

When does it start?

Vermeer In Edinburgh opens at the National Gallery in Edinburgh on May 10 and runs daily (10am to 5pm) until September 8. Entrance is free.