Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer left his wife and 11 children badly in debt when he died in 1675 at the age of 43. He also left the world a small but seminal oeuvre that established him as one of the most important painters of the 17th century. Only 36 canvases are definitely attributed to the master of light, so when the Mauritshuis in the Hague held an unprecedented exhibition of 21 of them just over a decade ago, the museum was mobbed. Since 2003, when Colin Firth snarled and Scarlett Johansson pouted through the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, slaking the world's appetite for Vermeer has become an even greater challenge.
His paintings are scattered across museums in the U.S. and Europe, and insurance costs to transport them are now so prohibitive that there may never be another major Vermeer exhibition. But the painter's hometown of Delft has come up with the next best thing. Its brand-new Vermeer Center displays masterful re-creations of all 36 works. The Center uses inter-active installations, touch screens and webcams to present life in 17th century Holland. Visitors can explore Vermeer's use of symbolism, light and color, or look at the role of the artist's wealthy, manipulative mother-in-law.
The museum also demonstrates the camera obscura, which some experts, including the British artist David Hockney, claim Vermeer used to perfect the exquisite sense of composition and perspective that became his signature. And visitors can literally take a seat in the setting of a Vermeer painting. Posing as the Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid is one way to enter the 17th century and the mind's eye of a visionary artist.