Heres the assignment: Re-create a painting that doesnt exist, based only on a description jotted down centuries ago. And: Make it look like a Vermeer.
Thats the starting bell for a Dutch reality TV show, in which two professional painters and dozens of amateur artists compete to reinvent the lost works of 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer. The results are judged by Vermeer experts from the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum in Amsterdam, and from the Mauritshuis, a collection of old masters in The Hague.
The show, The New Vermeer (De Nieuwe Vermeer), which began Feb. 12, is timed to coincide with a blockbuster exhibition of the painters work at the Rijksmuseum, featuring the largest collection of his works ever shown. But the hourlong TV show is aimed in part at viewers who might not feel comfortable walking into a museum.
The mashup of highbrow culture and mass entertainment has been an instant sensation in the Netherlands, with 1.3 million viewers (in a country of 17 million) tuning in for the first episode. The six-episode series ends March 19.
This program scores better than most of the other programs we broadcast, documentaries and drama series included, said Jan Slagter, chief executive of Omroep MAX, which broadcasts the series.
Whats important is that its about art and culture but that its made in a very accessible way, he noted.
The success of The New Vermeer reflects surging interest in the artist during the Rijksmuseum run, said Pieter Roelofs, the exhibitions curator and one of the TV shows judges.
The idea that people from all around the globe are arriving for this exhibition makes the Dutch understand that this is really something special, Roelofs added. Vermeer is beloved, and now people want to know more.
The museum sold out the more than 450,000 tickets for the Vermeer show in less than four days a response that Roelofs compared with a pop concert or sporting event. Roelofs said the museum was working on finding ways to release more tickets, either by extending opening hours or by allowing more visitors through the doors for each time slot. Additional tickets will be released March 6, and theyre likely to be snatched up quickly.
Those lucky enough to get in will see 28 Vermeer paintings, about three-quarters of the 35 or so works that still exist. It is known that Vermeer painted at least six more paintings, which have been lost. Some of them havent been seen since the 17th century, and one was stolen from a museum decades ago and never recovered.
The premise of The New Vermeer is for contemporary artists to bring those works back to life.
There are two categories of artists who compete. For each episode, producers have chosen two professional painters, who go head-to-head to create a painting that looks like something Vermeer might have painted. They were given four months to complete the task, with guidance from art experts and curators who provided them with tips and clues about Vermeers painting techniques, materials and props he used.
Each episode also features four amateur artists who create modern interpretations of the missing work, competing in the free category. They can work in any style they wish, and the resulting images are judged on how well they reflect the spirit of Vermeers work.
Two artworks one from each category are selected as winners in each episode. The judges are Roelofs and Abbie Vandivere, a Mauritshuis paintings conservator who has spent years studying that museums most famous item, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
We know about five of the missing Vermeer works only because they were described in inventories or auction records from around the time of the artists death, in 1675, Vandivere said.
Two famous urban scenes painted by Vermeer still exist, for example: View of Delft and The Little Street, both currently on display in Amsterdam. But a 17th-century auction catalog notes that he painted a third, described only as a view of some houses in Delft. In Episode 2, the contestants attempted to re-create this work, which they referred to as The Second Little Street.
Another Vermeer painting, The Concert, hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston until 1990, when it was stolen in one of the worlds largest unsolved art heists. It has never been recovered. In Episode 4, artists will try to re-create that work based on photographs.
Slagter, the broadcasting executive, said focusing on Vermeers missing paintings allowed viewers to engage their imaginations.
Everyone who watches the show, young and old, can use their own fantasy to imagine a painting that doesnt exist, he said.
Part of the fun of the show is cheering on the amateurs, who hail from across the Netherlands and work in different styles, using stained glass, printmaking and even Lego. To re-create the Vermeer street scene, one artist used small pieces of driftwood; another arranged knickknacks and childhood toys into a three-dimensional assemblage.
The weekly live TV broadcasts are supplemented with a podcast, an online gallery of all the works featured on the show, and an invitation to viewers to send in their own contemporary interpretations of Vermeer, which are shared on the shows website.
The six winning amateur artworks from each episode will be displayed at the Museum Prinsenhof, which is housed in a former church in Delft, Vermeers hometown. The winning paintings created by the professional artists will be exhibited at the Mauritshuis.
Nard Kwast, a painter from the central Dutch city of Apeldoorn, won the professional category in the first episode with an oil painting of a domestic scene that Roelofs said reminded him of Vermeers famous The Milkmaid.
Vandivere commented when judging the work: Whats really Vermeer-like in this picture is the light, and youve done that so beautifully.
In an interview, Kwast said he had been fascinated by 17th-century painting techniques since the age of 8. He now works as a painter who produces pieces in the style of the 17th-century masters, creating replicas of paintings by Rembrandt and Ferdinand Bol, for example, on commission for private clients.
Kwast said he couldnt really imagine a higher honor than to see his contemporary painting hang alongside the old masters.
It wasnt my neighbor who was saying my work was good. It was experts from the Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis, he said. And to have his work compared with Vermeers?
This is the biggest compliment you can possibly get, he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.