Jokes about “reality television” being a contradiction in terms go as far back in pop-culture history as the format itself. But the fact remains that, deliberately or otherwise, its programs do reflect certain characteristics of the societies that produce them. Before turning into one of the most globally successful franchises of this century’s reality-TV boom, the once-controversial strangers-in-a-house show Big Brother premiered in the Netherlands. It will be left as an exercise to the reader what that says about the Dutch, who have been tuning in to a very different kind of reality programming in the past month: De Nieuwe Vermeer, or The New Vermeer.
Aired in conjunction with the Rijksmuseum’s largest Vermeer exhibition ever staged, the show invites “two professional painters and dozens of amateur artists to compete to reinvent the lost works of the 17th-century master,” writes the New York Times‘ Nina Siegal.
“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 professionals face such tasks as faithfully reconstructing Vermeer’s lost works, whether they vanished centuries ago or in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft of 1990. The amateurs work in their own media, including “stained glass, printmaking and even Lego.”
All this has made The New Vermeer “an instant sensation in the Netherlands, with 1.3 million viewers (in a country of 17 million) tuning in for the first episode.” Like any successful reality TV show these days, it has also inspired a wealth of supplementary content, including a podcast and an online gallery showing all the artwork created by the contestants. “You can’t currently watch the series in the U.S., writes Artnet’s Sarah Cascone, “but the network is streaming a weekly YouTube ‘Masterclass‘” offering “step-by-step instructions on how to create your own Vermeer canvas.” At the moment, those videos are available only in Dutch, presumably on the assumption that The New Vermeer won’t travel well outside the Netherlands. But if, by some slim chance, it turned into a Big Brother-scale phenomenon, imagine the golden age of reality TV that would lie ahead.
Download All 36 of Jan Vermeer’s Beautifully Rare Paintings (Most in Brilliant High Resolution)
A Guided Tour Through All of Vermeer’s Famous Paintings, Narrated by Stephen Fry
What Makes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid a Masterpiece?: A Video Introduction
Master of Light: A Close Look at the Paintings of Johannes Vermeer Narrated by Meryl Streep
Why is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring Considered a Masterpiece?: An Animated Introduction
Meet Notorious Art Forger Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Counterfeit Vermeers
Listen to Last Seen, a True-Crime Podcast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Million Art Heist
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
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