Dutch mastery is so seductive

Enigmatic portraits of 17th century Dutch women by Vermeer, featured in a blockbuster regional exhibition, are some of the sexiest pictures ever painted writes IAN COLLINS.

Much as it pains my Norfolk heart to admit this, East Anglia's greatest treasure house is surely the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Whatever your taste in art and artefacts, you'll find something to delight in the splendid building in Trumpington Street, close to the town centre.

And it's currently greater than ever thanks to a new exhibition on the 17th century Golden Age of Dutch painting includes stupendous supportive works from the Fitzwilliam's permanent holding. But such is the centre's standing that it has been able to borrow star lots from some of the world's finest galleries.

A mere quartet of images by the master in the title may not seem to make Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence that much of a draw.

But the Delft artist who died in 1675, aged 43, took incredible pains over a small output of smallish pictures, and today there are just 34 paintings in the world which are universally attributed to him. So the Fitz has almost an eighth of that tiny tally.

Go, go, go. One Vermeer would be well worth the pleasant train ride from Norwich to Cambridge. Four are a global attraction.

Dutch painting in its 17th century heyday has had a huge impact on East Anglia. Our cultural and commercial ties and our similarity of terrain ensured that pioneers in landscape painting just across the water were the key influence on Cotman, Crome and the Norwich School more than a century later.

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What makes a work of art great? For me it is the quality of enigma. If everything can be explained, an essential mystery is destroyed and the picture fails to hold our interest.

Look long and hard at a Vermeer painting and the plot only thickens. We are intruding on intimate moments whose secrets are barely suggested.

So little is known about Johannes Vermeer. Only moderately successful in his lifetime, and ruined shortly before his death, his genius was recognised from the 19th century.

Today he is the one Dutch painter to be mentioned in the same breath as Rembrandt. Actually I suspect that the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring is now the more popular.

Early on, Vermeer painted a picture called The Procuress, showing a group in what is clearly a brothel and the painter himself raising a glass and a saucy eyelid. A vulgar encounter compared with all that followed.

By presenting us with very intimate puzzles, Vermeer produced some of the sexiest pictures ever painted.

The pick of the Fitzwilliam's four loan pictures, is The Lacemaker, a work of around 1669-70 borrowed from the Louvre in Paris for a first UK showing.

Almost a miniature – measuring just 24cm by 21cm – this work is monumental in the questions it raises. Who is this young woman?

Is she making lace for her wedding dress? Is her suitor worthy of her? Might he be after her money? See the richness of all that fabric and all that it implies.

The picture shows Vermeer's love of cornflower blue and yellow, wrought in the most expensive pigments of his day (lapis lazuli, natural ultramarine).

This portrait also reveals how an artist famed for his handling of light – by painting layer on transparent layer – brilliantly uses his illuminating talent to compound the air of mystery.

A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is the most familiar of these pictures since it is normally displayed at our National Gallery in London.

That expensive blue gown and wall hanging may suggest a link to the Virgin Mary, but the precious material surely owes rather more to worldly opulence and how it is acquired.

Note the seductive picture behind the sitter's head. A man is being invited into this boudoir, and not just to have a go on that spare double bass.

The awaited guest has turned up in the picture A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, the Vermeer lent by the Royal Collection and sub-titled The Music Lesson. What a fabulous interior. I want that floor in my house.

And yet, is it really a music lesson that we have interrupted here? Does that flagon hold water or wine?

That double bass remains unplayed and apparently abandoned, and between the two figures there is definitely something in the air. But what, exactly?

The fourth picture, another Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, this time borrowed from a New York private collection, returns us to the solitary female figure dressed to thrill and playing an instrument which in the hands of a great artist has become enormously suggestive.

Well, she and her ilk in silk seduce me.

Compared with Vermeer's four show-stoppers, works on display from his contemporaries may look like also-rans. But they all combine to provide a fascinating portrait of a past time in a not-so-foreign country which leaves us agog and still guessing.

n Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence is at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until January 15, free admission, 01223 332900, www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk