No exhibition of Johannes Vermeer's paintings can be anything but a joy. The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, however, has gone one better with a show not just of several of his greatest works but shown them among similar works by his contemporaries in a way that makes you look at them with an entirely fresh light.
Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence is built around the loan from the Louvre of Vermeer's The Lacemaker of 1670. The French museum had wanted to borrow one of the Fitzwilliam's most valuable paintings, Titian's late Tarquin and Lucretia. And so a rich exchange was agreed. Titian in return for what must be one of the Louvre's very finest works, the Dutch master's intense gaze on a lady at work making bobbin lace.
Face to face with this small masterpiece , you are drawn into an action and a world that is completely compulsive. Everything is perfect and everything is calculated, the light that falls on her face, the plastered wall behind her, the coloured threads falling from the box in thickly applied paint contrasting with the exquisite lace round her neck. It's a work you can look at again and again without ever fully encompassing its meaning.
Around this loan, the curator of the show, Marjorie Wieseman from the National Gallery, has elaborated a theme of the Dutch fascination with women in the home, the silent world of domestic chores, private rooms and cloistered existence. The Dutch passions for interiors – they were some of the most expensive pictures of their day – is well known. So are all those scene paintings of stolen kisses, secret letters and drunken revelry. But this show of 32 works takes a particular tack, concentrating on the way that women in these interiors are looked at.
It's a very contemporary concern. A decade ago, the subject might have aroused a passionate feminist examination of the male painter's celebration of domestic virtues that were in reality a form of servitude. And you can still take that interpretation if you so wish. Vermeer stands apart, but the paintings by Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes and others represented here were undoubtedly understood to be praising the middle-class family values held to be the foundation of the newly nascent Dutch Republic. The hanging keys in the locks and the bright light outside that shines through the windows and open doors are reminders that the world of women was a constricted one.
What impresses about these pictures, however, is not the social points being made or the moral references to the vanity of the dressing table that are such a feature of the narrative and conversational pictures of the time. It is the absence of men. The women portrayed by the Dutch painters of the mid-17th century were all painted by men and their works bought by men. Yet in the works gathered here there is such total concentration on capturing the woman at work or in thought, that they become objects of veneration in their own right, a lauding of womanhood as much as their usefulness.
Jan Steen, best known for his low- and high-life scenes, is the most voyeuristic with his pictures of a woman undressing in her bedroom but few of the other paintings are so openly erotic. In some, the sitter is aware of the onlooker's presence but looks blankly and disinterested. In most, it is the woman's daily tasks that absorbs her and our attention. Gerard ter Borch is particularly good at communicating the way that his women's hands work their tasks while their minds drift to other things.
The biggest revelation to me, however, are the paintings by Jacobus Vrel. Almost nothing is known about him, where he was born and where he died. But his works belong entirely to himself in their stark minimalism. In one picture, the woman leans out of an open window suffused with light, the room barely enlivened by a tiny fire in the lower right hand corner. Then in one extraordinary picture, an elderly woman topples forward from her chair to peer through the window at the face of a child on the other side. A ghost from the past, the memory of her own lost childhood or a stranger? We simply don't know.
The sense of the unknowable is the abiding sense of these works. What are these women thinking of as they ply their tasks? In earlier days the assumption was that, if they were reading a letter or dreaming, it would concern a relationship with a man, now one is more inclined to read a privacy that we cannot as viewers breach.
Vermeer is the genius at it. The exhibition ends, as is only proper, with The Lacemaker. But it also has three other works, including the Queen's The Music Lesson, in which the mirrored face of the girl playing the virginal glances sidewise to suggest something we cannot quite guess at, and the National Gallery's brilliant study of texture and balance A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. To lead off the show is a rather less well-known Vermeer, from a private collection and only fairly recently established as a work by the painter himself. It's from the same period as The Lacemaker. Indeed, analysis has shown that the canvas is from the same bolt of cloth. It is again a painting of a girl at the virginal, only this time concentrating on the girl herself. She looks up at us, acknowledging our presence but giving nothing away of her thoughts as she pauses in her playing.
That is the pleasure of this enchanting, and free, show. It encourages you to get up close and personal to the paintings, to look minutely at the exquisite detail of the dress, the hair, the slipped-off shoe and the carpeted table. But the closer you get, the more enigmatic these works become.
Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (01223 332900; www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk) to 15 JanuaryReuse content