For a nation that has only recently discovered Jane Austen as a result of a sudden blitz on Public Broadcasting Service television and in films, the reason for these pre-dawn queues was startling indeed: they had come hoping to see just 21 paintings at Washington's National Gallery of Art. By any standards, the paintings were certainly priceless; they were the first exhibition ever of the collected works of Vermeer (1632-75), only 35 of whose 45 paintings remain extant.
Such an exhibition was thought to be impossible, both because of the vast insurance and security risks and because of the Vermeers' varied ownership around Europe and the US (the Queen consented to lend her one and only Vermeer, but that was only after four years of tough negotiations). But such an exhibition did finally start here on 12 November, after eight years of painstaking work by curators here and at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Last Sunday evening, the Vermeers were taken down from the walls in Washington, and then packed in containers which resist changes in humidity and temperatures, before being flown one by one to Holland. They will be exhibited at the Mauritshuis until 2 June, whence they will be dispersed back to their 13 owners, probably never to be seen together again.
Last Saturday, a woman started queuing for a ticket for Sunday even before Saturday's showing had closed; she was soon followed by thousands more, some of whom camped in tents and sang in convivial solidarity in the bitter cold.
Vermeers, of course, have always had an entrancing allure - for Proust's dying Bergotte in Remembrance of Things Past, for example, and even for Hitler, who had The Art of Painting plundered specially for him by Nazi stormtroopers so that he could hang it on his bedroom wall. (That painting is now in Vienna and too fragile to travel.) Bill Clinton and Salman Rushdie are among those who have sneaked in past the Washington crowds for private or semi-private viewings in the VIP hour.
The phenomenon is at least partly due to the nature of privileged Washingtonians to crave what others already have, be it a car, a Filipino maid - or a ticket for the Vermeer. The show became the only one in history to have three separate openings, two resulting from the government shutdowns, and one from the weather. Thirty days were effectively lost and an estimated 80,000 who had tickets simply failed to get in. As word spread about the increasing difficulty of obtaining entry, so getting into the Vermeer became the social achievement of 1996.
The problem for the much-harassed gallery staff was that almost every white in Washington considers him or herself to be a VIP. They demanded that strings be pulled not just for themselves but for others on their behalf - some from as far afield as Tokyo and London. The Washington Post was planning a huge expose of this until it was politely pointed out that hundreds of Post people and their families had availed themselves of special privileges. The story that did subsequently appear, not surprisingly, was much scaled down in its indignation. Gallery staff were, meanwhile, shouted at and abused when they said they could not provide tickets; one woman snatched a handful from the issuing desk and had to be held at the door by a security man. And now, if you are a privileged Washingtonian who has failed to get into the Vermeer, well... you must either go away or hide your face in shame. Some will announce grandly that they always intended to go to The Hague (where two more Vermeers will be added) in- stead, but it is seen as a desperate attempt to save face.
But there is a more serious reason for the phenomenon: the sheer, unsurpassed human depth that Vermeers in such hitherto unknown abundance seem to possess. I asked a security guard how she felt being around the Vermeers all day and she replied, "kind of tranquil". (The 14th-century antiquities, she added, gave her "the creeps".) "There is an extraordinarily spiritual quality to these pictures," says Arthur Wheelock, the exhibition's US curator. "There is a sense of comfort and order which reminds me of my childhood somehow."
There is Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid stolen by Bridget Rose-Dugdale (on behalf of the IRA, she, at least, thought) in 1974 and then again by criminal dealers in 1986, from the estate of Sir Alfred Belt in Ireland - only to be recovered last year and hurriedly restored by the National Gallery of Ireland. It is a typical Vermeer: as sunlight shimmers through a window, one woman sits concentrating on writing a letter while her maid, full of mysterious idle worries, gazes out of the window.
There is the famous View of Delft which appeared hot-foot from the Mauritshuis, gleamingly restored (too gleamingly for some tastes). And the almost unbearably erotic Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in 1665 or 1666, stares at you with come-hither eyes. The Girl with the Red Hat, which adorned Andrew Mellon's piano until 1941, looks out with much more salacious eroticism and with her lips half-open: this is the favourite of the American National Gallery's renowned restorer, the British-born David Bull.
He worked for two years on the gallery's own four Vermeers, discovering, with the help of X-rays and infra-red reflectography, that in Woman Holding a Balance, Vermeer had painted shiny gilt edges down one side of a framed picture in the background - which some oaf, down the centuries, had "improved". (As late as 1932, one painting was altered to make a woman have lipstick, while another had rouge put on her cheeks because she seemed too pale to a dealer.)
"If you look at any of Vermeer's surfaces under a microscope, it is breathtaking," says Bull. "He has the ability to do exactly what he wants with paint. The control is superlative. Only Van Eyck comes close in being able to do precisely what he wants.
"If you look at the way he painted that pearl, first of all he paints in a single pearl - a sort of translucent grey layer. While that's still wet he plops in a little white paint, so the white paint melts slightly into the grey - and they both flow. That gives the pearl that shimmer. Pure genius."
Inevitably in the art world, there has been friction over the Vermeers. The US exhibition has been variously described as consisting of 20 or 21 paintings; the reason is that while Wheelock insists that Young Girl with a Flute (which the 350,000 or so who did get in have been studying with wonderment) is authentic, his Dutch counterparts privately insist it is a fake.
Bull agrees with them rather than with Wheelock: "Before I started work on it I was never quite convinced it was by him." Forensic analysis shows that the wood used for the painting was oak felled around 1564 and that the paints were also contemporary with Vermeer; but any of hundreds of inferior painters of the time could also have used those paints. Bull says: "I am now convinced it was not by Vermeer." A compromise between Wheelock and the Dutch was that the painting should stand as being "attributed to Vermeer", but few visitors are likely to have seen this small print.
More controversially - especially for a restorer working for the gallery that has been exhibiting them - Bull says he has doubts about two more in the 20. One is A Lady Seated at the Virginal, one of the paintings loaned by the National Gallery in London. Says Bull: "'It doesn't have the power, it doesn't have the sense of magic. It doesn't have the design. It doesn't have the surface. It doesn't have the sense of light - nothing that you find in all the other Vermeers." He also now has doubts about one of the supposed early Vermeers, the religious painting entitled Saint Praxedis.
The removal of the 21 paintings was an emotional wrench for the Washington staff: there was sadness that such masterpieces had gone (with the exception of the four that will be returned for the Gallery's permanent exhibition), mixed with elation that the hysteria to which they had been subjected was now a thing of the past.
Last Saturday night, rumours swept the queue that every ticket for the Mauritshuis exhibition had already been sold. And that, of course, meant that getting into the Vermeer in Washington rapidly became an even greater symbol of achievement for the privileged citizens of Washington.
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