Waving hello and goodbye to Vermeer

The Times We Lived In: March 23rd, 1995. Photograph by Frank Miller

Who is this woman, and what is she doing? Is it a handbags-at-dawn situation? Perhaps she’s at the airport, bidding farewell to a visiting family member? But she looks too happy for that.

She is, in fact, Lady Clementine Beit, and she's waving to Vermeer. Well, not actually Vermeer. Just Vermeer's superlative painting Woman Writing A Letter, With Her Maid, which she and her husband, Sir Alfred Beit, had donated to the National Gallery of Ireland – along with 16 others – almost a decade earlier.

The photograph was taken at a reception to mark the opening of the gallery's new atrium in 1995. An exciting development in its day, but not nearly as exciting as the recent multi-million refurbishment, described by the Observer's architecture critic, Rowan Moore, as "the architectural equivalent of a Vicks nasal spray" when it was unveiled in mid-June.

“Blockages have been vaporised,” he wrote. “Generous windows with delicate frames, that had been bricked up, have been uncovered, which reduces hanging space but increases the lucidity and delight . . .”


Time and again he is drawn to present to us a person completely absorbed in their task

To increase the delight factor still further, the stunning exhibition Vermeer and the Master of Genre Painting has put together a whopping 10 Vermeers for our enjoyment. Our own art critic, Aidan Dunne, noted of the artist that: "Time and again he is drawn to present to us a person completely absorbed in their task, their discipline, their passion, their world. It is a notion that was gaining currency in his time and remains true and invaluable in ours. Vermeer is, extraordinarily, a painter of our time as he was of his own."

If you haven't seen the glorious new National Gallery, shame on you. And if you haven't seen Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, you need to go. Now. The exhibition finishes up on September 17th – so if you don't get your act together you, like Lady Beit, will be waving farewell to Vermeer. But you'll be sorry.

  • These and other Irish Times images can be purchased from: irishtimes.com/photosales. A book, "The Times We Lived In", with more than 100 photographs and commentary by Arminta Wallace, published by Irish Times Books, is available from irishtimes.com and from bookshops, priced at €19.99.