In the winter of 1675, in the Dutch city of Delft, the painter Johannes Vermeer died, stressed and penniless. Only 43, he left behind a wife, 11 children, and two failing side businesses—as an art dealer and an innkeeper. In the decades before Vermeer’s death, the people of Delft had suffered plague, war, economic collapse, and the accidental ignition of some 40 tons of gunpowder stored in a former convent. The blast leveled a quarter of the city and killed hundreds, including Vermeer’s colleague Carel Fabritius, who painted The Goldfinch.

These unfortunate events may help explain why Vermeer’s output as an artist was so small. The number of paintings generally considered to be by his hand is 37, though at this time last year it was just 34. (Recent technical analysis undertaken by the Rijksmuseum, which is able to look beneath a work’s surface for underpainting, has confirmed that another three works are autograph.) Despite this modest oeuvre—and the fact that most of the pictures are set in one of two small rooms in his house, and depict the same pieces of furniture and the same female sitters—Vermeer is considered a genius of the Dutch Golden Age. His visions of leisure and courtship are loved for their immediacy and brilliance. His astonishing use of light, perspective, and detail has even caused speculation that he used a camera obscura to trace them.

The Little Street, painted around 1658.

Vermeer’s magic, however, lies in the unseen. Take his most memorable work, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Look closely and it becomes clear that the pearl is rendered with only two small swirls of white paint—reflections of the sitter’s collar and a light source outside the frame. The rest of the jewel is in fact missing, as is the wire that attaches it to her ear. Vermeer’s pictures are half-told stories that invite the onlooker to finish them.

Until now, the most comprehensive Vermeer exhibition was back in 1996—the show at the Mauritshuis, in The Hague. It contained 23 works. For the blockbuster “Closer to Johannes Vermeer,” which opens on February 10, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has managed to secure 28.

“Every painting by Vermeer is a highlight for the beholder. But to appreciate and understand Vermeer, experiencing 28 paintings together will open your eyes,” says Gregor Weber, head of the Rijksmuseum’s fine-art department. He adds that new research has helped scholars better grasp the artist’s process. “Sometimes he revisited a subject he painted five years earlier, developing even better solutions for illusion, perspective, and light. A great deal of research has been undertaken on his techniques and decisions—including what he decided to paint over. The exhibition catalogue updates our knowledge of Vermeer, and we come that much closer to this incredible master.”

Vermeer’s best-known painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664–67), will be on view.

Among the works present are the four that the museum already owns and three coming from the Mauritshuis, including Girl with a Pearl Earring. New York’s Frick Collection doesn’t usually loan works, but because it is closed for refurbishment, special permission was granted for its three Vermeer paintings to travel. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is lending its four paintings, though it recently downgraded one of them—Girl with a Flute (1665–70)—to “studio of” Vermeer. The Rijksmuseum disagrees with this new attribution and is hanging the painting as an autograph work. As one Dutch curator joked to a local newspaper, any doubts about authorship will hopefully “disappear during the flight over.”

And some of the nine pictures missing? Buckingham Palace considers its painting too fragile to move. The Met’s two works can’t be loaned under their bequest conditions. And the Vermeer belonging to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—The Concert (1663–66)—was stolen in an audacious heist in 1990 and hasn’t been seen since.

“Closer to Johannes Vermeer” will be on at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, beginning February 10

Harry Seymour is a London-based art historian and writer