Since it opened in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing at London's National Gallery has sustained a programme of the most consistently high-quality exhibitions of any museum or gallery in Britain. The 30-odd shows include the wonderfully comprehensive "Rembrandt by Himself", which featured nearly all of the artist's authenticated self-portraits; the hauntingly beautiful installation of "Portraits by Ingres: image of an epoch"; "Seurat and the Bathers"; "Manet: the execution of Maximilian"; and "Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya". Interspersed among these ground-breaking presentations has been not only the "Making and Meaning" series of displays, which have focused on iconic objects from the National Gallery's collections (such as The Wilton Diptych and Turner's Fighting Temeraire), but also stand-alone projects such as "In Trust for the Nation: paintings from National Trust houses" and "Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on reflection".
"There are two starting points which determine the programme of exhibitions in the Sainsbury Wing," says the National Gallery's director, Neil MacGregor. "The first is that it's a small set of rooms, which is a huge strength. It took us a little while to realise how to work with the spaces, and our first couple of shows were actually too big because we had to plan them before the rooms were built. The second key element has been the steady thing of always trying to keep close to the collections, now and then punctuating the run with shows on things which are completely absent from the collections, such as the 'Spanish Still Life' and recent German 19th-century shows."
Exhibitions on the intellectual and physical scale of the Rembrandt and Manet shows take years to organise, and rely on the generosity of public collections and private patrons, as well as the committed financial support of the commercial sector. Lenders and sponsors will collaborate on shows of world-class importance only if they respect the vision and achievements of the host and the scholarly acumen of the curatorial team. Central to this relationship is the esteem accorded to the organisation's director and, in this respect, MacGregor has few peers.
MacGregor has been the director of the National Gallery since 1987. After taking French and German at New College, Oxford, he read philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and then law at the University of Edinburgh, before being called to the Scottish Bar. He obtained an MA with distinction in 17th- and 19th- century art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and was a lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of Reading and a part-time lecturer at the Courtauld between 1975 and 1981. He was editor of the Burlington Magazine for six years and, in 2002, will celebrate 15 years in his post at the National Gallery.
Together with Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, MacGregor can be largely credited with turning London into a world-class centre for the visual arts. Both of them passionate believers in the principle of free admission to museums and galleries, MacGregor and Serota have overseen the genesis of a golden age of exhibition-making in Britain, and with "Vermeer and the Delft School", a major facet of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, the National Gallery could not have celebrated more fittingly the Sainsbury Wing's tenth anniversary.
"Vermeer and the Delft School" includes 74 paintings and seven pieces of applied art spread through the seven rooms of the Sainsbury Wing's temporary exhibition space. Of the paintings, 13 are by Johannes Vermeer, five are by the hugely accomplished Carel Fabritius (Rembrandt's pupil and Vermeer's putative tutor), and ten are by Pieter de Hooch, the other acknowledged master of the Delft School.
Exhibition organisers are frequently guilty of hyperbole in marketing their shows. In this instance, the inclusion of Vermeer's name in the exhibition title is entirely appropriate. Only 35 or, possibly, 36 paintings by Vermeer are known to exist, so the National's exhibition includes more than one-third of his surviving output. Needless to say, there are some unfortunate omissions, not least The Maid Asleep, which was available only for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's showing of the exhibition. View of Delft and Girl with a Pearl Earring are also sorely missed.
"The point of the Vermeer exhibition," MacGregor insists, "is actually to show that there were three great painters - Vermeer, Fabritius and de Hooch - all of them painting at the same time in the same town. In the 17th century, if you were asked to name the best, most people would have gone for Fabritius, the star who was cut off by death at an early age. In the 18th century, without any hesitation, it would have been de Hooch, and would have been right the way into the middle of the 19th century. And then, from the 1860s and 1870s, it has been Vermeer. What that's about is how you define what outstanding painting is at a particular moment in history. The switch from de Hooch to Vermeer is the switch from a narrative, emotive, imaginative engagement in content to a preoccupation with touch above everything else, and with the retreat of subject matter. Fabritius is about verve and the speed of creation, about working with simple materials and making a great thing. But the three represent very different conceptions of what great painting is, and to see them all together is terrifically enriching. It would be wrong to demythologise Vermeer, but we were interested in seeing Vermeer in context, given that he was eclipsed for so long. If you put him back in context, does he immediately stand out as the star?"
MacGregor believes that Fabritius and de Hooch are quite possibly as important as Vermeer: "As I have a very strong attachment to the affective imperative in art, I do think one of the qualities of good art is the engagement of the spectator with the subject matter. In this regard, I think de Hooch stands up astonishingly well, and so, too, does Fabritius. If you take something like Fabritius's The Goldfinch, with its extraordinary narrowing of the palette, and what you can actually do with something entirely conceived in terms of brown as virtuoso painting, it's just as impressive as Vermeer. What I'm left with is the feeling that, had Fabritius lived, we would have had a very different view of Vermeer, because there would have been two of them doing slightly similar things, but in different ways. And I think de Hooch emerges as a real contender, too. It just depends on what you want out of your painting."
Vermeer is reputed to have written: "Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them, to bow our heads before them and also prepare the eyes for never-ending delight and wonder. Allow us to continue our archaic procedure, to tell the world words of reconciliation and to speak of joy from recovered harmony, of the eternal desire for reciprocated love." Harmony and love are the two themes that come through time and again in Vermeer's paintings, especially in those images of women alone with their thoughts, such as Woman with a Lute and Woman with a Balance, both in the National Gallery show. But his paintings are also about the silence that accompanies measured pictorial composition. Perfectly visualised, Vermeer's canvases are noiseless domains. We don't hear the milk cascading into the jug; we can't discern the children's shouts in the back alleys of Delft. The world we encounter in Vermeer's paintings is shrink-wrapped and vacuum-packed; it is a world without sound.
The eight Vermeers on view in the final room of the show provide the visitor with one of the most uplifting artistic experiences in all Europe. When the critic Peter Schjeldahl, in an article in the New Yorker, asked of Vermeer's painting "Is it image or paint, realism or reality?", he was missing the point. It is image as paint and realism as reality. In the same article, Schjeldahl uses the current interest in Vermeer to confirm what he perceives as a trend in taste away from art as a field of educational improvement and towards aesthetic experience as an end in itself. But he is wrong again, because if Vermeer's work teaches us anything, it is the intrinsic value of precise observation, diligent application and the quest for excellence.
How, then, do the other painters in this exhibition appear in the glare of Vermeer's genius and the almost equal brilliance of Fabritius and de Hooch? One of the unexpected bonuses are the modest landscapes of Daniel Vosmaer and Adam Pynacker. The calm Dutch landscape has undoubtedly shaped the predominantly calm Dutch way of viewing the world. David Winner, in Brilliant Orange, his masterly examination of the impact of Dutch life on one of the world's most distinctive and sophisticated football cultures, suggests that the art of Vermeer, Pieter Saenredam and other noteworthy Netherlandish painters provided a context by which the Dutch landscape modelled Ajax of Amsterdam and the extraordinary national teams of the 1970s and 1980s.
Winner quotes Rudi Fuchs, the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who argued how every country and culture has its own way of seeing: "The Dutch make their geometric patterns. In a Vermeer, the pearl twinkles. You can say, in fact, that the twinkling of the pearl is the whole point of Vermeer. The whole painting is leading to this moment, the way the whole of football leads to (that famous) overhead goal of [Marco] van Basten. [The Dutch] measure space quietly, very precisely, and then order it in detail. That is the Dutch way of seeing, the Dutch approach to space: selective detail. It's a natural, instinctive thing for us to do. You see it in our paintings, our architecture and our football, too."
You might feel that all this talk about Dutch art and football is rather off the point, but what Fuchs is suggesting is that, throughout history, Dutch artists have been producing concise and honest work that allows audiences of all interests and all backgrounds to engage with it from a position of parity. The reason why Vermeer and Fabritius and de Hooch and all the other well-known Dutch painters of the 17th century are so respected and so popular is that they hardly ever alienate the viewer. We meet them on a level playing field, as it were, and the overwhelming impression we take away from their canvases is one of a shared and dazzling humanity.
"Vermeer and the Delft School" is at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (020 7747 2885), London, until 16 September
David Winner's Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football is published by Bloomsbury (£7.99)
Paul Bonaventura is senior research fellow in fine art studies at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art