Two of Vermeer’s controversial paintings have been scientifically examined for an exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC in October. The girl with a red hat (ca. 1666-67) and The girl with the flute (ca. 1665-75) in the past both have been questioned by many specialists.

appearance Secrets of Vermeer (8 October-8 January 2023) will present all four NGA paintings by or attributed to Vermeer – two that have been questioned and two that have been fully accepted as authentic masterpieces. Chief curator Marjorie Wieseman is setting out to examine “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”

As all four works are almost always on display, the NGA took advantage of the 2020-21 Covid closure to move them into their conservation studio. There they were examined using the latest imaging techniques to penetrate the paint layers.

of Johannes Vermeer The girl with a red hat (1666-67)

The girl with a red hat it is now fully confirmed as a Vermeer. But there is a surprise: investigations reveal that when Vermeer began work on the oak panel, he had painted a bust-length portrait of a man in a wide-brimmed hat, which he later transformed into a girl. This is unexpected, as Vermeer is not normally considered a portraitist (many of his faces seem to represent idealized people) – and he was particularly partial to depicting women.

The girl with the flute proved more problematic to assess, and the dating (1665-75) with its long ten-year spectrum suggests that the painting may have had a complicated gestation. The final rating will be revealed shortly before the opening of the exhibition.

Discovered in 1906, The girl with the flute it was donated to the NGA by Joseph Widener in 1942. It was first rejected by Vermeer scholar Pieter Swillens in 1950—and this view was followed by many later specialists.

In the 1990s, the NGA’s own curator and Vermeer expert, Arthur Wheelock, questioned the work, describing it only as “attributed to Vermeer”. Although respected specialist Walter Liedtke, of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, continued to accept the painting, it was widely rejected by others.

Wheelock, who retired from the NGA in 2018, later reversed his position. He wrote in the NGA web catalog entry to the photo: “I have come to the conclusion that by removing The girl with the flute of Vermeer’s work was too extreme given the complex conservation issues surrounding this image.”

of Johannes Vermeer The woman holding a balance (circa 1664) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting certainly does not measure up to the quality of most of Vermeer’s accepted works. Vermeer was probably initially stuck in the composition, around 1665, but the image appears to have been extensively revised at a later date. The work is unfortunately corroded, which has made attribution difficult.

Along with these two dubious works, two other NGA Vermeers have always been accepted as masterpieces: The woman holding a balance (about 1664) and A lady who writes (circa 1665).

of Johannes Vermeer A lady who writes (circa 1665) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The last examination of The woman holding a balance revealed another surprise that may lead to a re-evaluation of Vermeer’s way of working. It has long been assumed that he painted slowly and meticulously, as only about 35 pictures survive from his 22-year career.

But the image of the lower layers below the surface of The woman holding a balance reveals fast, spontaneous and sometimes coarsely textured strokes. This is very different from the full surface of the picture, where the individual smooth strokes of the brush are hardly visible. An NGA spokesman explains: “This discovery calls into question the common assumption that the artist was a very slow perfectionist.”

All four paintings have been promised for a major Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 10-June 4, 2023). The inclusion of The girl with the flute suggests that technical research has confirmed the attribution. The loan is a coup for the Rijksmuseum, as the NGA would obviously be reluctant to lend all its Vermeers at once.

Lacemaker (circa 1925) by an imitator of Johannes Vermeer Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Along with its four Vermeers, the NGA also has two crude 20th-century forgeries, which will be included in this fall’s exhibition in Washington, DC. These are Lacemakerwhich is loosely based on the 1669-70 original in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and The smiling girl.

Both forgeries are now thought to have been created around 1925, by which time Vermeer’s work had become highly collectible and commanding significant prices. Both forgeries were part of Andrew Mellon’s bequest to the NGA in 1937. Both were rejected as Vermeers by the NGA in the 1980s.

The smiling girl (circa 1925) by an imitator of Johannes Vermeer Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Looking at both forgeries now, when we know so much more about the master’s work, it seems surprising to think that they were ever accepted.

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