Two of Vermeer’s disputed paintings have been scientifically examined for an exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC in October. Girl in red hat (circa 1666-67) i girl with flute (circa 1665-75) have in the past been questioned by many specialists.
the show The secrets of Vermeer (October 8-January 8, 2023) will present the NGA’s four paintings by or attributed to Vermeer: two that have been questioned and two others that have been fully accepted as genuine masterpieces. Senior curator Marjorie Wieseman sets out to examine “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”
As the four works are almost always on display, the NGA took advantage of the 2020-21 Covid closure to move them into its conservation studio. There they were examined using the latest imaging techniques to penetrate the layers of paint.
Girl in red hat it is now fully confirmed as Vermeer. But there is a surprise: research reveals that when Vermeer began working on the oak panel he had painted a bust portrait of a man wearing 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 appear to represent idealized people), and he was particularly fond of depicting women.
girl with flute proved more problematic to assess, and the dating (1665-75) with its spectrum of a decade, suggests that the painting could have had a complicated gestation. The final evaluation will be announced shortly before the opening of the exhibition.
Discovered in 1906, girl with flute it was given to the NGA by Joseph Widener in 1942. It was first rejected by the Vermeer scholar Pieter Swillens in 1950, and this view was followed by many later specialists.
In the 1990s, NGA curator and Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock questioned the work, calling it “attributed only to Vermeer”. Although respected specialist Walter Liedtke of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continued to accept the painting, it was widely rejected by others.
Wheelock, who retired from the NGA in 2018, later changed his position. He wrote in the NGA web catalog entry for the image: “I have concluded that removing the girl with flute of Vermeer’s work was too extreme given the complex conservation issues surrounding this image.”
The painting is certainly not up to the quality of most of Vermeer’s accepted works. Vermeer probably initially blocked the composition, around 1665, but the image appears to have been extensively revised at a later date. Unfortunately, the work is worn, which has made it difficult to determine the attribution.
Along with these two disputed works, the other two Vermeers in the NGA have always been accepted as masterpieces: Woman holding a balance (circa 1664) i A lady writing (circa 1665).
The recent examination of Woman holding a balance revealed another surprise that may lead to a reassessment of Vermeer’s way of working. It has long been assumed that he painted slowly and meticulously, as only around 35 paintings from his 22-year career survive.
But the image of the lower layers below the surface of Woman holding a balance reveals quick, spontaneous and sometimes coarsely textured brushstrokes. This is very different from the completely full surface of the image, where individual soft brushstrokes are hardly visible. A spokesperson for the NGA 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 girl with flute suggests that technical research has confirmed the attribution. The loan is quite a coup for the Rijksmuseum, as the NGA would obviously be very reluctant to lend all its Vermeers at once.
Along with its four Vermeers, the NGA also has two 20th-century forgeries, which will be included in this fall’s exhibition in Washington, DC. These are La Puntairewhich is loosely based on the 1669-70 original in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, i The smiling girl
Both forgeries are now believed to have been created around 1925, by which time Vermeer’s work had become highly collectible and fetched substantial 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.
Looking at the two forgeries now, when we know much more about the master’s work, it seems surprising to think that they were ever accepted.