Tests reveal secrets of four Vermeer paintings—including their authenticity—in Washington, DC show

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Tests reveal secrets of four Vermeer paintings—including their authenticity—in Washington, DC show

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

The show Vermeer’s secrets (October 8-January 8, 2023) will present all four of the NGA’s paintings by or attributed to Vermeer—the two that have been questioned and two others that are fully accepted as authentic masterpieces. The chief curator, Marjorie Wieseman, will investigate “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer”.

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

Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a red hat (1666-67)

Girl with a red hat is now fully confirmed as a Vermeer. But there is a surprise: the investigations show that when Vermeer started working on the oak panel, he painted a portrait of a man with a wide-brimmed hat, which he later transformed into a girl. This is unexpected, as Vermeer is not normally considered a portrait artist (many of his faces appear to represent idealized people) – and he was particularly partial to portraying women.

Girl with a flute was more problematic to evaluate, and the dating (1665-75) with its decade-long spectrum, suggests that the painting may have had a complicated gestation. The final evaluation will be announced shortly before the opening of the exhibition.

Discovered in 1906, Girl with a flute was donated to the NGA in 1942 by Joseph Widener. This was first rejected by the 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, labeling it only “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 changed his position. He wrote in the NGA’s web catalog entry about the image: “I have come to the conclusion that the removal of the Girl with a flute van Vermeer’s oeuvre was too extreme given the complex conservation issues surrounding this image.”

Johannes Vermeer’s Woman who keeps a balance (circa 1664) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting certainly does not live up to the quality of most of Vermeer’s accepted works. Vermeer probably initially blocked the composition, in about 1665, but the image appears to have been extensively revised at a later time. Unfortunately, the work has been rubbed off, making it more difficult to determine the attribution.

Along with these two questioned works, the NGA’s other two Vermeers have always been accepted as masterpieces: Woman who keeps a balance (circa 1664) and A lady who writes (circa 1665).

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

The recent investigation of Woman who keeps a balance revealed another surprise that may lead to a reassessment of Vermeer’s modus operandi. It has long been assumed that he painted slowly and meticulously, as only about 35 pictures from his 22-year career survive.

But imaging the lower layers below the surface of Woman who keeps a balance revealing quick, spontaneous and sometimes thickly textured brushstrokes. This is very different from the fully finished surface of the picture, where the smooth individual brush strokes are barely visible. An NGA spokesperson explains: “This discovery calls into question the common assumption that the artist was a painstakingly slow perfectionist.”

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

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

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

Both forgeries are now thought to have been created around 1925, when Vermeer’s work became highly collectible and fetched significant prices. Both forgeries were part of the Andrew Mellon 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 amazing to think that they were ever accepted.

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