A Vermeer at the National Gallery of Art is not a Vermeer, the museum confirms

It has long been designated as questionable. Now it’s official: Girl With a Flute,” one of four paintings in the National Gallery of Art attributed to Johannes Vermeer, is actually not by Vermeer. Four is now three, and through new combinations of scientific analysis, art historical insight, and informed observation, a thorny, long-standing problem has been solved.

At a press conference on Friday, the museum shared the finding that an interdisciplinary team of curators, curators and scientists determined the painting was made “by an associate of Vermeer – not the Dutch artist. himself”.

Vermeer (1632-1675) is one of the most beloved painters in the world. Normally people come to the National Gallery expecting to see all of his Vermeers on display. It is difficult to justify their transfer to the conservation laboratory for more than a day or two. But the pandemic has changed that.

According to curator Marjorie (Betsy) Wieseman, head of the Northern European Paintings Department at the National Gallery, the extended closure of the museum meant that she and her colleagues had “a unique opportunity to remove the four paintings from the wall and have them in the conservation laboratory”. at a time.”

“Other people have done embroidery and learned how to bake bread,” she joked in an interview Thursday. “That was our pandemic project.”

The exceptional halo around Vermeer’s name is made brighter by the fact that his production was derisory. There are only about 35 Vermeer paintings in the world. This partly explains why – despite being esteemed during his lifetime – for two centuries Vermeer was largely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 19th century. (“Girl With a Flute” was rediscovered in 1906 and donated to the NGA by Joseph Widener in 1942.)

Today, Vermeer is not only admired but adored. His little-known life is the subject of successful novels and films. But the paintings themselves float above the noise and hype. Incredibly quiet, delightfully colorful, breathtakingly private, they stand as a rebuke to the noise and chaos of modern life and a balm to the harassed sensibilities of the information age.

Ten Vermeers, but a whole world of Dutch art

With time and space in the lab, NGA researchers, led on the science side by senior imaging scientist John Delaney, subjected the paintings to sophisticated imagery. They drew on a rich history of Vermeer research at the NGA, including by Melanie Gifford, now retired research curator of paint technologies. It was not initially clear that they would come up with anything new.

But what resulted, according to Wieseman, was an “exponential increase in our understanding of Vermeer’s working process.” This leap in knowledge, she said, “allowed us to determine that [‘Girl With a Flute’] is not by Vermeer.

Gifford had analyzed tiny samples taken from the Vermeers at the NGA, so there was already plenty of data on the paintings, according to Delaney. Now, a combination of microscopic analysis and advanced imaging has allowed Delaney and fellow imaging scientist Kathryn Dooley to map the materials Vermeer had used. Techniques included X-ray fluorescence imaging spectroscopy and hyperspectral reflectance imaging, which uses a light-scattering spectrometer to collect and process information from across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Visitors to a new NGA exhibit, “Vermeer’s Secrets” (October 8-January 8), can see some of what the research team discovered before the work are sent to the largest Vermeer retrospective ever held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 10-June 4). The exhibit includes Vermeer’s four paintings from the NGA (now three) and two 20th-century forgeries that are still in the gallery’s collection. (It’s hard to say how seriously these grotesque parodies could be taken as Vermeers.)

The research team, which also included Alexandra Libby, Dina Anchin, Lisha Deming Glinsman and Gifford, began by looking at the two masterpieces whose attribution to Vermeer has never been questioned. Studying “A Lady Writing” and “Woman Holding a Balance” first, Delaney said, was “a great way to establish a foundation for her practice.”

Among the findings was that Vermeer was more vigorous in parts of his process than previously thought. He brushed on his first coats with surprising speed and freedom, at one point even applying a coat of copper-containing material known to speed up the drying process, as if he was in a hurry to take the next step.

“We have this feeling that Vermeer is the master of these smooth, satin surfaces, where you can’t identify the individual brushstrokes,” Wieseman said. “But then you look at how he set up that glow on the back wall [depicted in “Woman Holding a Balance”] and it is an exciting and vigorous brushstroke. You get an idea of ​​which artist really gets into it.

Lucian Freud captured intimacy, even when his subjects were clothed

The research team then turned to the two smaller and more problematic works, “Girl With the Red Hat” and “Girl With a Flute”. The two paintings have long been considered a pair. Both are ‘tronies’ – the Dutch term for paintings of heads that were not portraits of specific people, but studies of types, often idealized or particularly expressive. (Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is the most famous example.)

There were two main takeaways: “Girl With a Flute” was made by an artist – perhaps a student, an apprentice in training, or an amateur taking lessons from the master – who, in Delaney’s words, ” understands the technique but has very limited skills in its execution.”

The research team also concluded that Vermeer probably painted “Girl With the Red Hat” a few years later than previously thought, in a period – 1669 rather than 1666-1667 – when he was experimenting with new colors and a slightly bolder paint application.

The NGA tronies both feature young women with similar faces and expressions. Both subjects wear unusual hats and large pearl earrings. The backgrounds of both are quite sketchily sketched. Both show a tapestry on the wall and a chair with lion-head finials. And both are painted on wood panels, which was extremely unusual for Vermeer.

Despite all this, scholars have long doubted that Vermeer painted “The Girl with the Flute”. It didn’t look good enough. Transitions from light to dark, especially around the face, looked clunky and abrupt. Green shadows have been applied heavily, creating what the “Vermeer’s Secrets” wall tag calls “a mottled appearance below the nose and along the jawline.”

In the 1990s, NGA curator Arthur Wheelock, a recognized Vermeer expert and recently retired, had “Girl With a Flute” designated as “attributed to Vermeer.” This designation, Wieseman said, was Wheelock’s “way of explaining why he generically resembles Vermeer but qualitatively falls short of the norm”.

Most scholars agreed, although Wheelock’s colleague at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the late Walter Liedtke, argued that it was probably a Vermeer, and Wheelock himself later changed his position. saying, “I have concluded that the removal of ‘Girl With a Flute’ from Vermeer’s Work was too extreme given the complex curatorial issues surrounding this image. (Abrasions on the painting’s surface had made it particularly difficult to study.)

The new analyzes seem to have confirmed the skeptics. “At almost every level of paint construction,” Wieseman said, “it’s ‘close, but no cigar’.”

The research team found that although some of the same materials are present in both paints (as Gifford had previously established), the handling of the paint is very different. Where the technique of “Girl With the Red Hat” is subtle and dexterous, the paint application on “Girl With a Flute” is relatively clumsy and crude.

Instead of using coarsely ground pigments in the underpaintings and finely ground pigments for the final layers (as Vermeer did), whoever painted “Girl With a Flute” did the opposite, giving the surface a grainy quality. There are even bits of hair in the surface layers of the paint, suggesting that the artist was using an old or poorly made brush.

“The artist has a conceptual understanding of how Vermeer constructed his paintings but just can’t handle the finesse,” Wieseman said.

There are also flaws in the undercoat. For example, in some of the blue areas there are “pulling crackles” indicating that the surface paint has dried before the undercoats. “An experienced artist would know how to mix their pigments so this wouldn’t happen,” Wieseman said.

Also, in areas where white pigment was applied, the artist used too much medium (oil) in the undercoats, causing it to dry in a wrinkled fashion. The artist had to scrape away this crease to get a smoother surface to apply the final coat of paint.

“Those are rookie mistakes,” Wieseman said. “Vermeer knows why he does things. He knows what the end result will be, whereas with this artist you just don’t have that sense of understanding.

If all of this is true, it alters our understanding of Vermeer, who has long been seen as a lone wolf working without assistants or students. The question becomes: who was this artist who had access to Vermeer’s studio and used many of the same materials? And what will we discover one day about their relationship?

The new discoveries are eye-opening, but there will always be an air of enigma around Vermeer.

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