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

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

The show Vermeer’s Secrets (8 October to 8 January 2023) All four NGA paintings by or attributed to Vermeer – the two that have been questioned and two others that are fully accepted as authentic masterpieces. Lead curator Marjorie Wieseman wants to explore “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”

With the four works on display almost all the time, the NGA took advantage of the 2020-21 Covid closure to move them to their conservation studio. There they were examined with the most modern imaging methods in order to penetrate the layers of paint.

Johannes Vermeers Girl in a red hat (1666-67)

Girl in a red hat is now fully verified as Vermeer. But there is a surprise: research shows that when Vermeer began work on the Oak Panel, he painted a half-length portrait of a man in a wide-brimmed hat, which he later turned into a girl. This is unexpected, as Vermeer is not usually thought of as a portraitist (many of his faces seem to depict idealized people) – and he was particularly interested in depicting women.

girl with flute proved more problematic to evaluate, and the dating (1665-75), with its range of decades, 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 flute the NGA was donated by Joseph Widener in 1942. Only in 1950 was it rejected by the Vermeer researcher Pieter Swillens – 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 New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art continued to accept the painting, it was largely rejected by others.

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

Johannes Vermeers Woman holding scales (circa 1664) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting certainly does not match the quality of most of Vermeer’s accepted works. Vermeer probably first blocked the composition around 1665, but the picture appears to have been extensively reworked at a later date. The work is unfortunately rubbed, which makes it difficult to identify.

Along with these two works in question, the other two Vermeers of the NGA have always been accepted as masterpieces: Woman holding scales (around 1664) and A writing lady (c. 1665).

Johannes Vermeers A writing lady (circa 1665) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The most recent examination of Woman holding scales revealed another surprise that could lead to a re-evaluation of Vermeer’s working methods. He was long thought to have painted slowly and meticulously, with only about 35 paintings surviving from his 22-year career.

But picture the lower layers beneath the surface of Woman holding scales shows quick, spontaneous and sometimes thickly textured brushstrokes. This is very different from the fully completed image surface, where the smooth individual brushstrokes are barely visible. An NGA spokesman explains: “This discovery challenges the conventional wisdom that the artist was a meticulously slow perfectionist.”

All four paintings have been promised for a major Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 10 to June 4, 2023). The recording 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 loan all of their Vermeers at once.

The lace maker (c. 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 gross 20th-century forgeries that will be on display at the Washington, DC exhibit this fall. These are The lace makerwhich is loosely based on the original from 1669-70 in the Musée du Louvre, Paris The smiling girl.

It is now assumed that both forgeries were made around 1925, when Vermeer’s work had become a coveted collector’s item and fetched high prices. Both forgeries were part of Andrew Mellon’s legacy to the NGA in 1937. The two were rejected as Vermeers by the NGA in the 1980s.

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

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

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