jAhannis Vermeer of Delft left fewer than 50 paintings when he died at the age of 43 in 1675. Those that have survived have fascinated art lovers for more than a century: intimate domestic scenes, such as a girl reading a letter in an open window, or a maid absorbed in pouring milk, washed Soft and gentle light. Since Vermeer’s production was so small, it happened when a painting on his hand would be advertised. But there is little precedent for the recent conflict over the artist. One museum categorically declared one of the paintings to be Vermeer, while another downgraded it.
In October, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. announced the results of painstaking research on a work in its collection, which has long been attributed to Vermeer. The Girl with the Flute, she said, was not by Vermeer, but by a colleague of hers. Less than a month later, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is borrowing that painting for a major new Vermeer exhibition in 2023, reached the opposite conclusion about the same work. The Rijksmuseum said the place was “clearly obvious”, and the girl with the flute was from Vermeer.
Painted on a small woodblock panel, Girl with a Flute shows a woman wearing a boat-shaped hat and fur-trimmed jacket, sitting on a plaid tapestry, and holding a musical instrument. While there are similarities to other work attributed to Vermeer, experts have long harbored doubts.
“I have never considered them as satisfactory as other paintings by Vermeer,” Marjorie E. Weismann, head of Northern European paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, told The Guardian.
“What makes Vermeer Vermeer is his truly uncanny ability to engage the viewer, to evoke mood, sensibility, and a presence that transcends time in a way,” she said. The women in his paintings, she said, have a “deliberate reserve…instead of offering you something, as a viewer, they draw you into it”.
The girl with the flute, quite simply, doesn’t, according to the Washington team. But it was only when Covid lockdowns forced the museum’s closure that the team had the chance to put their Vermeer collection under a microscope, using groundbreaking imaging techniques also used to map minerals on the Moon and Mars.
Close examination revealed awkward brush work. The paint was handled in a heavy, “clumped and almost dripping” fashion, Team books In the Journal of Dutch Art Historians. The pigments used in the final glaze were coarsely ground, rather than the fine top coats favored by Vermeer. There were also broken bristles embedded in the paint, indicating that the artist used extraordinary force, or an old or poorly made brush. Even the composition was plump and awkward, they wrote. “Instead of venturing with a slanting glance over her shoulder, the woman looks directly at us… with little attempt at intrigue or deception.”
The team concluded that the work was done by someone with intimate knowledge of Vermeer’s distinctive style, and whose style he had observed, but not mastered. Their findings upended the traditional view of Vermeer as a lone genius, by suggesting that he had a studio.
Announcing that the Vermeer – held in the museum’s collection since 1942 – is no longer a Vermeer is a big step. Like Rembrandt or Van Gogh, Vermeer belongs to the category of “one-named artists who are the iconic axes of Western European paintings,” said Weismann. “There is a lot at stake,” she said. “While you know, when it comes, [did] Peter D Potter Are you painting this still life of a fish, or is it someone else? Nobody really cares much.”
Determining who painted a work of art is a chore for any art historian, dealer or auction house, said Eric Jan Sluetter, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Amsterdam, but the stakes are much higher when it comes to the greatest artists. “There is a lot of investment in these paintings, literally, but also in the reputation of art historians or museums.”
Girl with a Flute will be featured in the largest ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work, which opens on February 10 at the Rijksmuseum. The museum hopes to display at least 28 works, including such credits as Girl with a Pearl Earring and Young woman sitting in a maiden. Prior to the exhibition, the museum promoted three disputed paintings, including Girl with a Flute, as works by Vermeer, increasing the number of the artist’s remaining works to 37.
“The girl with the flute is loaned as ‘not a Vermeer’, but we’ll pin it as a real Vermeer,” Peter Roelofs, co-curator of the upcoming exhibition, told Amsterdam’s Het Parool. “Doubt disappears somewhere while flying over the ocean.”
The Guardian contacted the Rijksmuseum and he said no one was available for an interview.
Some believe that the Rijksmuseum has not done enough to show its work on Girl with a Flute. “We don’t know their arguments yet,” Slaughter said. He disagreed with the museum’s “very strong stance” and claims of certainty in attributing the painting to Vermeer, saying it did not provide detailed findings for researchers. “There are always uncertainties and you have to live with that as an art historian.”
Washington’s research “was hard to dismiss,” Slaughter said, though he didn’t think they were indisputably right on every detail. The National Gallery in Washington attributed another work, Girl in the Red Hat, to Vermeer. It was also painted on wood, a similar composition to that of Girl with a Flute, and Sluijter considered it to have similar deviations from Vermeer’s technique.
If Girl with a Flute is not by Vermeer, another question remains open: the identity of the artist in his studio. The National Gallery in Washington proposed several candidates. The painter may have been an apprentice, or a wealthy amateur taking lessons who helped the puritanical Vermeer pay his bills. The Washington team is less convinced by the hypothesis that the artist was Vermeer’s eldest child, Maria. They concluded, “We simply cannot know who painted the work, or under what circumstances.”
Slaughter thought it plausible that Vermeer’s daughter should be responsible for Girl with the Flute. “It’s not whimsical, it’s a possibility. We know other girls who worked in their father’s studio in the seventeenth century. They often married and then stopped painting, so they didn’t go on to become independent artists.”
With scant documentation in the archives, the identity of the would-be artist in Vermeer’s studio remains a mystery to be unraveled.