332 Vermeer’s blood-sopping saint

Christie’s is about to auction as a Vermeer a painting of the early Christian St. Praxedis, who distinguished herself by conserving the body parts of martyrs. In doing so, the auction house braves the dismissal of the Vermeer attribution by nearly all experts in the field. Schwartz is convinced that Christie’s is right and they’re wrong.

Felice Ficherelli, St. Praxedis saving the blood of a martyr in an urn, 1645. Ferrara, Fergnani Collection

Johannes Vermeer after Felice Ficherelli, St. Praxedis, with addition of crucifix, signed and dated 1655. from the collection of the late Barbara Piasecka Johnson, to be auctioned at Christie’s in London on 8 July 2014, lot 39, on behalf of a foundation in her name [Later acquired by National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo]

Next week, on July 8th, Christie’s is putting on the block, in its King Street rooms in London, a painting of the early Christian Saint Praxedis. The composition is known in several versions by the Florentine painter Felice Fechirelli, called Il Riposo (1603-60). The painting first entered the scholarly literature in 1969, when it was included in an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Florentine Baroque art from American collections, curated by Joan Nissman. The catalogue observed that the painting bore the signature of the Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-74), but nonetheless illustrated it as by Ficherelli. In a review of the exhibition in the June 1969 issue of the Burlington Magazine, the distinguished British art historian Michael Kitson (1926-98) discussed the attribution of the painting, with arguments that still stand today. I reproduce the complete passage out of respect for Kitson and his opinion.

The only change I would make in this argument is that the signature on the St. Praxedis is closer to that on The procuress than to Maid asleep:

Signatures on St. Praxedis (above, dated 1655) and The procuress in Dresden (below, dated 1656)

This form of signature, with the V beneath the left foot of the M in Meer, is used by Vermeer only on three paintings in the mid-1650s beside St. Praxedis. (See the excellent entry on Vermeer’s signatures on the invaluable Essential Vermeer 2.0.) Christie’s asks perfectly sensibly “in what conceivable circumstances would a Vermeer signature have been added to a picture apparently so unlikely for the artist.”

One art historian who accepted Kitson’s argument was Arthur Wheelock, curator of Dutch and Flemish painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Although he denies that it was the signature that convinced him. He claims instead that he underwent a Malcolm Gladwell Vermeer Blink the second he saw the painting.) On his recommendation, in 1987 Barbara Piasecka Johnson bought the painting from the Spencer Samuels gallery, which had acquired it in 1969 from Erna and Jacob Reder. Since then, it has regularly been exhibited as a Vermeer. Upon the death of Ms. Johnson in 2013, the painting was given to Christie’s to be sold on behalf of a foundation established in her name.

If Kitson did not see how the implications of the signature can be evaded, many other art historians did. The literature on the painting is full of dismissive opinions. As I see it, the impressive list of deniers in the Christie’s auction catalogue let themselves be guided mainly by unwillingness to believe that Vermeer would be interested in such a repugnant subject, so Catholic and so alien to what is seen as the domestic, descriptive essence of his art. An attendant issue is that the attribution to Vermeer was embraced enthusiastically by Dirk Hannema, the former director of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, who had the van Meegeren forgeries on his conscience as well as a host of other plainly absurd attributions. Who wanted to be in the camp of Hannema on this one?

Two of the opponents to the attribution did come up with solid arguments. Jørgen Wadum, chief restorer of the Mauritshuis at the time, showed on the basis of physical examination that St. Praxedis was built up from back to front, which one would not expect of a copy. The brushstroke was not that of Vermeer, he added. Wadum thought it was the Ficherelli original after which the other versions were copied. Albert Blankert points out that copyists never signed paintings with their own name, and therefore doubts that Vermeer would have done so.

Neither of these objections does away with Kitson’s excellent reasoning. Until that happens, the painting will have to be regarded as a unique example of a copy by Vermeer painted from back to front and provided with a signature and date. As for the skeptics who think Vermeer would not be interested in blood-stained subjects, they forget that Praxedis was not the only Catholic female in Vermeer’s work with a bloody mess on her hands. His Allegory of Faith dated to 1670-72 shows a woman presiding over a scene in which a snake is smashed on the floor. The crucifix behind her is of the same type that Vermeer added to Ficherelli’s composition in his copy. (In an excellent review of the history of the attribution, Jan Boone calls both paintings “over the top” and rejects any and all connection to Vermeer.)

In addition to the signature, Christie’s was able to add another powerful argument in favor of the attribution. Lead white, a universally employed pigment in seventeenth-century painting, has isotopic properties that allow it to be traced to northern or southern Europe. St. Praxedis, in the results of tests carried out by the Rijksmuseum and the Free University in Amsterdam, is demonstrably painted with lead white from northern Europe. What is more, the specific mix of isotopes corresponds perfectly to the lead white in Vermeer’s Diana and her nymphs resting on the hunt in the Mauritshuis. All in all, the burden of proof is now on the doubters, and they have been noticeably silent since the announcement of the sale.

Copyright: René Gerritsen

Johannes Vermeer, Woman at a spinet, ca. 1670. New York, private collection

This case is reminiscent of the coup accomplished in 2004 by Sotheby’s, in selling as a Vermeer another somewhat unprepossessing painting that was derided by insiders. Woman at a spinet went for sixteen million pounds, an auction record for the artist. This was made possible by a major research endeavour by Sotheby’s that established the likelihood of Vermeer’s authorship. Christie’s has done as well as far as the proofs are concerned. It is heartening to see that non-academics and non-museum people are capable of effectuating major changes of opinion on matters that are otherwise entrusted to dominant connoisseurs. The triumphs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s were facilitated by the absence in Vermeer studies of quirky honchos like the Rembrandt Research Project or the Van Gogh Museum.

Over the past few days two seemingly unconnected events made headlines: June 28th was the one-hundredth anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the catalyst of the First World War; June 29th, the first day of Ramadan of the year 1435, saw the proclamation by ISIS (now redubbed IS – the Islamic State) of the caliphate, under Mullah Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At its founding the new caliphate was said to cover the territory from the eastern Iraqi city of Diyala to Aleppo on the Mediterranean, territories controlled by the rebel movement. However, the pretence goes much further. The caliph is a Muslim equivalent of the Pope, the leader of all Muslims worldwide.

For a rich tie between the First World War and the caliphate, see Schwartzlist 307, posted on 25 August 2010.

© Gary Schwartz 2014. Published on the Schwartzlist on 30 June 2014; edited on 11 July 2014.

8 May 2022: With an estimate of 600,000 to 800,000 pounds, the Vermeer copy went for 6,242,500. On 17 October 2017 a second version of Ficherelli’s original was sold at the Dorotheum in Vienna for 350,508 euros, against an estimate of 150,000 to 200,000 euros. That signature was worth millions.

10 May 2022: See now Schwartzlist 405, Early Vermeer body fluids, for an argument that I believe bolsters the attribution of St. Praxedis to Vermeer.

Two publications of mine have come into print since the last installment of the Schwartzlist and have been posted on Schwartzlist Documents.

“A corpus of Rembrandt paintings as a test case for connoisseurship”

The Rembrandt Research Project had everything going for it when it set out in 1968 to examine the authorship of all the paintings seriously attributed to the master. However, by 1991, after publishing three massive volumes covering half of Rembrandt’s career, it ran out of steam and four of the five members quit the project. The remaining member, Ernst van de Wetering, took it over, admitting that vols. 1-3 were a failure. Schwartz asks why and suggests that the fault lay less with the members of the project than with the impossible pretensions of connoisseurship itself.


How Vermeer and his generation stole the thunder of the Golden Age

From the perspective of the year 1650, the past and future of Dutch seventeenth-century painting look radically different from each other. The first half of the century was dominated by participants in the greater European school, with narrative histories and allegories as the most highly prized creations. After 1650 the field is taken over by landscape and townscape, still life and genre. These were less valuable in the marketplace and helped depress the incomes of artists who were already suffering from a shrinking market for their wares. Our picture of the Dutch Golden Age is unduly determined by niche products of the latter half of the century, especially the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, who was virtually unknown until the latter nineteenth century. By forefronting Vermeer and his generation, we adopt a distorted view of the Dutch seventeenth century and its place in Europe, a view that plays into present-day political misunderstandings of where the Netherlands stands in the world.

This phenomenon was demonstrated and discussed by Gary Schwartz in the 32nd Uhlenbeck Lecture, held for the NIAS Fellows Association on 23 June 2014. NIAS is the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.


Responses are always welcome and answered: Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl