Translation: Increase or decrease [the number of paintings by Vermeer, whose name is baked into the Dutch word for increasing.] My oldest and dearest friend in the Netherlands, Albert Blankert, died last Tuesday. I am channeling and seconding his inspired take on a current Vermeer dispute.
In the warmup for the impending Vermeer exhibition to open in the Rijksmuseum on 10 February 2023, a splendid little brawl has broken out between the Rijksmuseum and a major lender, the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a funny twist of the usual order of things, Vermeer’s authorship of one of its own paintings has been forcefully denied by the lending institution, while the borrower insists that it is by the master. The painting concerned, Girl with a flute, is closely related to another painting in the National Gallery of Art, Girl with a red hat, which both museums accept as by Vermeer. Neither institution is right.
Girl with a red hat, dated by the museum ca. 1669
Signed IVM (in ligature)
Oil on panel, 22.8 x 18 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art (1937.1.53; Andrew W. Mellon Collection)
Girl with a flute, dated by the museum ca. 1669/1675
Oil on panel, 20 x 17.8 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art (1942.9.98; Widener Collection)
By chance, these anomalous paintings, the smallest given to Vermeer, have ended up in the same museum. Besides their diminutive size, they share a number of other features in common that are not at all characteristic of Vermeer. They are painted not on canvas but on panel. Further, as Arthur Wheelock of the National Gallery of Art writes of the two women:
Each wears an exotic hat that creates a strong shadow over the greater portion of her face. Each girl sits in a chair with lion finials, leans on one arm, and is framed by a wall tapestry of which only a fragment is visible. Because of the paintings’ slightly different sizes, however, it is unlikely that they were conceived as companion pieces, as has frequently been asserted.
Concerning Girl with a flute, Wheelock writes that it is “only cautiously attributed to Johannes Vermeer,” while inconsistently he embraces fully the attribution of Girl with a red hat to Vermeer. Can anyone really believe that two look-alike paintings with so many idiosyncratic correspondences were conceived by two different artists?
One of the pioneers of modern Vermeer studies, Albert Blankert, is more daring in his assessment than Wheelock. He argues that one artist painted both works, and that he was an eighteenth-century imitator of Vermeer. (That is in the Dutch edition of his book on Vermeer, 1975; in the English edition, 1978, he writes: “I am inclined to believe the artist was French, probably of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Seldom have Dutch genre paintings been so skilfully imitated as in France, particularly at the time of Napoleon III.” In the Dutch edition he had backed down from this position.) Blankert felt that this judgement was vindicated when X-ray examination revealed that the Girl with a red hat is painted over a male portrait, upside down, that was left unfinished. None of Vermeer’s generally accepted paintings was made this way. The technique of the painting also shows departures from Vermeer’s usual practice. The light highlights are splotchy and less secure than we expect of Vermeer.
And then there is a specific anti-Vermeer observation that I find particularly convincing: it concerns the chair in the foreground of Girl with a red hat. Blankert picks up an observation first made by R.H. Wilenski in 1929. As Wheelock noted, the girl is sitting with her arm over the back of a chair with lion finials. What he does not remark is that the finials on seventeenth-century chairs, in contrast to those in Girl with a red hat, always face the seat. Look at these details from other paintings by Vermeer:
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Compare these images to the chair in Girl with a red hat. In that painting the girl is looking at us over lion finials facing in our direction. The seat of that chair must be in front of her, while she is sitting behind it on another chair. The lion’s heads in the painting are only a prop. This is a kind of artificial, coquettish posing that is completely alien to the spirit not only of Vermeer, but any other Dutch painter of the time. The attempts by Walter Liedtke and Arthur Wheelock to explain this away are pathetic. Wheelock praises these details, even elaborating on their visual inconsistencies, as evidence that “Vermeer did not blindly imitate physical reality.” The only example of this kind of freedom he adduces is a minute discrepancy in the height of the lower frame of a painting on the wall behind the woman with scales on Washington. Not in the same league as the lion’s heads, not at all.
The tapestries that Wheelock mentions are also deployed in a way utterly unlike Vermeer’s practice. They cover the entire plane behind the models, an effect Vermeer otherwise went out of his way to avoid.
Few writers on Vermeer take the trouble to justify the attribution to him of Girl with a red hat. One who did was Walter Liedtke, in arguments that are rather strained. The resemblance he finds between the red hat to one worn by Saskia van Uylenburgh in Rembrandt’s portrait of her in Kassel, along with other borrowings from Rembrandt and Titian, strike me as the kind of thing that a later imitator would be more likely to do than an original creator.
The Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits defends Vermeer’s authorship of Girl with a flute by referring to extensive technical and art-historical research into the life and work of the artist conducted in the run-up to the Vermeer exhibition. “This research has provided new insights that lead us to draw another conclusion [than the National Gallery of Art].” With all respect, I cannot imagine what kind of research could possibly lead to a conclusive positive attribution of that painting.
In judging this case, I am inclined to apply a certain methodological principle. That is, if in any given set of objects one encounters items that depart pronouncedly from the rest, they should be subjected to extra critical scrutiny for the possibility that they do not belong in the set at all. Viewed in this light, the two Washington Girls have more going against them than for them. In a way, it is a pity to remove these enchanting paintings from the oeuvre of Vermeer. They are lively, personal and sensual images of women with more panache than the artist’s other tronies. (Lawrence Gowing’s highly acclaimed book on Vermeer of 1972 has Girl with a flute on the jacket.) But they serve as a salutary reminder that not all appealing paintings had to be made by famous masters; and as a warning not to take received wisdom or opinion for granted.
Albert Blankert closed his discussion with two different endings, which are the last words of his text. In the English edition: “I believe that [the two paintings] are not by Vermeer, and probably were not even painted in the seventeenth century. Hopefully, time will reveal the truth.” The Dutch edition is more personal: “If this were a bet, and I were to put my money on Girl with a red hat and Girl with a flute being not ‘Vermeer’ but ‘Late imitation,’ would that be a sign of unreasonable stubbornness or accurate insight?” While Blankert was sometimes guilty of the former, in this case his judgment is right on!
© 2022 by Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 26 November 2022.
Albert Blankert, met bijdragen van Rub Ruurs en Willem L. van der Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675, Utrecht and Antwerp (Uitgeverij Het Spectrum) 1975, herziene en bijgewerkte druk 1977. At least that is the edition I could find. Whether the cited quotation is the same in the first edition of 1975 I can’t say. [After publication of the column Timothy De Paepe sent me a scan of those pages. The text is the same.]
Albert Blankert, Vermeer of Delft: complete edition of the paintings, with contributions by Rob Ruurs and Willem L. van de Watering, Oxford (Phaidon) 1978
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: the complete paintings, Antwerp (Ludion) 2011
Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Vermeer & the art of painting, New Haven and London (Yale University Press) 1995
Exhib. cat. Johannes Vermeer, The Hague (Mauritshuis), Washington (National Gallery of Art) and Zwolle (Waanders Uitgevers) 1995
Gary Schwartz, Vermeer in detail, Antwerp (Ludion) 2017
On the 6th of November 1965 I showed up at the Art History Institute of Utrecht University and introduced myself to Prof. J.G. van Gelder, with a letter from Prof. H.W. Janson. I was welcomed politely by van Gelder, who at the end of our talk, said “Now I would like you to meet my best student,” and brought me to Albert Blankert. We became friends immediately and forever. Please see what I wrote about him in 2006.
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