411 Vermeeren of verminderen: in memory of Albert Blankert

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.

Drawing on:

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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26 thoughts on “411 Vermeeren of verminderen: in memory of Albert Blankert”

  1. I’ve never seen how the Woman in the Red Hat can considered to be sitting in the chair with the finials shown. Rather, I see it as a snippet of a larger composition, with her seated at a table and an empty chair beside her (with its seat coming toward the viewer if we saw the larger view). This is in keeping with other Vermeer conceptions of a conspicuously absent male presence.

    1. That isn’t how Vermeer evoked absent men, is it, Paul? Even if there were more to the composition, that pose over the back of another chair can never be right. And that lady doesn’t look like she’s missing anything.

      1. More on the chair: I had long thought that the person behind the chair is not sitting but standing, which means, since we know how high such chairs were, that she is really just a slip of a girl, but one transformed into a lovely young lady by sheer charm, with help from the hat. A witty conceit, whoever the painter.

  2. Very sad news to hear that we have lost Albert Blankert–a mensch, who missed nothing, but who also asked truly fresh questions. Just think about Italianizing Dutch landscapes or the Classical tradition in Dutch 17th-century painting. These entire fields would remain in the shadows without his original, thoughtful, and characteristically thorough exhibition ideas. But also a mensch, who responded even to book reviews about his work with generosity and kindness.
    Vemeeren indeed–he increased our knowledge and also our appreciation of Dutch art in so many ways.

    1. Thank you very much, Larry. Albert was really one of major contributors to studies in Dutch art of our generation. I didn’t want to put it in the column, but Albert and I were really of one generation. He was four days younger than me.

  3. Very sad news about Albert Blanken, whom I didn’t know, but of whose excursions with my brother I heard more than one tale.

    On the Vermeer, one might add the latest issue of JHNA, which includes lengthy discussions of both paintings:


    At least on first reading, the defense of the Girl with the Red Hat comes across as essentially circular; but it will obviously need more attention.

    1. Excellent, Joshua, thanks so much. I had missed that article. It’s an excellent piece of work, but I agree with you that if it is read as a case for recognition of Vermeer’s authorship, it cannot convince skeptics like me. The anomalies are treated as “experiments” on his part, “innovations,” “trial balloons,” “new directions,” “pivoting points,” which the authors feel relieves them of having to answer embarrassing questions about discrepancies. And I did not see any explanation of how this painting could share so many aberrant features with Girl with a flute and still be by Vermeer while the latter is not.

      And yes, I think I was the one to introduce Ben to Albert Blankert when Albert had a fellowship in the US in 1968-70, and I am warmed by thinking about how well those two would hit it off.

      1. PS: I had been dealing with some writing of a scholar in another field by the name Blanken, and in my haste and distraction screwed things up. Sorry!

  4. The implication of this reattribution has far deeper consequences than just a reassignment of appealing paintings from Vermeer’s oeuvre. These two paintings are prime exhibits in the longstanding debate about whether old masters in general, and Vermeer in particular, used optical devices to achieve their compelling realism. Their particular contribution is that they are painted with blurry highlights and soft-focus edges reminiscent of lens blur from an optical projection system. In support of Blankert’s reattribution, they are much more extreme examples of such blurring than any other of Vermeer’s works, amplifying the doubts about his authorship of them. While this feature is also uncharacteristic of nineteenth century painting styles, it deserves full scrutiny in the search for the alternative attribution for these two paintings. Indeed, it raises the question that, if nineteenth-century artists were so skillful in imitating Dutch genre paintings, why would they have essentially generated a new genre with the unique optical quality of these two works?

    1. Thanks, Christopher, you’re right. My skepticism about the attribution of “Girl with red hat” is surpassed by my skepticism about Vermeer having used optical instruments. Can’t believe I haven’t written a column about this yet. Will do.

  5. Not acknowledged often enough among the tribulations of age, the loss of friends. This comes to mind:

    “All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self- sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.
    They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.”
    Also set in an art gallery, the Yeats poem in which he recognizes face after face in the portraits, concluding “My glory was, I had such friends.”

  6. Thank you for the brilliant insight as usual.
    Just a minor thing to mention: the both paintings entered the two famous collections through Joseph Duveen, if I’m not mistaken.

    So there might be a clue to their initial provenance?

    I read a book Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time by S.N. Behrman, and the art dealer is presented there as an adventurous and overambitious man when the matter was associated with the reassurances of his professional competence. These two paintings were not mentioned in the book but there was a story about fake Titian, if I’m not mistaken, which he pressed on to be attributed to the artist when his professional judgement was questioned.

    1. Tanya, I can recommend another biography of Duveen, by Meryle Secrest (2004). In the “partial list” of objects that passed through his hands, five Vermeers are listed, of which two were found to have been painted about 1925, and a third in France in the seventeenth century.

      About the provenances you are indeed mistaken. “Girl with red hat” was sold to Mellon, and “Girl with a flute” to Frick not by Duveen but by Knoedler.

      1. I was never able to meet Albert personally but nonetheless would like to remember him via an answer he gave in an interview that he kindly granted to the Essential Vermeer in 2005.

        “We appreciate, like, admire, love Vermeer’s work a very great deal. We want to express all this in words and find them insufficient, so we sing, jubilate, dance, scream, paint, drum, yes, similar to what we do for a loved one or for a god, what is the difference? Personally I find that we should observe utter restraint, but in how far is that a rational stance?”


        Gary, if I remember correctly Albert rejected the Leiden Collection Young Woman Seated at the Virginals and the Saint Praxedis. Do you know if he ever had a change of heart?

        1. What a nice quote. Thanks, Jonathan. Albert signed his letters “Met kunstlievende groet” (With art-loving greetings).

          No, I don’t think he changed his mind about those two paintings. I’m pleased that the St. Praxedis and Leiden Collection Young woman are being included as Vermeers, but given the Rijksmuseum endorsement of the panel paintings I’m not going to cite this as support for my own opinion. Could the Rijksmuseum be allowing the numbers to influence its judgment, so its exhibition will be the Greatest Of All Time? Don’t tell anyone I asked this.

  7. Dear Gary,

    Thank you for honoring Albert Blankert’s memory by channeling his independent spirit and refusal “to take received wisdom or opinion for granted,” especially when there are contradictory opinions, as with the current debate. The Washington National Gallery’s (as you note actually long-standing) demotion of Girl with a Flute to Vermeer’s studio, ostensibly confirmed by technical evidence, conflicts with the Rijkmuseum’s inclusion of the painting in Vermeer’s oeuvre on the same grounds. Following Blankert, you propose a third alternative, that this painting and the closely related Girl with a Red Hat are both later imitations. I propose a vermeeren [increase] of both your bibliography and the alternatives to include a fourth put forward in my 2009 study and related article in artibus et historiae: both “hat girls” are by the same artist, as you and Blankert proposed, yet from Vermeer’s studio. The technical evidence of dendrochronology and the use of similar materials as in Vermeer’s undisputed paintings rules out a later imitator, as does the drastically divergent “imitation” of a then still obscure artist. Other factors, such as Vermeer’s lack of official students that indicates his pupil could have been of his own children, most plausibly his eldest Maria; her resemblance as her father’s model to these “hat girls”; and their comparisons to self-portraits by earlier scholars (including Liedtke), led me to conclude that Maria painted these panels as her earliest studies. I was happy to see my book cited (for the first time to my knowledge) in one of the JHNA essays, yet alas dismissed because “absence of proof to the contrary does not constitute support,” which is the case with all four alternatives or any theory. We can choose the explanation that makes the best sense of the evidence, including technical, documentary, and above all the visual evidence of the paintings, which can be brought to bear on the coherence of Vermeer’s oeuvre, his singular approach, and gradual self-conscious development. My explanation also has the advantage of moving from vermeeren/verminderen, which has also plagued Rembrandt studies, to distinguishing between particular artists, a vermeeren of Vermeers, although admittedly one of them has never been discussed by anyone else, let alone recognized.

    Benjamin Binstock

    1. Benjamin, I have to excuse myself, not yet having read your book or article. To tell you the truth, after I saw you give a presentation divvying up Vermeers among his children, it must have been around 2009, I was put off the whole idea. Another consideration that bothers me is the realization that if you look hard enough at any oeuvre, you’re going to find incoherences, and if you start factoring them out into separate hands, you’ll get into endless regression . I am working on a full alternative to attributionism that I hope to be able to realize one of these years. I think we may find each other there. Thanks and greetings, Gary

      1. Dear Gary,
        Just for clarification, not to put off others who might want to take a look at (some portion of) my book or Artibus article, I only proposed what is touched on in my response, that a single secret apprentice painted eight related works. I have never “divied up” paintings among Vermeer’s children or factored them out into separate hands for endless regression. To my knowledge, mine was the first and only chronological painting-by-painting account of Vermeer’s oeuvre and development.
        Thanks to you for opening up potential dialogues!

      2. In a private response, Benjamin Binstock assures me that he never “divvied up Vermeers among his children.” My memory was deceiving me, and I apologize for having mischaracterized his work.

  8. Dear Gary,
    Thank you for posting such a fitting and eloquent testimony to Albert’s scholarship. He certainly had an eye, and the superior ability to use it on paintings in illuminating ways. As for the Washington “girls,” I wonder if the same model appears in both, wearing different hats, as studies in the momentariness of a glance and closer to the same quality in a Manet, for an arbitrary example.
    With appreciation,
    Amy Golahny

  9. Dear Gary: Deepest condolences on the loss of such a dear friend. I did know know Albert very well, but met him at conferences and other events many times over the years, beginning when I was a graduate student in the 1970s. He attended our first few Herstmonceux conferences and then in 2016, after he retired, I remember reading aloud the greetings he sent — he emailed me from his boat, somewhere between Gorinchem and Zaltbommel, informing me that the weather was too nice to interrupt the trip. I hope he is peacefully floating along the canals of heaven! Albert was a singular personality and, as Larry mentioned, he made transformative contributions to our field.

    I will be in Washington this week and will look carefully at the paintings. Meanwhile, I agree with your point about works of art having power that transcends authorship. “Girl with a Red Hat” was a source of inspiration for an engaging novel that has stayed with me , “The Red Hat”, written in 1998 by John Bayley while he was caring for his wife, Iris Murdoch, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. I recommend it!

    1. That’s a lovely memory of Albert, Stephanie. On the boat he was another man. Thanks too, speaking for all readers of Schwartzlist comments, for the recommendation of that novel.

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