When is a Vermeer not a Vermeer? Reputations on the line over authenticity of artwork | Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer of Delft left behind fewer than 50 paintings when he died aged 43 in 1675. Those that survived have beguiled art lovers for more than a century: intimate domestic scenes, such as a girl reading a letter at an open window, or a maidservant absorbed in pouring milk, bathed in soft, gentle light. As Vermeer’s output was so small, it is an event when a painting is declared to be by his hand. But there are few precedents for a recent tussle over the artist. One painting has been declared definitively “a Vermeer” by one museum, while another has downgraded it.

In October, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC announced the results of painstaking research into a work in its collection, long credited to Vermeer. Girl with a Flute was not by Vermeer, but an associate, it said. 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. It was “crystal clear”, the Rijksmuseum said, Girl with a Flute was a Vermeer.

Painted on a small wooden panel, Girl with a Flute shows a woman wearing a boat-shaped hat and fur-trimmed jacket seated by a patterned tapestry, holding an instrument. While it has similarities to another work attributed to Vermeer, experts have long had doubts.

“I never considered it as satisfying as other paintings by Vermeer,” Marjorie E Wieseman, the head of the department of northern European paintings at Washington’s National Gallery, told the Guardian.

“What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer is his really uncanny ability to engage the viewer, to evoke a mood, a sensation, a presence that somehow transcends time,” she said. The women in his paintings, she said, have “a deliberate reserve … rather than extending something out to you, the viewer, they’re pulling you in.”

Girl with a Flute, quite simply, does not, according to the Washington team. But it was only when Covid lockdowns forced the museum’s closure that the team had an opportunity to put their Vermeer collection under the microscope, using pioneering imaging technologies also used to map minerals on the moon and Mars.

Close examination revealed awkward brushwork. The paint had been handled in a heavy-handed way that “pooled and almost dripped”, the team wrote in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Pigments used in the final paint were coarsely ground, rather than the fine top layers favoured by Vermeer. There were also broken bristles lodged in the paint, suggesting the artist used unusual force, or an old or poorly made brush. Even the composition was blocky and awkward, they wrote. “Rather than venturing an oblique glance from over her shoulder, the woman looks at us straight on … with little attempt at intrigue or beguilement.”

The team concluded the work was done by someone with intimate knowledge of Vermeer’s idiosyncratic style, who had observed his technique, but not mastered it. Their findings upended the conventional view of Vermeer as a lone genius, by suggesting he had a studio.

Announcing that a 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 a category of “one-name artists that are the iconic touchstones of western European paintings”, Wieseman said. “There’s a lot at stake,” she said. “Whereas you know, when it comes to, [did] Pieter de Putter paint this still life of fish, or was it someone else? Nobody really much cares.”

Determining who painted a work of art is routine work for any art historian, dealer or auction house, but the stakes are much higher when it comes to the greatest artists, said Eric Jan Sluijter, professor of art history emeritus at the University of Amsterdam. “There is so much invested in these paintings, literally, but also in reputations of art historians or museums.”

Girl with a Flute will feature in the largest-ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work, opening on 10 February at the Rijksmuseum. The museum hopes to display at least 28 works, including loans such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. Before the exhibition, the museum has upgraded three disputed paintings, including Girl with a Flute, as works by Vermeer, increasing the tally of surviving works by the artist to 37.

“Girl with a Flute is lent as ‘not Vermeer’, but we will hang it as a real Vermeer,” Pieter Roelofs, the co-curator of the upcoming exhibition told the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool. “The doubt disappears somewhere during the flight over the ocean.”

Contacted by the Guardian, the Rijksmuseum said no one was available for an interview.

Some think the Rijksmuseum has not done enough to show its workings on Girl with a Flute. “We don’t know their arguments yet,” Sluijter said. He disagreed with the museum’s “very strong position” and claims of certainty in attributing the painting to Vermeer, saying it had not presented detailed findings to scholars. “There are always uncertainties and you have to live with that as an art historian.”

Sluijter said the Washington research was “hard to dismiss”, although he did not think they were indisputably right on all details. The National Gallery in Washington has attributed another work, Girl with the Red Hat, to Vermeer. Also painted on wood, it is a similar composition to Girl with a Flute and Sluijter considered it had 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 has suggested several candidates. Perhaps the painter was an apprentice, or a wealthy amateur taking lessons who helped a hard-up Vermeer pay his bills. The Washington team is less convinced by the thesis that the artist was Vermeer’s eldest child, Maria. “We simply cannot know who did paint the work, or under what circumstances,” they concluded.

Sluijter thought it was plausible that Vermeer’s daughter was responsible for Girl with a Flute. “It’s not that eccentric, it is a possibility. We know of other daughters working in their father’s studio in the 17th century,” he said. “Often they married and then stopped painting, so they didn’t go on to become independent artists.”

With scant documents in the archives, the identity of the possible artist in Vermeer’s studio remains a mystery to unravel.

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