Vermeer or not Vermeer?

November 20 2022

Video: NGA

I mentioned in September that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC would be revealing further news about the attribution of one of their disputed Vermeer paintings, Girl with a Flute, in their exhibition, 'Secrets of Vermeer'. In the above video, NGA curator Betsy Wieseman, sets out with great clarity why technical analysis has led the Gallery to believe the picture was not painted by Vermeer, but by someone working within his studio in his materials and style. So the picture has now been downgraded (a daft word, but an easy one to use) from 'attributed to Vermeer' to 'Studio of Vermeer'.

However, the plot thickens with news that the Rijksmuseum has decided to catalogue the painting as by Vermeer - sans doute - in its forthcoming exhibition on Vermeer to open next year. Speaking to The Guardian, Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits says:

“They have been doing great research at the National Gallery, Washington on their four Vermeers, and we have, during the pandemic and in research ahead of the exhibition, been able to do research on 10 Vermeers,” said Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum director. “We have discussed the technical findings with Washington and our view of Vermeer based on these technical findings is a more inclusive one than that of Washington.”

Dibbits was diplomatic about the difference of opinion. The National Gallery’s findings will be cited in the exhibition’s catalogue, he said.

“Attribution is not a hard science but we feel that Vermeer is such an innovative artist who took so many directions in his art that we feel that for us as yet the painting is by Vermeer”, Dibbits said. “We keep it within the oeuvre. We differ in view. It is something we have discussed at length. We are all happy with it.” It didn’t seem to be a source of irritation. “No. Not at all.”

I'm no Vermeer expert (but the perk of having your own blog means you can have an opinion nonetheless) yet I'm inclined to be more in the Rijksmuseum's camp. First, as the disagreement over the picture's 'quality' shows, such views are subjective; one gallery's dubious passages (and a sign of a studio assistant not quite up to Vermeer's standard) are another's sign of brilliance (and a sign that this mystery assistant was as good as Vermeer himself). Secondly, before we attribute pictures to someone within Vermeer's studio, I'd want more evidence that he did in fact have studio assistants, which might be considered unusual since he wasn't in the business of selling his own pictures at anything like the rate of contemporary professional artists who did employ assistants.

The Rijksmuseum show opens next year, 10th February. 

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