A Vermeer at the National Gallery of Art is not a Vermeer, the museum confirms

This has long been considered dubious. Now it’s official: Woman with flute,” one of four paintings in the National Gallery of Art attributed to Johannes Vermeer, not actually a painting by Vermeer. Four is now three, and thanks to new combinations of scientific analysis, art historical insight and informed looks, a vexing, long-standing problem has been solved.

At a news conference on Friday, the museum said an interdisciplinary panel of curators, conservators and scientists had determined that the painting “was done by Vermeer’s associate – not by the Dutch artist.”

So Vermeer did not paint ‘Girl with a Flute’. Why think less of it?

Vermeer (1632-1675) is one of the world’s most beloved painters. In normal times, people would expect the National Gallery to display all its Vermeers. It is difficult to justify removing them to a conservation laboratory for more than a day or two. But the pandemic changed that.

According to the curator Marjorie (Betsy) WisemanHead of the National Gallery’s Department of Northern European Paintings, the extension of the museum gave him and his colleagues “a unique opportunity to take four paintings off the wall at once and put them in the conservation laboratory”.

“Others learned to bake bread on the tip of a needle,” he joked in an interview Thursday. “This is our epidemic plan.”

The halo of exceptionalism around Vermeer’s name is all the more illumined by the modest nature of his output. There are only About 35 paintings by Vermeer In this world. This partly explains why Vermeer was largely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 19th century – despite being revered during his lifetime. (“Girl with a Flute” was rediscovered in 1906 and donated to the NGA by Joseph Widener in 1942.)

Today, Vermeer is admired, but admired. His life is the subject of lesser-known, best-selling novels movies. But the paintings float above the noise and bustle. Incredibly quiet, exquisitely colored, breathtakingly intimate, they stand as a rebuke to the noise and mayhem of modern life and a salve for the unfortunate, information age sensibilities.

Ten Vermeers, but the whole world of Dutch art

With time and space in the lab, NGA’s researchers, on the science side of Senior Imaging Scientist John Delaney, subjected the paintings to state-of-the-art imaging. They built a rich history of Vermeer research at the NGA, particularly Melanie Gifford, Research Curator of Painting Techniques. Initially, it was not clear that they would bring anything new.

But, according to Wiseman, there was an “exponential increase in our understanding of Vermeer’s working process.” That leap of knowledge, he says, “helped us determine that [‘Girl With a Flute’] Not by Vermeer.”

According to Delaney, Gifford analyzed small samples taken from the NGA’s Vermeers. Now, a combination of microscopic analysis and advanced imaging has allowed Delany and her fellow imaging scientist Catherine Dooley to map the objects used by Vermeer. Techniques include X-ray fluorescence imaging spectroscopy and reflectance hyperspectral imaging, which uses a light-scattering spectrometer to collect and process information from across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Visitors to a new NGA exhibit, “Secrets of Vermeer” (Oct. 8-Jan. 8), here’s a look at some of what the research team revealed before the works. Consigned to the largest Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (Feb. 10-June 4). The display includes the NGA’s four Vermeer paintings (now three) and two 20th-century forgeries still in the gallery’s collection. (These grotesque farces were almost always taken seriously, Vermeer’s is hard to say.)

The research team, which included Alexandra Libby, Tina Unchin, Lisha Deming Klinsmann and Gifford, began by looking at two masterpieces that were never in question for Vermeer. reading”A female character“and”A reserved womanFirst, Delaney said, “is a great way to establish a baseline for his practice.”

In the findings, Vermeer was more radical in some areas of his process than previously thought. He brushed on his first layers with surprising speed and freedom, at one point applying a layer of copper known to speed up the drying process, as if he was in a rush to get to the next stage.

“We have the impression that Vermeer was the first to have these soft, brilliant surfaces where you can’t recognize individual brushstrokes,” Wiseman said. “But then look at how he sets up that light on the background wall [depicted in “Woman Holding a Balance”] And it’s exciting, vigorous brushwork. You realize that the artist is really doing it.

Lucian Freud captured the intimacy of his subjects even though they were clothed

The research team turned to two smaller, more complex works, “Girl with the Red Hat” and “Girl with a Flute.” The two paintings have long been considered a pair. Both are “drones” – not portraits of specific individuals, but studies of genres, often the Dutch term for portraits of idealized or particularly expressive heads. (Vermeer’s “Girl with pearl earring” The most famous example.)

There were two main ways: “Girl with a Flute” was made by an artist—perhaps a student, apprentice, or amateur taking lessons from a master—who, in Delaney’s words, “understood the technique but was of limited skill.” In implementing it.”

Experimenting with new colors and a slightly bolder use of paint, the research team concluded that Vermeer may have painted “Girl with the Red Hat” in 1669 – instead of 1666-1667.

NGA’s drones both show young women with similar faces and expressions. Both subjects wear unusual hats and large pearl earrings. The backgrounds of both are briefly sketched. Both show a seal on the wall and a chair with lion head hair. Both are painted on wooden panels, which is very unusual for Vermeer.

Despite everything, scholars have long doubted whether Vermeer painted “Girl with a Flute.” That’s not enough. The transition from light to dark, especially around the face, was awkward and abrupt. Shades of green are heavily used, creating what the “Vermeer’s Secrets” wall label calls “a dull look under the nose and jaw.”

In the 1990s, NGA curator Arthur Wheelock, a recognized Vermeer expert and recently retired, designated “Girl with a Flute” as “attributed to Vermeer.” That designation, Weisman said, was Wheelock’s “way of explaining that it generally looks like Vermeer but doesn’t quite come up to standard.”

Most scholars agree, however Wheelock’s colleague at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walter Leitke, said it was probably a Vermeer, and Wheelock later reversed his position, saying, “Given the complex conservation issues surrounding this painting, I have decided that it is too serious to remove ‘Girl with a Flute’ from Vermeer’s work”. (Scratches on the surface of the painting made it difficult to read.)

New analyzes seem to have confirmed the skeptics. “In the structure of the painting at every level,” Wiseman said, “it’s ‘close, but no cigar.’ “

Although the two paintings contained some of the same materials (as Gifford had previously established), the research team discovered that the paint handling was very different. Where the technique of “Girl with the Red Hat” is subtle and clever, the paint application of “Girl with a Flute” is relatively clumsy and rough.

Instead of using coarse pigments for the lower layers and finely ground pigments for the final layers (as Vermeer did), the painter of “Girl with a Flute” did the opposite, giving the surface a granular quality. There are even fragments of bristles on the surface layers of the painting, suggesting that the artist was using an old or poorly made brush.

“The artist has a conceptual understanding of how Vermeer created his paintings, but can’t manage the nuance,” Wiseman said.

The underpaint also has flaws. For example, in some blue areas, there are “drag cracks” indicating that the surface paint has dried before the lower layers. “An experienced artist knows how to mix their pigments so that doesn’t happen,” Wiseman said.

Similarly, in the areas where white pigment was applied, the artist applied an excess of medium (oil) to the underbelly, thus drying it in an abstract manner. The artist had to scrape off that crease to get a smooth surface to apply the final layer of paint.

“These are beginner mistakes,” Wiseman said. “Vermeer knows why he does things. He knows what the end result will be, whereas you don’t have that understanding with this artist.

All of this, if true, changes our understanding of Vermeer as a lone wolf who worked without assistants or pupils for long periods of time. The question arises: Who was this artist who had access to Vermeer’s studio and used so many materials? What might one day discover about their relationship?

New discoveries can be revealing, but there is always an air of mystery around Vermeer.

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