Tests reveal mystery of four Vermeer paintings in Washington, D.C. show – including their authenticity.

Two controversial paintings by Vermeer have been scientifically examined for an exhibition opening in October at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. The girl with the red hat (around 1666-67) and Girl with flute (circa 1665-75) has been questioned by many experts in the past.

the show The Secret of Vermeer (8 October-8 January 2023) will feature all four of the NGA’s paintings attributed to or by Vermeer — two that have been questioned and two others that have been accepted as fully authentic masterpieces. Chief Curator, Marjorie Wiseman, is setting out to examine “what makes Vermeer Vermeer”.

As the four works are almost always on display, the NGA took advantage of the Covid shutdown in 2020-21 to move them into their conservation studio. There they examined the layers of paint using the latest imaging techniques.

of Johannes Vermeer The girl with the red hat (1666-67)

The girl with the red hat Now fully confirmed as Vermeer. But there is one surprise: research has revealed that when Vermeer began working on the oak panel he painted a bust-length portrait of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, which he later transformed into a girl. This is unexpected, as Vermeer is not generally regarded as a painter (many of his faces represent idealized individuals)—and he particularly favored depicting women.

Girl with flute Evaluating proved more problematic, and the dating (1665–75), with its decade-long spectrum, suggests that the painting may have had a complex gestation. The final evaluation will open shortly before the opening of the exhibition.

Discovered in 1906 Girl with flute Donated to the NGA in 1942 by Joseph Widener. This was first rejected by Vermeer scholar Peter Swillens in the 1950s—and the idea has been followed by many later experts.

In the 1990s the NGA’s own curator and Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock questioned the work, labeling it as “attributed to Vermeer”. Although Walter Liedtke, a respected expert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, continues to accept the painting, others widely reject it.

Wheelock, who retired from the NGA in 2018, later changed his position. He wrote in the NGA’s web catalog entry on the picture: “I have concluded that Girl with flute Given the complex conservation issues surrounding this image, it was quite extreme from Vermeer’s oeuvre.”

of Johannes Vermeer Woman holding balance (about 1664) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting is certainly not up to the quality of most of Vermeer’s accepted works. Vermeer was probably originally in block-composition, around 1665, but the image appears to have been extensively modified at a later date. The work has unfortunately been reduced, making attribution more difficult to determine.

Along with these two questionable works, the NGA’s other two Vermeers have always been accepted as masterpieces: Woman holding balance (about 1664) and A woman writing (around 1665).

of Johannes Vermeer A woman writing (around 1665) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

A recent exam Woman holding balance Another surprise was revealed that could lead to a reevaluation of Vermeer’s way of working. It has long been assumed that he painted slowly and carefully, as only about 35 paintings from his 22-year career survive.

But imaging the lower levels below the surface Woman holding balance Reveals quick, smooth and sometimes densely textured brushstrokes. This is very different from the fully finished surface of the picture, where the smooth individual brushstrokes are barely visible. An NGA spokesman explains: “This discovery calls into question the common assumption that the artist was a diligent late perfectionist.”

All four paintings have been promised for a major Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (10 February-4 June 2023). including the Girl with flute suggests that technical research has confirmed the attribution. The loan is quite a stretch for the Rijksmuseum, as the NGA would obviously be very reluctant to lend all the Vermeers at the same time.

the lacemaker (circa 1925) by an imitator of Johannes Vermeer Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Along with its four Vermeers, the NGA also has two crude 20th-century forgeries, which will be included in this fall’s Washington, D.C. exhibition. These are the lacemakerJune 1669-70 The original is based in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and The smiling girl.

Both forgeries are now believed to have been created around 1925, by which time Vermeer’s work had become highly collectible and fetched substantial prices. Both forgeries were part of Andrew Malone’s bequest to the NGA in 1937. Both were rejected by the NGA in the 1980s as Vermeers.

The smiling girl (circa 1925) by an imitator of Johannes Vermeer Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Looking at both forgeries now, when we know so much about the master’s work, it is surprising to think that they were ever accepted.

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