For the past three decades, art historians have questioned the authenticity of two paintings by Vermeer held in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They were the only paintings among his authenticated works that were completed on wooden panels.
So while the museum was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, its curators, conservators and scientists used powerful new technology to look beneath the paintings and try to figure out exactly whose hand was responsible.
On Saturday, the group will present its findings and officially change the attribution for “Girl With a Flute.”
It is a Vermeer no more.
Microscopic pigment analysis and advanced imaging technology revealed an unusual approach to layering pigments within the painting. Whoever was imitating the 17th-century Dutch artist had botched his process, leaving the image with a coarse finish unlike the smooth surfaces that have distinguished Vermeer as one of history’s finest painters.
“The science techniques showed the artists used similar materials in similar ways, but they handled the paint differently, from the underpaint to the final surface paint,” said Kathryn A. Dooley, an imaging scientist at the National Gallery who worked on the project.
The museum’s collection includes four Vermeers, and all of them were examined with the advanced technology, including two of his undisputed works. “Girl With the Red Hat,” which like “Girl With a Flute” was painted on a wooden panel, was deemed authentic. They will all be featured in a new exhibition at the National Gallery called “Vermeer’s Secrets,” along with two known forgeries from the 20th century that are in the museum’s collection.
There are only about three dozen surviving examples of Vermeer’s paintings, so changing the attribution for even a single work can have a seismic impact on the academic scholarship and cultural programming built around the artist.
Marjorie E. Wieseman, head of the National Gallery’s department of Northern European paintings, worked with its research team to develop possible explanations for who painted “Girl With a Flute.”
She reasoned that the mystery painter was most likely to fall into one of the following categories: an apprentice to Vermeer, a family member, an amateur who paid for lessons or a freelance artist hired on a project-by-project basis. But no surviving documents mention any assistants in Vermeer’s studio or pupils registered with the local guild.
“There is a lot we don’t know,” Wieseman said. “We know nothing about who created this and under what circumstances.”
Recent technological advancements have supplied museums with new tools for unearthing hidden details in their centuries-old paintings. Last year, the Dresden State Art Collections in Germany completed a restoration of Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” that revealed an image of Cupid that might have been painted over by a different artist.
Wieseman said the technology made it possible to understand that “Girl With a Flute” was modeled by one person who knew the secrets of Vermeer’s technique, which had been impossible to tell by looking only at the surface of the finished painting.
“With these most recent developments in imaging modalities, the sky’s the limit,” she said.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery’s previous head of Northern European paintings and a Vermeer expert, said he believed that two people were responsible for “Girl With a Flute,” explaining that the renowned artist might have sketched out the image before someone else finished it. “I have struggled with this painting forever,” he said, adding that the painting had been attributed to the circle of Vermeer as recently as the National Gallery’s 1995 exhibition on the artist.
One fringe theory among historians speculates that Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, became his secret apprentice and completed some paintings after his death, including this one.
“I’m not surprised that the museum is changing the attribution, but I’m not sure that I entirely agree,” said Aneta Georgievska-Shine, the author of a recent book about the Dutch artist. “I still think that it was more likely started by Vermeer.”
The National Gallery’s research provided additional insights. Awkward brushstrokes in “Girl With the Red Hat,” Georgievska-Shine said, might support a popular theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura to project images onto his work surface, which would have required him to quickly sketch out his scenes before the light faded . The museum’s researchers, however, said the brushstrokes contained no evidence of a link to the camera obscura, a type of pinhole camera.
Despite its reduced status, “Girl With a Flute” is still expected to travel next year to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for what is being billed as the largest exhibition of Vermeer’s work. The National Gallery has no plans to remove the artwork from view.
“It is not a bad painting,” Wieseman said, explaining that it could become a potent reminder of how museum research is constantly shifting our perception of the past. “Artists had people working alongside them who emulated them at every step of the way.”