By Tessa Solomon
One of four Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has had its attribution stripped, museum experts revealed Friday, settling a decades-long debate over its author while also raising new questions about the Dutch master’s life.
Girl with a Flute was not painted by Johannes Vermeer, however historians shared at a news conference that it was painted by someone with a profound understanding of Vermeer’s techniques, challenging the notion that Vermeer worked alone.
The team of curators, conservators, and scientists who conducted a mix of scientific analysis and naked-eye examination believe the work was made “by an associate of Vermeer—not by the Dutch artist himself.”
The museum announced its decision the day before the opening of “Vermeer’s Secrets,” a new exhibition that showcases recent discoveries made about Vermeer’s creative process. A highlight of the exhibition is the investigation of Girl With a Flute, which was renewed in 2020. All four Vermeer paintings, which are rarely removed from view, were brought to the museum’s conservation lab during the extended closure in 2020.
Experts compared Girl With a Flute to Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, given their similar size. Both were also painted on wood, a rarity in the artist’s oeuvre.
Any significant similarities ended there. A microscopic analysis revealed that Girl With a Flute lacked Vermeer’s characteristic precision, according to the museum, and the final layer of paint contained coarsely ground pigments inconsistent with the smooth finish of the 35 known paintings attributed to him.
The identity of the “associate” who painted Girl With a Flute remains a mystery. There is no surviving documentation to suggest the existence of a workshop, and no records of pupils or assistants. The museum suggested the possibility of a freelance painter hired by Vermeer on “project-by-project” basis, or one of the artist’s own family members. Because Vermeer’s oeuvre only contains 35 paintings, art historians have generally considered it unlikely that he had students or assistants.
“The existence of other artists working with Johannes Vermeer is perhaps one of the most significant new findings about the artist to be discovered in decades,” Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, said in a press release.
She added that the finding “fundamentally changes our understanding of Vermeer.”
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