Oh! If only the “Girl With the Red Hat” could speak. In Johannes Vermeer’s painting, she’s turned around in her chair, gazing directly at us. Natural light streams across the side of her face, highlighting her open mouth and that mischievous glint in her right eye, as if she’s known for centuries what curators, scientists, and researchers at the National Gallery of Art in Washington would discover: Vermeer had a studio, where he worked with assistants and taught students and apprentices. 
The existence of Vermeer’s studio is a remarkable new discovery, which can only shed more light on the 17th-century Dutch artist, who only came to fame in the late 19th century.
“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. It fundamentally changes our understanding of Vermeer,” said the gallery’s director Kaywin Feldman, in a press release.
Up until recently, experts believed that Vermeer worked alone. No written documents exist to confirm that he had a studio. Only about 35 of a possible 45 Vermeer paintings survive, and thus experts long believed that output to be too small a number were he to have had a studio.
The pandemic-enforced gallery closures of 2020 and 2021 gave in-house experts (curators, scientists, and conservators) of the National Gallery of Art an excuse to study all four of its Vermeer paintings: “A Lady Writing,” “Girl With a Flute,” “Girl With the Red Hat,” and “Woman Holding a Balance.” 
The seven-person team drew on decades of the gallery’s research about the paintings and used new, advanced technology to analyze them. The experts learned more about Vermeer’s painting technique, which resulted in one of the gallery’s paintings being attributed to an associate in Vermeer’s studio rather than to the artist himself. 
The gallery’s “Vermeer’s Secrets” exhibition presents the four paintings and the team’s findings. Also on display are two Vermeer forgeries, “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” created around 1925.
In Vermeer’s day, the Dutch Republic, in what’s now the Northern Netherlands, was Calvinistic. The southern part of the Netherlands was Roman Catholic under the reign of the Spanish Habsburg monarchy.
Vermeer lived in the North, in Delft, where many painters specialized in genre paintings. The painters in the surrounding towns of Leiden, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Dordrecht also specialized in that same subject matter.
Each of the gallery’s four Vermeer paintings features a solitary woman. “A Lady Writing” and “Woman Holding a Balance” both show the classic Vermeer composition: the subject sitting or standing in the light of an open window, usually to the left. These types of genre paintings, with a single figure or a couple inside a room, were modern at the time, around 1650–1670. (Previously, multiple-figure paintings of militia groups, for instance, were more common, such as Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.”)
The gallery’s “Girl With a Flute” and “Girl With the Red Hat” are small, intimate character works called “tronies,” which Dutch artists created as studies. The subjects of these tronies might be based on real models but were dressed in exotic clothing, placed in imagined settings, and might show piety, old age, bravery, and the like. (Rembrandt created many tronies, including some of his self-portraits.) “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Vermeer’s best-known work, and “Study of a Young Woman” are some other examples of Vermeer’s tronies (held at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, respectively).
Experts had already established that Vermeer began his paintings with a monochrome sketch. The gallery’s researchers used microscopic analysis and advanced imaging techniques on the four paintings and found that Vermeer underpainted them with bold, broad brushstrokes to plot the forms, colors, and light in the compositions. In “Woman Holding a Balance” the team even pinpointed that Vermeer added a compound containing copper to his black underpaint to quicken the drying process. 
Scientists studied paint samples and mapped the pigments to the minutest degree by using imaging spectroscopy. In “A Lady Writing,” they found that Vermeer used as many as four different yellow pigments to create the lady’s shimmering gold sleeve. 
The most startling findings came when they studied “Girl With a Flute” and “Girl With the Red Hat.” The same model appears to peer out of the two small paintings that Vermeer, rather unusually, had painted on wooden panels.  
Comparing the two, the team could see that Vermeer used many of the same pigments and materials in each painting. However, there were marked differences in the artist’s technique and the finished paintings. Vermeer underpainted “Girl With the Red Hat” using coarsely ground pigments, and finished the work by using finely ground pigments. In “Girl With a Flute,” the artist reversed the process, giving the painting a coarse, almost granular finish. 
By closely studying “Girl With the Red Hat,” the researchers saw how Vermeer used a green-earth pigment to carefully modulate the flesh color, blending it right to the edges. But in “Girl With a Flute,” the artist applied the same pigment in a heavy-handed manner, as seen on the blotchy nose and jawline. Vermeer used green-earth pigments to create flesh tones, a technique distinctive to the artist and rarely seen in Dutch painting. 
Experts realized that the rough finish of “Girl With a Flute” made it unlikely that Vermeer painted it, and that the use of the green-earth pigment in the flesh tones suggested that the artist who painted it must have known Vermeer’s painting process intimately. 
The team confirmed what experts had long suspected: Vermeer didn’t paint the gallery’s “Girl With a Flute.” The mystery artist who painted it is yet to be identified; he could have been a pupil, apprentice, an amateur who paid Vermeer for lessons, a freelance painter hired on a project-by-project basis, or even a member of Vermeer’s family. 
Moreover, the gallery’s curators found that Vermeer created his “Girl With the Red Hat” later than they had previously thought, around 1669 instead of 16661667, making the piece a pivotal point in his career after which he produced bolder paint applications.
The gallery’s “loss” of “Girl With a Flute” as a Vermeer painting has meant an exciting gain in understanding the master’s work. 
The “Vermeer’s Secrets” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington runs until Jan. 8, 2023. To find out more, visit NGA.gov.
The exhibition is organized by Marjorie E. Wieseman, curator and head of the department of northern European paintings; Alexandra Libby, associate curator, department of northern European paintings; Kathryn A. Dooley, imaging scientist; John K. Delaney, senior imaging scientist; and Dina Anchin, associate paintings conservator, all of the National Gallery of Art.


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