Sunday, April 16, 2023

Vermeer Blockbuster

If you read a blog known as Missives from the art World I am going to assume that you are acquainted with the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). What might surprise you is that he was not a famous artist in his life time nor a celebrity afterwards. With so little remaining production an air of mystery enhances the artist’s mystique and contributes to the blockbuster character of the current exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The term blockbuster exhibition came into common usage when the flamboyant Thomas P.F. Hoving was Director of the Metropolitan Museum (1967-1977) and oversaw exhibitions that attracted tens of thousands of visitors. It is most apt to use that rubric to describe this Vermeer exhibition. The day after the exhibition was announced 200,000 tickets were sold and the next day the website crashed. Soon, however, all 450,000 available tickets were sold and it was announced that no more were to be had.

A museum is lucky to have a single Vermeer but the Rijksmuseum boasts four in their permanent collection. For the show they were able to assemble 28 of the 35 paintings agreed to be by the artist’s own hand. This was a colossal feat considering how closely every owner guards such rare treasures. In 1996 the National Gallery in Washington D.C. did a similar exhibition, but they could only assemble 21 out of the 35 paintings.

I totally understand why people want to go to such a show but what usually happens in an exhibition of works of small scale there are 10 people waiting to see each one and you have to move on. I would rather see these paintings in situ.

Aside from hope for revenue after all the expenses that go into such an exhibition, as well as notoriety for the museum (as if the Rijksmuseum needed any more) the real reason is to give art historians or as they like to be known, scholars, a chance to compare these masterpieces next to each other. Also each work will probably go through intense analysis by conservators before it travels so more will be learned about the artist’s technique and methodology.

Sometimes these investigations can become exciting detective stories with interesting conclusions both positive and once in a while negative. Many of the revelations go beyond the individual work to deepen our understanding for the artist

New technological advances allow conservators to see below the surface of the paint. Regarding the “Milk Maid” belonging to the Rijksmuseum they learned that contrary to the previous belief that Vermeer painted very slowly with meticulous precision the artist did an initial sketch in thick black paint that he then developed for his finished work. Also, a jug holder and fire basket behind the sitter were painted over by the artist himself.

Inevitably, a major exhibition results in every participating institution re-examining works in their collection to see if they missed something. The following headline appeared in Artnet News, “An Art Expert Has Made a Startling Claim: the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Vermeer Copy May Actually Be the Real Thing” “Lady with Guitar” has been in the collection of the museum since 1933, but has never been on view. So, I wondered why it looked so familiar to me. The reason is that I have seen the painting that has been considered the “original” in Kenwood House in London. The only obvious difference, aside from the condition, between the two paintings is that the sitter has a different hairstyle. The scholar, Arie Wallert, former scientific specialist at the Rijksmuseum believes, on the basis of the pigments, that the Philadelphia picture is authentic. He does not dispute the legitimacy of the Kenwood House version but believes the extremely poor condition of the Philadelphia Museum’s is why it has not been previously accepted.

Kenwood House

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Benjamin Binstock who wrote a book in 2008 claiming Vermeer’s daughter Maria had painted seven of the works attributed to her father. The assertion was dismissed by most scholars but it fascinated Lawrence Wechsler, who at the time was director at the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. A few weeks ago Wechsler wrote a long article in the “Atlantic” discussing Binstock’s assertions including that. “The Girl in a Red Hat” (circa 1669) at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. may actually be a self-portrait by Maria. One of the reasons that Binstock’s theories had been dismissed is that all assistants to members of the painters’ guild at the time in Holland were required to be registered and there are no records of Vermeer ever having had an apprentice. However, an artist’s family members were exempt from registration, making the attribution to Vermeer’s daughter plausible. Then last year the National Gallery decided to reclassify “Girl with a Flute” as not by Vermeer but rather by a student which Binstock had already indicated.

Attributions are not easy and often change over time. A monographic exhibition may provide the inflection point. 

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