Vermeer did not paint “Girl with a Flute”. Why think less about it?
Since the rediscovery of the Dutch painter’s work from the 17th to the 19th century, Vermeer’s authentic catalog has both shrunk and sometimes expanded, although the general trend has been to shrink. In 1866, the painter’s great champion, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, published a list of Vermeers which attributed more than 70 painted works to the artist, although the author only felt confident about 49 of them. . Today that number is around 34 or 35. Just as the National Gallery’s ‘Girl with a Flute’ has long been suspect, another painting, ‘Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’, also has a long history of doubt and support.
The National Gallery thought it was a Vermeer. Now? Not really.
Authentication of paintings is increasingly a scientific process, with scholarly judgment making the final decision. But for centuries, authenticity has also been a matter of desire and suspicion, greed and fraud, and vast amounts of honest confusion and uncertainty. In the 20th century, the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren created forgeries which he passed off as the work of Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Vermeer. He managed to convince even Vermeer’s top experts that a 1937 painting titled “The Last Supper at Emmaus” was not only by Vermeer, but was also one of the greatest works the artist ever produced. Thus, the Vermeer canon developed, for some time, before the fraud was detected and definitively debunked.
Passing off a fake as genuine can bring huge financial rewards to the scammer. But there are also other motivations. Artists learn by copying, and copying is a form of looking deeply. Shaping the work of an artist is a way of understanding it, even of loving it, of paying homage to it through the flattery of imitation. It can also be a form of aggression, because the deceitful artist shows himself equal to the master, even superior (at least in his eyes). The sale of the work, or its entry into a respected public or private collection, only affirms the triumph of defeating the genius of another artist.
The Dutch painter Vermeer among his contemporaries and competitors
But works are also copied for perfectly legitimate reasons. The artist can make the copies himself or supervise the work of disciples and assistants in the studio. They can also make several versions, with small modifications, of the same work. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” is one of many paintings that depict the same basic scene: a young man making music for the voluptuous goddess. But the details and sometimes the instrument (the young man also plays the organ) change from one work to another, as well as subtle psychological details.
At the Prado, a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is often overlooked or ignored by visitors. It’s not the real Mona Lisa, who is in the Louvre, but a very fine iteration which, according to a recent study, was probably made in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio at the time of the original painting. Unlike the hordes of pilgrims who adore the original, you can have the Prado version to yourself almost any day.
Reports of “newly discovered” paintings – in an attic, the dusty back room of an antique store, or a rummage sale – delight us because of the fundamental element of desire that so colors our response to art. We want there to be more Vermeers, not only because it adds to the artistic treasure but because it promises the possibility of understanding what remains enigmatic about the artist. Art can be described, analyzed and subjected to X-ray fluorescence imaging. But none of this fully satisfies the desire for understanding. Nor will there be a new Vermeer, if there ever is. But the possibility is there, and it inspires hope, and hope is impossible to resist.
The desire to contract the canon is also linked to authenticity. The fewer works attributed to an artist, the more seemingly sacred (and financially valuable) one becomes. But it is not only the value of the work or its power to attract visitors to a museum that owns it. The tighter the authenticity is controlled, the more intensely we can engage with the work. When the thing defined by the German critic Walter Benjamin as the “aura” of a work of art seems to increase in intensity, the intensity of our own engagement can also increase.
It is curious that the process of authentication has become more rigorously scientific even as authenticity is an increasingly suspect or despised category. Authentication of work empowers academics, and now scientists, and seems to be part of the control apparatus that makes museums feel like zones of exclusion or patriarchy. It can also support questionable or problematic categories, such as genius, too often used to limit the canon to great men (almost always men) canonized by centuries of reflexive admiration.
But just as tampering with or tampering with a work is a form of scrutiny, so is authenticating it. Since the rediscovery of Vermeer, it has been tempting to attribute the work of other artists to him, including the magnificent intimate scenes of Ter Borch. But the process of authenticating an artist’s work can lead us to look more deeply at the work of other artists. Paintings by Jacobus Vrel, who was a contemporary of Vermeer (and had the initials JV), have sometimes been attributed to the more famous artist. But they are strikingly beautiful and haunting in their own right, and any JV work that is Vrel but not Vermeer is no loss to the world.
Authenticity remains highly controversial in the contemporary art world. Artists have questioned why the original should be valued more than a copy, why a work should be limited to the physical presence of an object rather than freely present and transmittable as an idea or concept, and why art should function as currency or luxuries. , its value being determined as much by rarity as by quality.
A look at Elaine Sturtevant, master artist, at the Museum of Modern Art
Concept art often eliminates any idea of an original work. In the 1960s, Elaine Sturtevant began reproducing the works of other pop artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The originality of his work lay in the audacity of his ideas, even though the copies were good enough to be enjoyed on their own, as objects with their own definition of originality.
“Girl With a Flute,” formerly attributed to Vermeer, is going through a perilous time. It’s now officially (at least at the National Gallery) “no Vermeer”, which is an attribution black hole. It’s not yet the work of anyone famous, or even anyone with a known relationship to Vermeer. It can be a student, an imitator, a copyist, a colleague or a competitor. And part of the determination that it’s not by Vermeer was critical, meaning it seems like work that’s not up to Vermeer’s standards. He is an orphan.
Which puts him in vast and often stellar company. Museums around the world are full of works from the “workshop of” or attributed only to a “master” who worked anonymously in an isolated town or church. There can be among these works as many great paintings and sculptures without attribution as there are great works firmly attributed to known artists. Yet we resist them. They are relegated to storage or crossed in galleries by visitors in search of the terra firma of artists whose names they recognize.
But that says more about how we think about and process art than how we experience it. We love art by adopting it, not by looking for its birth certificate.