Looking again

April 6th, 2013

This side-by-side comparison of a fake Vermeer (right) and the detail of the Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (left) begs to be addressed. Notwithstanding that the latter has been accepted by important critics as an authentic work by Vermeer (it had languished in critical limbo for decades), many lay viewers find the Young Lady Seated at a Virginal a perplexing picture.

Had not a scientific committee established that the Young Lady Seated at a Virginal executed with materials and methods compatible with those used by Vermeer and some seventeenth-century Dutch painters, the work’s ideation might recall those of various twentieth-century Vermeer forgeries.

In these works, the forger reiterated a familiar Vermeer theme with a single figure surrounded by a few objects cherry picked from other pictures by the Delft master. In a sort of cat and mouse game, he occasionally flipped his copy-and-paste motifs left to right to make his plundering less evident. The final, uncomplicated whole was sprinkled with Vermeer’s mannerist touches which, however, fail to partake in the painting’s expressive fabric. No signature was added to the canvas knowing that it might raise more suspicion than approval. This reductionist strategy exploits the “simple” figure-against-blank-background motif of Vermeer’s authentic Lacemaker on a technically manageable scale contemporarily allowing the forger to evade direct competition with a genius on his favorite terrain: refined planimetric organization and the evocation of meaningful spatial depth.

The curious, naïve flavor—to post-Van Meegeren eyes at least—which characterizes these forgeries owes not to anything good in the forger’s heart but to the oversimplification to which he is constrained in order to mask his technical and organizational inadequacies. His malicious plan, then, was to cast a few tasty morsels of Vermeeresque bait and keep his bad cards as close to the vest as possible.

Do you think the Young Lady Seated at a Virginal is a Vermeer or or not, or just don’t know? Make your though known  on the poll on the sidebar to the right.

14 Responses to “Looking again”

  1. Michael White

    I hesitate to enter such conversations, since I don’t have the proper background. But I think it might be a Vermeer, although I would not stake much on it. Some of the very early and late paintings suffer from a lack of clarity and conviction, which cannot be said of any of the works of Vermeer’s great decade, regardless of quality. It makes me cringe a little to view some of these, imagining the circumstances that might have compelled one of the finest artists who ever lived to execute such lifeless and indifferent displays. This painting is like that: its insipid lifelessness is so sad, it might be said to be a forgery even if it is authentic.

  2. Jonathan Janson

    Michael, thanks for the thoughts. Almost any amount of circumstances could be conjured up to explain the oddity of the painting. I see some signs of technical and spiritual decline in the Lady Seated at the Virginals, but I have a hard time explaining the virtual collapse of the small Rolin canvas.

    Yes, the feel of the work is quite as you say. I had months to look at it while it was shown here in Rome, not too many meters from the London Lady Standing at the Virginals. There really was no comparison. As a painter, I tend to look at the physical fabric of the work, how each piece is crafted and finely woven into a unique, overall concept (invention). In this work, both the pieces and the concept seem to be unusually undemanding.

    I am more partial to the other late works by Vermeer than you, if not only, for a certain boldness of manner and enviable technical confidence. Like many artists, Vermeer seems to have depleted his reserve and reverted to novelty. Again, as a painter, even when genius is lacking in Vermeer’s late and early works, the amount of sheer ingenuity (in the later works—some of the first compositions are quite unsophisticated) is remains quite astounding.

    In any case, I fear there is still a great deal to be said about this picture. I am currently writing on it.

  3. Jonathan Janson

    Ah! Michael, please don’t hesitate to enter in conversation.

  4. Michael White

    In Lady Seated, there are inexplicable lapses, especially in how the room is handled. The Standing Lady is utterly majestic (if cool) in comparison.
    Yet the bass viol in the later work–what a magnificent instrument! I think genius is always present, but the sense of otherworldly focus cannot be sustained in the last couple of years.

  5. AnnaMorphic

    This is a fascinating painting because it suggests that somebody was producing Vermeer knock-offs within his own lifetime. But it is a terrible effort. The carefully-drawn nose alone is enough to disqualify it as a Vermeer.

  6. Jonathan Janson

    Michael, I suspect that the Lady Seated is not in the best condition even thought it is weak in concept and composition as well. The skirt may be unfinished or over cleaned. In good reproductions (see the zoom image of the work at the National Gallery website) one can clearly make out a thin brown line which follows the outer contour of the dress. This is, I think, not a painted line but an unpainted reserve which reveals the brownish underpaint beneath. In successive stages, the contour, all important for creating the illusion of space around the figure, would have been refined as well as the folds gown itself. Yes, the bass viol is magnificent. I would imagine that both the gown and the frame would have been brought up to the same level of refinement, so my judgment on the painting is on hold. It might have been a much better picture. I spent long hours with the Standing Lady when she was exhibited here in Rome and it’s a splendid composition even though I found very few Italians who were able to warm up to the icy figure.

  7. Jonathan Janson

    @ AnnaMorphic… That Vermeer was copied (imitated, emulated or forged?) not only AFTER his rediscovery by Thoré in the mid 1860s, is evident by various works that were sold in early 1800s as by Vermeer. The Philadelphia Guitar Player (a very close copy of Vermeer’s authentic Kenwood Guitar Player) was first sold in 1817 (who knows when it was painted?) and , if I remember correctly, a Lacemaker “in a niche”, (which was not the real Lacemaker) was also sold not too many years after Vermeer’s death. But the strongest piece of evidence that Vermeer was being redone very early on are the two Dublin works (A Lady Writing a Letter and A Man Writing a Letter) by Metsu. Both show a knowledge of Vermeer’s manner of working that is absolutely non superficial. They present double shadows, cool gray backgrounds and rigorous, rectilinear composition that were conceptually distant from Metsu’s own working habits. Metsu even sprinkled some of Vermeer’s pointillés on the foreground slippers in his own work. And then yellow the morning jacket of the Metsu (I suspect a later hand made it yellow since underneath the yellow jacket was a red one and Metsu painted a number of red jackets) is extremely stylized very much like those of Vermeer’s late works. MORAL OF THE STORY, I would guess that there must have been a discreet market for Vermeer spinoffs even when he was not the phenomena he became after Thoré.

  8. AnnaMorphic

    Hmm, I don’t think that the Metsus count in this argument. Nobody was expected to mistake the Dublin pictures for Vermeers — they are Metsu selling Metsu updated for Vermeer connoisseurs, perhaps. (Vermeer would never have done the dog!) The Philadelphia painting, though, is clearly an early knock-off, you are right there.

  9. Jonathan Janson

    Yes, I agree that Metsu had no idea of passing off his pendant for real Vermeers. The point I wanted to make with Metsu is that Vermeer-like paintings were desired and produced–some emulations, some clones. In a nutshell, there was a market for a range of Vermeer spinoffs long before Thoré. The Rolin picture appears much like a clone. In fact, the picture is conceptually a copy and paste of 3 late Vermeers: the London Lady Seated (figure, pose and virginals), the Lacemaker (hairdo and blank background) and the London Lady Standing (double shadow, chair and satin gown). This, coupled with the fact that the painting lacks any compositional invention (it’s a left-to-right frieze with no depth to speak of) , and that there is virtually no iconographic catalyst that might set in motion any sort of extra-pictorial meaning, needs to be addressed. The fact that the only “original” element, the yellow wrap, is so horribly painted, confirms a conceptual and technical paucity that is not found in any other Vermeer. The London Lady Seated, surely Vermeer’s worst work from a technical and compositional point of view, does present a few bad passages such as the frame and the blue gown (unfinished or poorly conserved I suspect), but it presents a few of utmost technical brilliance: the bass viol, the lavish whipped cream sleeve (needs to be seen in the original) and the faux marble virginals. To be frank, if one were to order a facsimile of a late Vermeer, the Rolin work looks like a pretty good solution. Did Vermeer make facsimiles of himself?

  10. Michael White

    Jonathan, I do a casual comparison between the two London ladies in my forthcoming memoir. The incredible compositional force of the standing lady cannot be ignored. Similarly, although I find some of the details in the seated lady dismaying (the wall tiles, the window, etc.), there’s also something incredibly seductive about the figure and the scene. In my book, I speculate on these paintings as pendants, for if they are, then perhaps one way they converse with each other is in how they represent intimacy and partnership, the different appeals (one noble and upright, one anything but) that these two ladies make upon the viewer–who seems at times presumably male, often a stand-in for the painter. I end up, as I recall, speculating that the two ladies really need each other, each version of love depends on the other.

  11. James Blake

    I’ve put together a proper page about this painting on Wikipedia for the first time. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Young_Woman_Seated_at_the_Virginals) Any comments of course gratefully received – or anyone can edit the page themselves. Please remember Wikipedia guidelines require reasonably authoritative sources for all assertions, and no original research by the editor. I look forward to the piece Jonathan mentions writing about this painting, as I hope to use this as a source for summarising the views of those who doubt this is a Vermeer. For what it’s worth, having re-read the various papers about technical issues, I’m inclining back to the view that it is a Vermeer, just a very uninspiring one.

  12. Jonathan Janson

    James, good for you. When I have a moment, I’ll have a look and see if there is anything I can contribute. BTW, here is a link of an interesting article made 2 days after the Rolin sale. Let me know what you think if you haven’t already read it.

    Brian Sewell, “Vermeer cannot be genuine.” London Evening Standard. 9 July 2004.


    I’ll let you know when I ready to publish the book, it’s actually 70 pages long (with figures) and I must figure out how many people are really willing to ready so much about a rather uninspiring work. But it had the merit, at least for me, to bring up quite a few collateral problems. In the end, my question is, what really is a Vermeer? I don’t pretend every Vermeer must be a masterwork, many or not, perhaps the majority. Here’s how I draw the line. Not all Vermeer’s are genius, but they are all ingenious. The Rolin picture not only lacks genius (obviously I am willing to concede genius is impossible to define) but it lacks ingenuity as well. Various late works by Vermeer are not genius, but are very very ingenious in their construction and execution. Even the Lady Seated at the Virginals in London presents a few passage of conceptual and manipulative genius alongside the manhandled frame, and blue dress, which, moreover, I believe is not so much manhandled as unfinished.

    My experience tells me that not a single art historian is in love with the Rolin painting, but many who seriously doubt the picture are wary of going against the scientific evidence and getting caught on the wrong side of the fence. The picture is unobtrusive, an end piece that tells us nothing about Vermeer and as such, inconsequential and better to be ignore. It’s not like a crime against nature if you don’t write anything about it. Personally, I don’t find this attitude edifying. It is surprising how much as been written about the canvas, paint etc, but how little the front side has been analyzed seriously analyzed.

  13. James Blake

    Hi Joanthan

    70 pages! I didn’t realise you’d written something so in-depth. It definitely deserves to see the light of day. Thanks for the Brian Sewell piece, which I hadn’t read before – his point about the possible effects of restorations is interesting. I don’t buy his argument, though, that having canvas in common with the Lacemaker means nothing, as (a) we know now the two National Gallery London paintings share canvas – surely not a coincidence, and (b) the Rolin painting and the Lacemaker also share similar dimensions and, I’d say, subject matter – a close-up of a young woman engaged in a domestic activity, against a plain wall.
    Thanks, as ever, for replying thoughtfully and at length to the comments people send in.
    best wishes

  14. Reid Kuster

    Hi Jonathan, you wrote in this blog that not too many years after Vermeer’s death there appeared to be another Lacemaker “in a niche” which was not the real Lacemaker. A short time ago I learned about a Lacemaker in a niche drawing after Vermeer by the Dutch 18th century artist Jan Stolker. Did you mean this drawing by Jan Stolker? Or do you have other (auction?) information about another Lacemaker in a niche oil painting that was sold close after Vermeer’s death? And if so, do you have any knowledge of the whereabouts of this painting?

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