Another New Vermeer?

June 9th, 2014
Saint Praxedis, Vermeer (?)
A copy (left) of the Saint Praxedis (right) by Felice Ficherelli hung together in Rome, 2012

On June 6, Christie’s announced that it was declaring the Saint Praxedis a Vermeer. According to Henry Pettifer, the head of Old Master paintings at Christie’s, after isotope analysis tests carried out by scientists at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Free University, it was found that the lead-white of the painting was a precise match for that used in another early Vermeer, Diana and her Companions— “So precise as to suggest that the same batch of paint could have been used.” He stated that the research, including an analysis of the date and signature on the painting, amounted to “a compelling endorsement” of Vermeer’s authorship. In the event that the painting is accepted by art scholars as an authentic Vermeer, it will become the second once-doubted painting in ten years to be accepted into the painter’s thin oeuvre largely on the basis of technical analysis.

The auction house excepts the work could fetch about $13 million when it is auction in early July. The work is part of the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born art-lover who amassed a huge trove of art after marrying Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson. Piasecka died last year.

Auction
Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale
Christie’s
8 King Street, St. James’s, London
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
at 6:00 pm

viewings:
Saturday, July 5 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sunday, July 6 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Monday, July 7 9:00 am -4:30 pm
Yuesday, July 8 9:00 am – 3:30 pm

Click here to access the Christie’s PDF online catalogue entry for the Saint Praxedis which contains further art historical and technical information.

The Painting

The painting is believed to be a copy of a work by Felice Ficherelli (1605 – 1669 ?) from about 1640–45, now in the Collection Fergmani in Ferrara. It represents the early Roman martyr, Saint Praxedis or Praxedes, who squeezes a martyr’s blood from a sponge into an ornate vessel. The most obvious difference between the copy and the original is that there is no crucifix in the Ferrara work.

Critical Fortunes

The painting’s provenance before the mid-twentieth century is unknown. The collector Jacob Reder bought it at a minor auction house in New York in 1943. The painting was first publically viewed in 1969 when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a work by Felice Ficherelli in the exhibition Florentine Baroque Art from American Collections, no. 39. Vermeer’s signature in the lower left was noted in the catalogue after it had been examined by Ted Rousseau and members of the conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After the work appeared in New York exhibition, it was first published (1969) as a Vermeer by Michael Kitson, an art historian with the University of London. Kitson believed the signature was integral with the paint surface and “the form of the signature corresponds exactly to those on Vermeer’s early works, particularly the Maid Asleep.” Kitson likened the Saint Praxedis copy to Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, for its “breadth of form and handling and a similar gravity (though not sickness) of mood.”*

In 1986, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. enthusiastically embraced the work as an authentic Vermeer** the citing the stylistic and technical similarities with the two early Vermeers and the essentially Dutch character of the modeling of Saint Praxedis’ face, which he compared to the down turned head of Vermeer’s a Maid Asleep. Wheelock noted two signatures. One, at the lower left was the name “Meer ”and the date “1655.” On the suggestion of Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Wheelock advanced that the other inscription contained the word “Meer,” followed by the letter “N,” the letter “R,” then two lower case “o’s.” Wheelock holds that both the signatures and the date are integral to the paint surface and that the second could be interpreted as: “[Ver]Meer N[aar] R[ip] o [s] o” or “Vermeer after Riposo,” Ficherelli’s Italian nickname (Repose).

However, on the occasion of the 1994-1995 Vermeer Washington/The Hague exhibition where the work was shown by Wheelock as the earliest known painting by Vermeer, its authenticity was seriously contested by a number of art historians and conservators. Jørgen Wadum, then the chief curator of the Mauritshuis, firmly stated that the “Meer 1655” inscription had been added after the painting had been completed. Contrary to Wheelock, he believed the brushwork of Saint Praxedis had nothing to do with the brushwork of either the Diana and her Companions or the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. He also noted that no smalt smalt, a dull blue pigment which is now obsolete, had been detected in the Saint Praxedis while both the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and the Diana and her Companions had significant amounts of smalt.

When Saint Praxedis was examined by Marten Jan Bok, a specialist on the 17th-century Utrecht painter Johannes van der Meer, he was unable even to see the second inscription, and in any case, he wrote “nowhere in 17th-century Dutch painting will you find such an inscription on a copied painting.”

Ben Broos found that Wheelock’s interpretation of the signature as “Meer naar Riposo” was “wishful thinking” at best. “In my opinion, Saint Praxedis is the latest wrongly attributed Vermeer of the caliber of Van der Laan and Vrel.” Other experts such as Albert Blankert, Gregor J. M. Weber, and the National Gallery in London’s Christopher Brown have arrived at similar conclusions.

In 2002,  Jon Boone wrote, “In looking at Saint Praxedis one does have a hard time understanding its attribution to Vermeer. It is a second-rate copy of a mediocre painting by an undistinguished artist, with certain features—such as the awkward wrap-around hands—antithetical to Vermeer’s sensibility as well as his draftsmanship. While the face itself is beautiful, certainly more charming than that of the original, it is still a facsimile face, a close copy of the source.” And further: “The Saint Praxedis attribution is severely strained, failing the standard of Ockham’s razor: The simplest explanation covering all the facts of the case is that the painting is a copy executed either by the original painter, Ficherelli, in Florence, or by another artist in Ficherelli’s circle.”***

In fact, there is no evidence that Vermeer had ever visited Italy or that the Ficherelli’s original, or an eventual copy, had ever traveled outside the country.

Ivan Gaskell had written earlier “that as a result of, first, examining the painting while exhibited in Washington (scarcely optimal conditions) in conjunction with Vermeer’s two early history paintings, secondly, of discussing the work with specialist colleagues, and, thirdly, reviewing the published arguments, I feel unable to accept an unqualified attribution of Saint Praxedis to Vermeer.”

In his 2008 complete catalogue of Vermeer’s painting, Walter Liedtke does not even mention the Saint Praxedis, while in 2009 he wrote “the repetition is probably by the Florentine painter [Fichherelli] himself.”****

* KITSON, Michael. “Florentine Baroque Art in New York.” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 111, No. 795 (Jun., 1969). 409-410.

** WHEELOCK, Arthur K. Jr. “‘St. Praxedis’: New Light on the Early Career of Vermeer.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 7, No. 14 (1986). 71-89.

*** BOONE, Jon. “Saint Praxedis: Missing the Mark.” In Essential Vermeer. 2002 <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/saint_praxedis.html>

**** LIEDTKE, Walter: Vermeer: The Milkmaid. The Metorpolitan Museum of Art, New York. 2009. note 5, 23.

7 Responses to “Another New Vermeer?”

  1. Jon Boone

    The passage of fourteen years since my assessment of the Piasecke Saint Praxedis has only increased my skepticism about Vermeer’s involvement with the painting. Jorgen Wadum had also eviscerated Arthur Wheelock’s contention that the Saint Praxedis correlated well with Vermeer’s Diana and her Companions because of the similarity of technique “used to paint the deep blue sky: Vermeer, perhaps following the lead of Ficherelli, executed both skies in an unusual manner for a Dutch artist – natural ultramarine laid over a dark imprimatura layer.” When the Mauritshuis staff cleaned Diana and her Companions fifteen years ago, the procedure revealed that this “deep blue sky” seen in countless reproductions of the painting over the years was really an addition painted over in the 19th century. (The silence about this embarrassment remains deafening.) Moreover, Wadum detected no smalt in the Saint Praxedis while both Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and the Diana had significant amounts of smalt.

    I wonder if a double blind test for the chemical composition of lead white used by a range of other artists in many other paintings (it was an extremely common pigment in the seventeenth century) might result in many other “precise matches” with other Vermeer works.

    Caveat emptor….

  2. Jonathan Janson

    Jon, yes, there are a few open questions. Thanks for yours. I have always been partial to your using the Ockham’s razor standard in relation to the picture. Sometimes I wonder how many twentieth-century art historical claims would hold up in a court or law, much less scientific scrutiny.

    The attribution to Vermeer on the basis of the similarity of the white-lead in the Saint Praxedis and the Diana and her Companions is, perhaps, a bit problematic. The Christie’s catalogue entry states that “the paint materials are entirely characteristic of Dutch painting of the period and the lead white pigment is incontrovertibly not Italian.” This is interesting but of relative importance in regards to such a specific attribution.

    However, one line down we read: “The match is so identical as to suggest that the same batch of pigment could have been used for both paintings.” On first thought, this is more comforting to the Vermeer attribution. But my problem, which I hope someone will kindly clear up, is understanding what exactly is a “batch.” Is a “batch” a quantity of white-lead that will fill a painter’s pouch or a quantity of white-lead that will fill a wooden keg or a dozen kegs stored on top of a barge heading to be sold who knows where to who knows how many painters? That seems to make a difference. I imagine we will sooner or later get an answer.

    Ah! I was able to study extensively the Praxedis next to the original while they were hung here in Rome in 2012. The canvas is, in effect, quite handsomely painted (although IMO fairly mediocre art). This is not usually apparent in reproductions. What puzzled me most is that from a strictly technical point of view, it is vastly more sophisticated than the Diana, which although an authentic (?) Vermeer and in ruined condition, is nonetheless a work of a struggling beginner. If the Diana was a bid to gain access to the Hague court, I have no problem in understanding why it was turned down.

    Ah! number two. The original is in poor condition. I have the hunch it might have been unfinished. And it were unfinished, it’s odd someone would have made a copy of it. Oh well, there I go speculating just like real art hsitorans.

  3. Jon Boone

    Hi, Jonathan. Agree with both “Ahas!” On the second, I’m not the first to suggest that the “copy” was done by Ficherelli himself, for what could be a variety of reasons. On the first, I’ve always thought it was a second rate painting that was superior to the third rate painting attributed directly to Ficherelli.

    I’m fascinated by Christie’s silence–and everyone else’s–about Art Wheelock’s proposition that the Saint Praxedis was strongly linked to Vermeer’s Diana by the deep blue sky in the latter painting, which later proved to be a nineteenth century addition. After this bomb exploded over the attribution to Vermeer (for this idea was Wheelock’s evidentiary linchpin), Wheelock grew very quiet on the matter while his critics stepped up their attack, culminating in Walter Liedtke’s reasonable proposal to simply let the attribution whither away.

    That there is no evidence of smalt in the Saint Praxedis attributed to Vermeer, an ingredient liberally embedded in Vermeer’s two firmly attributed early works, should be sufficient reason to dismiss the Saint Praxedis connection to those two paintings, both of which reveal the struggle of a young (21-22 years old) artist to master a craft relatively free from optical devices (although I think the basin in the Diana painting may be the result of an early experiment with mirrors).

    As I wrote, I’d love to see a double blind test comparing lead white composition in a number of other paintings. Wanna bet that a substantial number would have a “batch” that would match intimately closely with Vermeer’s paintings?

    In its promotion of this work, I can understand Christie’s selective commentary. I just don’t think anyone should confuse such cherry picked hype with scientific analyses that would responsibly evaluate all the facts.

  4. James Blake

    Some interesting reflections here, both bin the blog post and the comments: http://www.arthistorynews.com/articles/2836_For_sale__the_earliest_Vermeer

  5. Jonathan

    Thanks for the article James. The story has some of the same contours of the Sotheby’s Rolin Vermeer auctioned 10 years ago. Like the other commentators, I have been wondering what a “batch” of white lead means. A pouch, a keg or ten kegs. I would image that a single artist did not go mine the lead himself so it must have been produced on an industrials scale.

  6. Gunnar

    Many thanks for this informative article, and for your Vermeer blog in general. I was looking at a two volume travel guide to the Netherlands the other day, published in 1894, (the author called the country “Holland” throughout) and famous Dutch artists were often mentioned by him. One entire chapter was devoted to the city of Delft, and not ONE mention was made of Vermeer or his work, which illustrates that he was largely “forgotten” or overlooked, until rediscovered the early 20th century.

  7. Jon Boone

    Holland is the largest province in The Netherlands, Gunnar. And you might read DK’s Eyewitness Travel Guide on The Netherlands, which prominently discusses Dutch artists, including those of the Golden Age. Good luck.

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