Vermeer did not paint ‘Girl With a Flute’. Why think less of it?

The National Gallery of Art painting “Girl With a Flute” has hovered on the edge of the authentic Vermeer canon for decades. Friday’s announcement that new research, including sophisticated image analysis, has definitively proven that the work is the product of someone likely close to Vermeer, but not the painter himself, may finally push the work out of contention for authenticity. Or maybe not. It’s been in and out of the canon for so long that it’s unclear if any research would ever convince all the skeptics.

Since the rediscovery of the Dutch painter’s 17th-century works in the 19th century, the authentic Vermeer catalog has both shrunk and occasionally grown, although the larger trend has been to shrink. In 1866, the painter’s great early champion, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, published a list of Vermeers, attributing more than 70 painted works as possibly by the artist, although the author felt certain of only 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 by a Virgin,” also has a long history of both doubt and support.

The National Gallery thought this was a Vermeer. Now? Not so much.

Authenticating paintings is increasingly a scientific process, with scientific judgments being the final call. But for centuries, authenticity has also been a matter of lust and suspicion, greed and deceit, 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 the best Vermeer experts that a 1937 painting called “The Last Supper at Emmaus” was not only by Vermeer, but also one of the greatest works the artist ever produced. Thus the Vermeer canon grew for a while before the fraud was discovered and finally debunked.

Labeling a fake as authentic can bring enormous financial rewards to the fraudster. But there are also other motives. Artists learn by copying, and copying is a form of insight. Forging an artist’s work is a way of understanding it, even loving it, paying tribute to it through the flattery of imitation. It can also be a form of aggression, as the con artist proves himself the master, or even superior (at least in his eyes). The sale of the work, or its inclusion in a respected public or private collection, only confirms the triumph of overcoming another artist’s genius.

The Dutch painter Vermeer among his contemporaries and competitors

But works are also copied for perfectly legitimate reasons. The artist may make the copies himself or supervise the work of disciples and assistants in the studio. They can also make multiple versions, with slight changes, of the same work. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” is one of a series of paintings depicting 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 an organ) change from work to work, along with subtle psychological details.

At the Prado, a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is often overlooked or ignored by visitors. It is not the actual Mona Lisa that is at the Louvre, but a very fine iteration that, according to recent scholarship, was probably made in da Vinci’s studio around the time of the original painting. Unlike the hordes of adoring pilgrims who throng the original, you can have Prado’s version to yourself most days.

News reports of “newly discovered” paintings—in an attic, in the dusty back room of an antique shop, or a rummage sale—please us because of the fundamental element of desire that colors so much of how we respond to art. We want there to be more Vermeers, not only because it adds to the store of artistic treasures, 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 that fully satisfies the desire for understanding. No new Vermeer will appear either. But the possibility is there, and it gives hope, and hope is impossible to resist.

The desire to contract the canon is also associated with authenticity. The fewer works attributed to an artist, the more seemingly sacred (and financially valuable) a particular one becomes. But it is not only about the value of the work or its power to attract visitors to a museum own it. The more tightly the authenticity is controlled, the more intensely we can engage with the work. When the thing that the German critic Walter Benjamin defines as a work of art’s “aura” seems to increase in intensity, the intensity of our own engagement may also increase.

It is curious that the authentication process has become more rigorously scientific, even though authenticity is an increasingly suspect or despised category. Authenticating work empowers scholars and now scientists and appears to be part of the gatekeeping apparatus that makes museums feel like exclusion zones or patriarchy. It can also support dubious or problematic categories, such as genius, which are too often used to limit the canon to great men (almost always men), canonized by centuries of reflexive admiration.

But just as forging or forging a work is a form of deep appearance, so is authenticating it. Since the rediscovery of Vermeer, it has been tempting to attribute other artists’ works to him, including the magnificent, intimate scenes of Ter Borch. But the process of authenticating a work by one artist can lead us to look more deeply at the work of other artists. The paintings of Vermeer’s contemporary Jacobus Vrel (and bearing 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 work by JV that is Vrel but not Vermeer is no loss to the world.

Authenticity remains highly contested 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 transmitted as an idea or concept, and why art should function as currency or luxury items, with its value determined as much by scarcity as 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 works by other Pop artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The originality of her work lay in the audacity of her ideas, although the copies were good enough to be enjoyed in their own right, as objects with their own definition of originality.

“Girl With a Flute,” previously attributed to Vermeer, has a dangerous moment. It is now officially (at least at the National Gallery) “not by Vermeer”, which is a black hole of attribution. It is not yet a work by anyone known, nor by anyone with a known relation to Vermeer. It can be a student, imitator, copyist, colleague or competitor. And part of determining that it is not by Vermeer was critical, meaning that it appears to be a work not up to Vermeer’s standard. It is an orphan.

Which puts it in great and often stellar company. The world’s museums are full of works by the “studio of” or attributed only to a “master” who worked anonymously in an isolated city or church. Among these works, there may be as many large paintings and sculptures without attribution as there are large works firmly attributed to well-known artists. Yet we resist them. They are relegated to storage or passed by in the gallery by visitors seeking the terra firma of artists whose names they recognize.

But it says more about how we think about and process art than it does about how we experience it. We love art by adopting it, not by looking for its birth certificate.

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