Vermeer in Miniature

John Haber
in New York City

Young Woman at the Virginals

Who would not want to discover another Vermeer? When so little is known, one wants to believe there is more. With a canon this small, each new discovery has the chance to change everything that one has known before. With a painter the subject of the most famous art forgeries of all time, one wants to be the one to find the truth. (A related article focuses more explicitly on the politics of attribution.)

Blank checks

So is this it at last? Only recently, art historians began lining up behind Young Woman at the Virginals, a long-questioned painting in a private collection. A 1996 Jan Vermeer retrospective omitted it. Now close examination of the work's materials, promising to give art and history the aura of science, has started to change minds. It would give the world just three dozen assured works by Vermeer. Young Woman at the Virginals attributed to Jan Vermeer (private collection, c. 1671)

The small painting made it into a survey of "Vermeer and the Delft School" in the spring of 2001, but too late for inclusion in the catalog. The exhibition labeled it a Vermeer without question—but then the Met's commitment to public art education rarely includes admitting to its curators' fallibility or doubts. In July 2004, the painting sold at auction for over $30 million, further proof that scholarship and institutional authority have financial consequences.

I saw it three times at the Met. I had a more extended look on September 1, 2004, on a trip to Philadelphia, where it remains on display through March before reentering the private world. I cannot swear to have the answers, and I frankly cannot overcome my own skepticism. However, a look at the evidence may suggest how attributions come about and how collections come into being. It may help show why words matter so profoundly when it comes to looking and understanding.

The documentary evidence is the easy part: there is none. Naturally one has to start from the hard facts, works whose provenance, or recorded history of ownership, traces back to the artist himself. One does not stumble on a Jackson Pollock in a thrift shop without a good reason. This painting first appears for certain in 1814. One can try to link it to earlier sales, but that remains sheer speculation.

In 1904 it reaches Alfred Beit, a collector of considerable sophistication and admiration for Vermeer. It sold this summer as part of the estate of Baron Frédéric Rolin, who died in 2002. Its present owner has sought anonymity, and one will just have to see how long that lasts in a period that conflates art, value, and celebrity. I only wish I had the qualifications to explore the rapid, reputed changes in consensus and their relationship to media coverage—or to plans for a sale.

Lack of firm evidence, however, only opens the story. After that, one still has to connect the dots of what one sees. In the case of Vermeer, one takes open questions in stride anyway. He painted and sold little in his lifetime, and he remained reasonably obscure until championed by Étienne Joseph Théophile Thoré, known as Thoré-Bürger, in the 1870s. The subsequent change in fashion surely turns not just on the works' rarity, but also on a new French taste for Dutch art's mixture of skill, empathy, and restraint. In other words, it is about the origins of Modernism.

Composing a dilemma

The long obscurity complicates the story in another way. Vermeer had no known followers and little influence. The Dutch republic was helping to forge the art market that one recognizes even today. Its individual buyers and sellers allowed Vermeer to survive outside the old workshop system, at the risk of taking his chances on his career and, ultimately, his reputation. But if he fell so completely off the radar, who would bother to imitate him? That turns even false positives into putative connections.

To see the problem, turn next to the composition. The young woman's pose and even the tilt of her head approach the subject of another seated woman at the virginals, in London. That helps connect the work to Vermeer, but it can also suggest a copycat. And of course other artists, such as Gerrit Dou, had the theme of a woman at her keyboard. The only problem is in finding a contemporary copyist. Besides, copies can look so obviously like the ones in dorm rooms.

One can see why past "discoveries" have demanded a sharper broadening of Vermeer's known subjects than a follower would normally have attempted. At the 1996 retrospective, the curator brought out a Saint Praxedis. Most scholars, including contributors to the catalog, consider it a Dutch painting from Vermeer's time, but apart from his style and interests. The famous Han van Meegeren forgeries took place in the late 1930s. At the very least, neither case could be written off as "school of Vermeer."

Vermeer, like many an original artist, was his own best student and, yes, copyist. He often reused poses and themes, always in altered contexts. A woman writing becomes a lace maker, while an elegant chamber becomes the servant's quarters for Vermeer's Milkmaid. A woman reading emerges from behind a table, into the center of a composition, where she gains so much solidity and volume that her entire history changes. One wonders if the letter that ripples toward the light brings news of her future child's father. A single theme, women in their household domain and yet at sea in a world of men, has complex variations.

However, doubts arise from the very same considerations. Could this, with so little variation in context, be just a little too close? Already, one can start to see how formal criteria are inseparable from psychology, the broader social context, and meaning. Even the past failures at discovery combine all these. Stylistically, both the saint and van Meegeren's sinners fail to convince because of harshly geometric props and coarse strokes of light. Vermeer used a greater naturalism to construct an ideal, felt geometry of vision.

With both failed attributions, too, an earnest style relates to a more explicitly religious subject than in the vast majority of known Vermeers. Saint Praxedis serves up a Catholic icon, van Meegeren's Supper at Emmaus a plainer and more Protestant one. Both want to resolve the puzzle of a man in a Protestant republic who married into a Catholic family. Both finesse Vermeer's secular themes, of the moral dilemmas in desire or in love. In short, both answer to a need for unexplained forces driving Vermeer's imagination. The new rediscovery has the virtue of offering no such altered resolutions—but also the weakness of adding so little.

The god in the details

Along with composition, then, comes subject matter. And here, too, doubts may lead one closer to an attribution to Vermeer, while a firmer attribution may elicit stronger doubts. The work's size alone caught me by surprise, even on my fourth viewing. At just smaller than an ordinary sheet of paper, the painting could make one look around the corner, into the period rooms, for the photocopier. It also puts the woman into the bare bones of a room, with nothing of her own beyond the virginals. The window's presence reduces to the hint of a bright spot on a plain, white wall.

Vermeer never worked this small, and he always defines an interior in greater detail. Even the paint or carving on furniture tells a story. In Philadelphia, in contrast, one can make out nothing of the virginals. One cannot tell where its dark colors stand for decorative surface, reflections, or shadow. The instrument, of course, earned its name from its association with the education of young women. How could the artist resist embellishing it with a sign of something more?

Vermeer always uses an interior's detail meaningfully, to comment on, to enhance, and to empathize with a woman's dilemma. Behind the London woman at the virginals, a painting within the painting—still in existence—represents illicit romance. One never forgets that music is both one of the fine arts and, at the opposite pole, the food of love. Vermeer and his women must always weigh their ideals and their desire as they search for art and love. How much of that does one sense in Philadelphia?

Consider, too, what else the closely cropped composition does: it isolates the woman's shy smile as she turns toward the viewer. In Vermeer's middle period, he either includes men in the painting or strongly suggests their absence—with a letter, say, or merely a map of the seas and the light streaming in through the window. By 1670 or so, the likely date of this painting, he generally restricts the woman's glance to the viewer. Yet even then, she has a fully imagined perspective space, apart from the "real" world. The viewer's glance becomes that of a privileged observer and yet an intimate lover, and he has to juggle the implications for himself, a woman, and art of that torn allegiance.

Vermeer does have one known close-up of a woman's fears and affection. It stands out sharply from genre scenes of the day, with women as so many object lessons in a prosperous nation's ongoing morality play. Thanks to a novel and the film version, Girl with a Pearl Earring has become his signature work for modern, less morally divided ideals of romance. The woman in Philadelphia shares its directness, but she retains her full dress, her pose, and her prop. It is as if Vermeer has trimmed his imagination to suit modern tastes. It seems totally wrong, and yet it also seems to exclude every other possibility.

If the work belongs to another artist, a specialist in miniatures, it should have finer detail, but this is as broadly painted as Vermeer gets. If this is cut down from a larger work, its patterns should connect the composition to a fuller interior. However, one has only the wall, and its paint does not hide an earlier compositional layer. If it is only a sketch for a larger, more finished painting, where is that painting, and why do no other known sketches by Vermeer survive? It appears, in fact, that he painted so many close variants because he took a motif, in one section of a canvas, and pursued that canvas until he felt satisfied with it. If this small painting caters to modern eyes, why does it seem to have originated in Vermeer's lifetime?

Science and style

That brings one to the next piece of the puzzle, the stylistic evidence for a date. Once again, the weight of the evidence points to Vermeer, but the doubts will not go away. Here an art historian becomes closer to a critic of emerging art, but a historically informed art critic.

From the colors and style of drawing, no one questions that one has a seventeen-century Dutch painting. Not only the compositional focus on the woman places it close to Vermeer of soon after 1670. So does the satin sheen of her dress, the most universally admired part of the work, or the blurred rendition of her pearls—the kind of effect that David Hockney has written off as an artifact of the camera obscura. Even the woman's hair style, I hear, looks right for those years.

Now comes the science that, reports insist, has swayed scholarly opinion. X-rays or even observation under a microscope can peel back layers of paint to reveal untold stories. Here, high-tech tools can date the paints to the proper century, recent technical examination claims to do better. The weave of the canvas matches some of Vermeer's output. Pretty much everyone finds the woman's yellow shawl clumsy, but up close it appears a final, separate layer. It could come from another hand, salvaging the rest for a great artist, and—most important of all—analysis can detect Vermeer's favorite ultramarine in the background.

Such traditional tests play an essential role in complimenting, disabusing, and tutoring a patient visual inspection, and one scientist has even tried to analyze abstract art mathematically, in terms of fractal geometry. For me, however, the latest tests only add to the questions. They stake an artist's signature on his materials, as if he held the Dutch monopoly on paint supplies. Worse, even if one could link the pigments to one artist, the arguments sound curiously defensive. Microscopic traces of blue remind me of how little I can see. Vermeer did not really paint in such near monochrome. Besides, the clumsiness of the shawl reminds me of the ineptness that has dogged this painting for so long.

Should I pin the blame on that awkward shawl for my feeling that the woman's hands do not attach logically to her body—or does it cover for faulty drawing? Her right cheek, nose, and chin all stab out just a little too far. Her hair, head, and torso look like parts of different bodies. Along with the murky virginals, the white light on the white wall looks equally bland and the depth poorly defined.

There is no getting around it: in light, color, and drawing, the painting looks sketchy or downright inept. I want to read the notes on sheet music, but the painting neither hides them nor clarifies them. I do not want the hands and the space that they occupy to disappear into shadow or fat. The blurry pearls may imply a lens, but then one looks in vain for the picture plane, where other details will come into focus—along with a woman's story and a painter's artistry.

Giving up the ghost

I seem to have ruled out every possibility. The hard evidence sides with Vermeer, but it makes the eye turn away. A viewer all but pleads for a seventeenth-century copyist who, it seems, never existed. Saint Praxedis was easy by comparison.

I know the impulse for something more complete—more of the artist's career, more of the truth in painting. I spent years of vacations trying to see all of Vermeer's work in public collections. I have felt more at home in the Frick Collection's mansion than in my one-bedroom apartment. Five essays on this site now respond to Vermeer, easily a record for me. I drew on him again this summer, to explain the origins of (seriously) American Realism. And I, too, want to see more.

I find the painting striking, and the mystery of its origins only enhances its appeal. What better than uncertainty to recall a painter who continually questions style, representation, and significance? What better than an unresolved attribution to evoke a great artist who worked alone while collecting and dealing in other Dutch painters? What better than the virginals to stand for a work whose purity may remain a while longer in doubt? Yet I also find the attribution difficult or impossible to accept.

I can offer one suggestion, but I cannot swear that I take it seriously myself. It takes as its cue the new scholarly reasoning. Perhaps Vermeer indeed left a painting unfinished, with the shawl from another brush. In this scenario, Vermeer started a larger painting—perhaps an initial version of that other woman seated at the virginals. He got as far as the woman, her satin dress, and at least the underpainting of the virginals before Vermeer looked at his ghostly interior and gave up the ghost. Someone else found a pose he liked, cut the painting down to what he wanted, and finished it off.

If the woman has problems, Vermeer saw that she might not work out. If she looks too close in posture to his other woman, he got it right the second time. If furniture polish appears smeared over the virginals, and if other parts look sketchy, he had not brought them to a final state. If the canvas looks too small, he did not plan it that way. If one has no signs of a larger composition, he never sketched them in. Vermeer may often have worked outward from central motifs.

Still, all that leaves unanswered the biggest question of all. Does any of this make a difference? Has the painting changed? The answer hinges on two things, one's expectations for an original work and the close examination one uses to discern it.

The other woman

On the one hand, attributions suggest that great work begins with the inspiration of a great artist, capable of seeing more truly than others. Think of those charged words authentic and original. Critics have long looked to Modernism, mass reproduction, and Postmodernism to debunk them, but that has not come easily. When an attribution creates awe, a huge sale, and art-historical careers, one remembers the power of those words even today. When technical examination looks for an artist's microscopic signature in paint, one remembers that a connoisseur, even in the age of science, still speaks in "avant-garde myths."

On the other hand, an attribution creates not just a personality, but a lineage and a genealogy. Attributions require placing artists in their time, fully as much as a social history of art. And close examination provides the necessary tools to reshuffle that history. With a tough case like this one, one gets to watch the reshuffling in action. It means asking hard questions of the artist, the work, the science, and even oneself.

For someone who believes that a work of art lies beyond language or even understanding, the confusion can be unsettling or revelatory. The painting claims all the attention of a Vermeer, and one has to wonder at one's own amazement. For someone clinging to the experience of art as visual, one has to ask just who is looking—and whether that can, or must, include instruments other than the naked eye. For someone who wants understanding to reflect a narrative of growth and discovery, one has to ask how a newly discovered masterpiece can have hidden for so long in plain sight.

Above all, for someone who believes that a painting's authenticity points to the authenticity of each viewer's experience, one has to ask how it can have seemed so different the day before. If a work's originality comes loaded with the myth of a lone artistic genius, one learns again how the idea arose historically—thanks, in no small part, to Vermeer. If authenticity always implies the singular, one sees Vermeer's style as a product of his collecting others and copying from himself. If an attribution requires an unfinished work and a second hand, one sees again the work through the eyes of another, someone for whom Vermeer probably did not matter all that much. One does not have to have studied with Vermeer—or known the slightest thing about him—to find a pose worth recycling.

Either way, the lesson for me is, again, that attributions matter, even in a postmodern age. This one, right or wrong, cannot settle Vermeer's religion or world-view. However, it begs for the right to change one's understanding all the same. In place of the consummate artist mapping the whole world on the scale of a room, one has a man seeking out a woman's smile. Instead of a painter of outsize ambition, one has a man who still relies on his canvas as a sketchbook. Instead of an adventurer peering through a lens, one has a craftsman in rare pigments who comes fully to life only under a microscope.

Ultimately, knowledge matters for the same reason that style matters. Color tumbles into drawing, drawing into composition, composition into light, and light into the interaction between individuals. Each of Vermeer's women looks so vulnerable to the male gaze and so independent of it because, in his world, she is always the other woman.

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"Young Woman at the Virginals," possibly by Jan Vermeer, is on display through March 2005 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, amid the permanent collection, not in the space for temporary exhibitions. Look in the Dutch rooms, across from some terrific paintings by Judith Leyster and others.


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