The National Gallery of Art’s painting “Girl With a Flute” has been hovering on the edges of the authentic Vermeer canon for decades. Friday’s announcement that new research, including sophisticated imaging analysis, has definitively proved the work to be 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 has been in and out of the canon for so long it is unclear whether any research would ever convince all the skeptics.
Since the rediscovery of the 17th-century Dutch painter’s work in the 19th century, the authentic Vermeer catalogue has both shrunk and occasionally grown, though the larger trend has been to get smaller. In 1866, the painter’s great early champion, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, published a list of Vermeers that ascribed more than 70 painted works as possibly by the artist, though the author felt confident about only 49 of them. Today, that number is about 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 both doubt and support.
Authenticating paintings is increasingly a scientific process, with scholarly judgment making the final call. But for centuries, authenticity has also been a matter of desire and suspicion, avarice and fraud, and vast amounts of honest confusion and uncertainty. In the 20th century, the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren created forgeries that he passed off as the work of Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Vermeer. He managed to convince even top Vermeer experts that a 1937 painting called “The Supper at Emmaus” wasn’t just by Vermeer, but was also one of the greatest works the artist ever produced. Thus, the Vermeer canon grew, for a while, before the fraud was detected and definitively debunked.
Passing off a forgery as authentic can bring enormous financial rewards to the con artist. But there are other motivations, too. Artists learn by copying, and copying is a form of deep looking. Faking an artist’s work is a way of understanding it, even loving it, paying it homage through the flattery of imitation. It may also be a form of aggression, as the deceiving artist proves himself equal to the master, or even superior (at least in his eyes). The sale of the work, or its accession into a respected public or private collection, only affirms the triumph of overcoming another artist’s genius.
But works are also copied for perfectly legitimate reasons. The artist may make the copies himself or oversee the work of disciples and assistants in the studio. They may also make multiple versions, with small changes, of the same work. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” is one of a number of 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 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 isn’t the actual Mona Lisa, which is at the Louvre, but a very fine iteration that, according to recent scholarship, was likely made in da Vinci’s studio around the time of the original painting. Unlike the hordes of adoring pilgrims that throng the original, you can have the Prado’s version to yourself most days.
News accounts of “newly discovered” paintings — in an attic, the dusty backroom of an antique store or a rummage sale — delight us because of the basic element of desire that colors so much of how we respond to art. We want there to be more Vermeers, not just because it adds to the storehouse of 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 that fully satisfies the desire for understanding. Nor will any new Vermeer, if any ever appear. But the possibility is there, and that inspires hope, and hope is impossible to resist.
The desire to contract the canon is also bound up with authenticity. The fewer works attributed to an artist, the more seemingly sacred (and financially valuable) any particular one becomes. But it isn’t just about the value of the work or its power to attract visitors to a museum that owns it. The more tightly authenticity is controlled, the more intensely we may engage with the work. When the thing defined by the German critic Walter Benjamin as an artwork’s “aura” seems to increase in intensity, the intensity of our own engagement may increase as well.
It is curious that the process of authentication has become more rigorously scientific even as authenticity is an increasingly suspect or disdained category. Authenticating work empowers scholars, and now scientists, and seems to be part of the gatekeeping apparatus that makes museums feel like zones of exclusion, or patriarchy. It may also support dubious or problematic categories, like 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 faking a work is a form of deep looking, so, too, is authenticating it. Since the rediscovery of Vermeer, it’s been tempting to attribute the work of other artists 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 Jacobus Vrel, who was contemporaneous with Vermeer (and had the initials J.V.), have sometimes been attributed to the more famous artist. But they are strikingly beautiful and haunting in their own right, and any work by J.V. that is Vrel but not Vermeer is no loss to the world.
Authenticity remains powerfully contentious in the contemporary art world. Artists have questioned why the original should be more valued than a copy, why a work should be limited to the physical presence of an object rather than freely present and transmissible like an idea or a concept, and why art should function like currency or luxury objects, with its value determined as much by scarcity as quality.
Conceptual art often eliminates any idea of an original work. In the 1960s, Elaine Sturtevant started reproducing the works of other pop artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The originality of her work lay in the audacity of her ideas, even as the copies were good enough to be enjoyed in their own right, as objects with their own definition of originality.
“Girl With a Flute,” formerly attributed to Vermeer, is having a perilous 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 someone known, nor even by someone with a known relation to Vermeer. It could be a student, imitator, copyist, colleague or competitor. And part of determining that it isn’t by Vermeer was critical, meaning that it seems to be a work that isn’t up to Vermeer’s standard. It is orphaned.
Which puts it in vast 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 some isolated city or church. There may be among these works as many great paintings and sculptures with no attribution as there are great works firmly attributed to 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 that 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.