LONDON - I saw an old flame again the other day, for the first time in quite a few years – and in the place where our relationship really blossomed, The National Gallery in London. The years have been pretty kind to her – she’s in her early 340s now, but looking better than ever, and seeing her again really brought me back to the time when we were so close.
Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, 1670 to 1672.
Okay, I’ll come clean. The girl I’m talking about is actually Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, one of five works by the artist that formed the heart of the National Gallery’s beautiful exhibition, Vermeer and Music, which closed recently. Don’t be discouraged though, as the show can be viewed in the film Exhibition On Screen: Vermeer and Music produced by Seventh Art, which premiers on 10 October at cinemas around the world.
I was the person who guided Young Woman Seated at the Virginals through a decade-long process of research, scientific study, scholarly reappraisal and restoration, all leading up to the painting’s ultimate acceptance as an autograph work. The journey culminated in the painting’s sale at Sotheby’s London in 2004 for £16.3 million ($30.1 million).
What a contrast between her recent visit to the National Gallery, as a universally accepted Vermeer, and the two previous occasions when I took ‘my’ little painting to the National Gallery: the first was in 1994, not long after the late Baron Freddy Rolin (who owned the painting from 1960 until his death in 2001), first came to me, the picture unframed and casually plonked in a little box, in the hope that I might be willing to research it for him.
The situation, as he explained it to me was that during the first half of the 20th century Young Woman Seated at the Virginals had always been considered a genuine work by Vermeer, but following the exposure, at the end of World War Two, of the series of fake Vermeers painted by the notorious forger Han van Meegeren, it, along with some other works, was summarily removed from the painter’s accepted corpus of works. Amazingly, no one ever seriously studied or analysed the Young Woman Seated at the Virginals again for more than 40 years.
Filming Vermeer at the National Gallery, copyright Seventh Art.
The first thing I did after meeting Rolin was arrange to compare the painting with the National Gallery’s two famous Vermeers of similar subjects. Christopher Brown – chief curator there at the time and the current director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – kindly agreed to have the National Gallery paintings taken to the conservation lab for the day. A group of us – art historians, conservators, the owners and me – gathered, with bated breath, to see what the comparison would reveal.
The result was an even split: the conservators all thought that the similarities they could see in the handling and technique meant that all three pictures were almost certainly executed by the same artist, while the art historians present were unanimous in rejecting the attribution to Vermeer, on stylistic grounds!
After that, we recommended that Freddy Rolin should commission a full scientific study of the painting, and the long journey to authentication was underway…Read how the painting was accepted as a genuine Vermeer.