A Young Woman Standing by a Virginal in foreground, National Gallery, copyright Seventh Art.
LONDON - Picking up the story of the authentication of Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at the Virginals we recommended to the owner, Freddy Rolin, that he commission a full scientific study of the painting undertaken by Libby Sheldon in the labs at University College London, which turned out to reveal many technical aspects that argued powerfully for accepting the painting as a genuine Vermeer. The scholarly stalemate between authorities on Vermeer continued, however, with most of the respected academics remaining sceptical.
The nadir, as far as I was concerned, came at a Vermeer conference in The Hague in 1996. A well-known curator flashed a picture of our girl up on the screen in a series of images showing the sort of ghastly daubs that had sometimes – and laughably – been accepted as genuine Vermeers, before the post-war clean-out of the artist’s oeuvre!
All the same, Walter Liedtke from the Met in New York remained fascinated by the painting and requested it as a last-minute ex-catalogue addition to his 2001 exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School. After much haggling over the wording of the label, we hesitantly agreed to the loan, and when the show moved to London, Axel Rüger (currently the Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but at the time the Dutch paintings curator at the National Gallery) also asked if our girl could be included – the second of her three visits to Trafalgar Square.
Marlow with Tracy Chevalier, copyright Seventh Art.
Libby and I were asked to speak at scholars’ discussion days in New York and in London, explaining what we had discovered about the painting, and I have to say those were two of the more harrowing days of my career; we were confronted with almost visceral opposition to the idea that the painting could ever be considered genuine, laced with more than a little implication that the bounds of credibility were being pushed for financial gain – one of very few occasions, since I came over to Sotheby’s from the museum world more than 20 years ago, that I have felt my motivation being questioned in this way! But in fact, what I really wanted was to understand why this little picture looked the way it did, and why in some ways it was so wonderful, and in others so unsatisfactory.
The process of confirming the attribution was laborious and protracted (for the full story, see the 2004 sale catalogue...), but eventually we got to the point where everyone whose opinion counts was willing to go on record as saying either that they believed the painting was by Vermeer, or at least that it was entirely possible that it was. But in a way, all that struggle is irrelevant now: because there she was the other day, hanging in the Vermeer room in the National Gallery exhibition, alongside their paintings and the equally great ones from the Royal Collection and from Kenwood. Young Woman Seated at the Virginals was clearly at home, and without the slightest reference to the epic journey she had taken to get there – about the strongest affirmation of her status that one could ever ask for. If only Freddy Rolin could have seen her there…