Girl with a Flute is only cautiously attributed to Johannes Vermeer. The general character, appearance, and some of the techniques of this work relate closely to Vermeer’s other works, especially to Girl with the Red Hat. The quality of execution, however, does not match the master’s standards, probably because the image was extensively revised in the seventeenth century.
Girl with a Flute is one of only two paintings attributed to Vermeer that are on panel; the other is Girl with the Red Hat. The two works are so close in concept that one has to assume they were created at approximately the same time. In both paintings the young women interact directly with the viewer. Each wears an exotic hat that creates a strong shadow over the greater portion of her face. Each girl sits in a chair with lion finials, leans on one arm, and is framed by a wall tapestry of which only a fragment is visible. Because of the paintings’ slightly different sizes, however, it is unlikely that they were conceived as companion pieces, as has frequently been asserted.
In 1906 Abraham Bredius, director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, traveled to Brussels to examine a collection of drawings owned by the family of Jonkheer Jan de Grez.
This summary of the discovery of the painting and early reactions to it is taken from Ben Broos’ account in the entry on the painting in Ben Broos and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Johannes Vermeer (Washingon DC, and The Hague, 1995–1996), 207. See also Ben Broos, "Vermeer: Malice and Misconception," in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington, DC, 1998), 25.
René Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, 1918–1939, trans. John Rosenberg (New York, 1987; first published in 1963), 216.
Despite the enthusiastic reception that this painting received after its discovery in the first decade of the twentieth century, the attribution of this work has frequently been brought into question by later scholars.
The attribution of this painting to Vermeer was first rejected by P. T. A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1950), 64–65. Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht and Antwerp, 1975), 108–110, 168, considered the work to be a nineteenth-century imitation. Blankert restated this view in Albert Blankert, Museum Bredius: Catalogus van de schilderijen en tekeningen (The Hague, 1978), 172, and again in Gilles Aillaud, Albert Blankert, and John Michael Montias, Vermeer (Paris, 1986), 200–201. A similar opinion is held by Yvonne Brentjens, “Twee meisjes van Vermeer in Washington,” Tableau 7 (February 1985): 54–58. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., review of Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht and Antwerp, 1975), Art Bulletin 59 (September 1977): 439–441, argued for the seventeenth-century origin of the painting, placing the work in the circle of Vermeer. He expanded on this theory in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Zur Technik zweier Bilder, die Vermeer zugeschrieben sind,” Maltechnik-Restauro 84 (1978): 242–257, and in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Jan Vermeer (New York, 1981), 156. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, 1989), 265, note 2, proposed that “the painting was begun by Vermeer and finished after his death by an inferior painter, perhaps by Jan Coelenbier, who bought paintings from Vermeer’s widow soon after his death.” Walter Liedtke in Ben P. J. Broos et al., Great Dutch Paintings from America (The Hague and Zwolle, 1990), 43, on the other hand, defends the attribution to Vermeer. For his more recent support for the attribution to Vermeer, see Walter A. Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings (Ghent, 2008), no. 25, 140–143. In the 1995 exhibition catalog Johannes Vermeer, organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Mauritshuis, The Hague, the attribution of this painting as “Circle of Vermeer” reflected the divergent opinions of the National Gallery of Art and the Mauritshuis. Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice (New York and London, 2009), 249–257, considers this painting and Girl with a Red Hat to be self-portraits painted by Vermeer’s daughter, Maria Vermeer.
The Girl with a Flute measures 20 by 17.8 centimeters; the
See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Zur Technik zweier Bilder, die Vermeer zugeschrieben sind,” Maltechnik-Restauro 84 (1978): 242–257, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Jan Vermeer (New York, 1981), 156, where the painting was designated “Circle of Vermeer.”
A number of factors point to seventeenth-century origins for the Girl with a Flute and, indeed, relate the work intimately with Vermeer’s other paintings. Technically, examination of the panel using
A method of dating wood by examining the annual growth rings.
See Technical Summary for
Hermann Kühn, “A Study of the Pigments and the Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer,” in National Gallery of Art Report and Studies in the History of Art, vol. 2 (Washington, DC, 1968), 194. These pigments were prevalent in the seventeenth century but not at later dates. Natural ultramarine, one of Vermeer’s favorite pigments, is produced from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli. It was an expensive pigment, prized as much for its intrinsic value as for the luminosity of its blue hue. Around 1830 an artificial means of producing ultramarine was invented in France, which soon supplanted the more expensive natural ultramarine in artists’ palettes. Azurite never disappeared as completely as did natural ultramarine from artists’ palettes, but it is infrequently found after the seventeenth century. Lead-tin yellow, another pigment frequently found in Vermeer’s paintings, was replaced by Naples yellow after the seventeenth century. It seems to have been unknown from the mid-eighteenth century until it was rediscovered in 1940.
One unusual aspect of the girl’s wardrobe is the hat she wears. No exact equivalent exists in any other painting of the period, although similar wide-brimmed hats are found frequently in Dutch prints and drawings of working-class women.
A. M. Louise E. Mulder-Erkelens, keeper of textiles, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, has suggested (letter of May 7, 1974, to A. B. de Vries, copy in NGA curatorial files) that the hat may have been intended to suggest some “archaic or exotic characteristics.” She related it to hats seen on gypsies and shepherdesses in works by Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) and Karel van Mander (1548–1606). She also noted that artists often kept unusual headgear in their studios that could assist in giving chiaroscuro effects to the model’s face. See Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Ikonographische Studien über die holländische Malerei und das Theater des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1938), 21. Similar wide-brimmed hats are found frequently in works by Rembrandt and his school. See Julius S. Held, Rembrandt’s “Aristotle” and Other Rembrandt Studies (Princeton, 1969), 11–12.
See Seymour Slive, “A Family Portrait by Nicolaes Maes,” Fogg Art Museum Annual Report (1957–1958): 32–39.
Thomas Lawton, formerly assistant director, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, has been most helpful in analyzing the nature of this hat.
The Girl with a Flute and the Girl with the Red Hat are so close in concept that one must assume that they were conceived at approximately the same time, most likely in the mid-to-late 1660s. In each painting the young woman looks toward the viewer with an expectant expression, her eyes alert, her mouth half open. Each wears an exotic hat, sits in a chair with lion finials, and leans on one arm. Behind each of them hangs a tapestry of which only a fragment is visible. In each picture, light entering from the sitter’s left, an unusual feature in Vermeer paintings, strikes the girl’s left cheek, nose, and chin.
The manner in which optical effects of color are exploited in the two works is also comparable and characteristic of Vermeer. In each painting the face is shaded with a thin green glaze pulled over the flesh tones, a technique Vermeer developed more extensively in his later works. Colored highlights are a distinctive characteristic of Vermeer’s style, and in the Girl with a Flute the mouth is accented with a turquoise green highlight in a manner comparable to the pink highlight Vermeer applied to the mouth of the Girl with the Red Hat. The actual color of the highlight is similar to the green accent in the eye of the Girl with the Red Hat. Finally, the sunlit blue jackets worn by the two girls are similarly animated by numerous yellow highlights.
Despite the many stylistic and technical similarities between these paintings, significant differences in quality do exist. To begin with, the Girl with a Flute is a less successful composition. Whereas the pose of the girl in Girl with the Red Hat, as she turns and rests her arm over the back of her chair, subtly integrates suggestions of movement and stability, the frontal pose of the girl in Girl with a Flute is relatively flat and immobile. Her hat, left shoulder, and right hand are awkwardly cut by the edge of the panel.
There is no indication that the panel has been trimmed, as was first suggested by Wilhelm Martin, “La Jeune Fille à la Flute de Vermeer de Delft,” L'Arte Flamand e Hollandais 8 (July 1907): 20–23, and Wilhelm Martin, “Jan Vermeer van Delft. Het Meisje met de Fluit,” Onze Kunst 12 (1907): 20, who thought the painting to be a fragment. Not only is the back of the panel beveled along all four edges, but also the paint along the edges does not appear fractured in a way that would suggest it had been trimmed.
I am most grateful to Helen Hollis, formerly of the Division of Musical Instruments, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, for her observations on the nature of musical instruments in Vermeer’s oeuvre and on the specific character of the “flute” in this painting. Although its fipple mouthpiece is correctly indicated by the double highlight, the air hole below the mouthpiece is placed off-line. As seen in the recorder hanging on the wall in a painting by
The handling of the paint in the Girl with a Flute is also less assured than in the Girl with the Red Hat. In particular, the integration of tones and color in the Girl with a Flute lacks the cohesiveness characteristic of Vermeer. Flesh tones in the girl’s face are not modulated with the same degree of refinement. Transitions between the shadow of the eye and the sunlit cheek, between the shaded and unshaded portions of the chin, and the areas between the nose and mouth are rather abrupt.
These abrupt transitions between areas are accentuated in the X-radiograph of the Girl with a Flute
Comparisons of the lion finials in the Girl with a Flute
Microscopic examination of the chair finial reveals that the surface is filled with small particles of foreign matter embedded in the paint. This foreign matter, whether it be dust, brush hairs, or wood splinters, is found throughout the paint. In only one other work by Vermeer have I noted similar foreign matter embedded in the paint: The Guitar Player (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London, datable about 1672).
Finally, although in both instances the girls’ blue jackets are animated with diffused yellow highlights, in the Girl with the Red Hat the diffused highlights are grouped with a certain optical logic lacking in this work. To heighten the blue color on the shoulder of the Girl with the Red Hat, for example, Vermeer first highlighted the area with light blue strokes and then superimposed a sequence of yellow strokes over the blues. He painted the ridges of the highlighted folds with opaque yellow strokes. The jacket of the girl in Girl with a Flute is painted in a similar technique, but surety of the execution is lacking.
Despite such distinctions in quality it seems unadvisable to remove Girl with a Flute from Vermeer’s oeuvre, since painting techniques are similar to those in the Girl with a Red Hat and other Vermeer’s paintings. The soft modeling of the yellow highlights on girl’s blue jacket, for example, is similar to the character of the blue and yellow edging on the yellow material that hangs from the turban in The Girl with a Pearl Earring from the mid-1660s (Mauritshuis, The Hague).
See inventory no. 670, c. 1665, from the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
One complicating factor in trying to come to a determination about the attribution of this painting is that its surface is not in good condition (see Technical Summary). More important, however, the X-radiograph
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
It appears that when the painting was reworked, the initial composition was still largely at the blocking-in stage.
The thinness of the execution on the figure’s proper right shoulder and arm is probably indicative of the level to which the painting was initially brought.
It is unclear whether these damages occurred before or after the painting was reworked.
Technical evidence indicates that the alterations were made soon after Vermeer blocked in the initial composition since paint characteristics on the surface reflect those of the underlying layer. It is conceivable and, indeed, probable that the alterations were made by someone other than Vermeer, perhaps to prepare the work for sale after his death, even though the artist is not known to have had students or other close followers. Montias suggests that the revisions were the work of Jan Coelenbier (1600 or 1610-1677), who purchased paintings in 1676 from Catharina Bolnes soon after Vermeer’s death.
John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, 1989), 338, doc. 362.
The complex issues surrounding the attribution of this little painting can be summarized as follows: the general character, appearance, and even painting techniques found in the Girl with a Flute relate closely to Vermeer’s work, specifically to the Girl with the Red Hat, but the quality of execution does not appear to be of the same high level expected from this master. While it seems that Vermeer initially blocked in the painting, which was executed in the mid-1660s, the image was extensively revised at a somewhat later date, probably by another hand. The unsatisfactory condition of the painting, largely as a result of
A gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
Marks and Labels
Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624-1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681]; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655-1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacobus Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653-1695], Delft; (sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, probably no. 39 or 40). possibly the van Son family; Jan Mahie van Boxtel en Liempde and his wife, Geertruida van Boxtel en Liempde [née van Son, d. 1876], 's-Hertogenbosch; purchased from the estate by their daughter, Jaqueline Gertrude Marie de Grez [Dowager de Grez, née Mahie van Boxtel en Liempde, d. 1917], Brussels, wife of Jonkheer Jan de Grez [1837-1910]; sold by 1911 to (Antiquar E. Jonas, Paris); sold 16 June 1911 to (Thos. Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London); half-share sold June 1911 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, and P. & D. Colnaghi, London); Agnew's half-share sold 21 November 1913 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); Knoedler's three-quarter share sold July 1915 to (P. & D. Colnaghi, London). August Janssen [1863-1918], Amsterdam, after August 1916; his estate; sold 1919 with the entire Janssen collection to (Jacques Goudstikker, Amsterdam); purchased jointly April 1921 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, and Frederick Muller & Co., Amsterdam); sold February 1923 to Joseph E. Widener; inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, after purchase by funds of the Estate; gift 1942 to NGA.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1907.
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- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works. New York, 1997: 50, fig. 21.
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- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 68, no. 62.
- Sweet, Christopher. The Essential Johannes Vermeer. New York, 1999: 111, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. Osaka Municipal Museum of Art. London, 2000: 203, no. 24, repro.
- Franits, Wayne E., ed. The Cambridge companion to Vermeer. Cambridge, England, and New York, 2001: pl. 36.
- Netta, Irene. Vermeer's world: an artist and his town. Pegasus Library. Munich and New York, 2001: 89, repro.
- Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer. Translated by Bettina Blumenberg. Berlin, 2002: 202-203, repro.
- Fahy, Everett, ed. The Wrightsman Pictures. New Haven, 2005: 134-135, under cat. 37, fig. 5.
- Conforti, Michael. The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings. Exh. cat. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Williamstown and New Haven, 2006: 48, 50, fig. 53.
- Dolnick, Edward. The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century. New York, 2008: 130-131, 142, 169.
- Liedtke, Walter A. Vermeer: the complete paintings. Ghent, 2008: no. 25, 140-142, color repro.
- Sutton, Peter C. Reclaimed: paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker. Exh. cat. Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut; The Jewish Museum, New York. Greenwich and New Haven, 2008: 21, fig. 22.
- Binstock, Benjamin. Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice. New York, 2009: 249-257, repro. 253 (detail).
- Tummers, Anna. The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries. Amsterdam, 2012: 28, 29, color fig. 8.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., Walter A. Liedtke, and Sandrina Bandera Bistoletti. Vermeer: il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese. Exh. cat. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Milan, 2012: 36, 38 fig. 12.
- Krempel, León. "Allegorische Tronie-Paare bei Johannes Vermeer." in Tronies: das Gesicht in der frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Dagmar Hirschfelder and León Krempel. Berlin, 2014: 97-107, 123, color pl. 10, as "Synagogue."
The support is a single, vertically grained oak panel with beveled edges on the back. Dendrochronology gives a tree felling date in the early 1650s. A thin, smooth, white chalk ground was applied overall, followed by a coarse-textured gray upper ground. A reddish brown painted sketch exists under most areas of the painting and is incorporated into the design in the tapestry.
Full-bodied paint is applied thinly, forming a rough surface texture in lighter passages. In many areas, particularly in the proper left collar and cuff, a distinctive wrinkling, which disturbs the surface, seems to have been scraped down before the final paint layers were applied. Still-wet paint in the proper right cheek and chin was textured with a fingertip, then glazed translucently. The X-radiograph shows extensive design modifications: the proper left shoulder was lowered and the neck opening moved to the viewer’s left; the collar on this side may have been damaged or scraped down before being reworked in a richer, creamy white. The earring was painted over the second collar. These adjustments preceded the completion of the background tapestry. The proper left sleeve was longer, making the cuff closer to the wrist. Probably at the same time, the fur trim was added to the front of the jacket, covering the lower part of the neck opening. Infrared reflectography at 1.1 to 1.8 microns  shows that changes also were made to the shape of the hat and contour of the arm on the figure’s proper right side.
The panel has a slight convex warp, a small check in the top edge at the right, and small gouges, rubs, and splinters on the back from nails and handling. The paint is rather abraded in several areas including the decoration of the hat, the sitter’s proper left arm, and the girl’s necklace. There are a number of small losses and areas of abrasion in the background and there is a large loss in the upper portion of the sitter’s proper right collar. The painting was treated in 1995 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting. It had last been treated in 1933 by Louis de Wild.
 Joseph Bauch and Peter Klein of the Universität Hamburg gave earliest possible felling dates of 1653 and 1651, respectively (see reports in NGA Conservation department files: Bauch, November 29, 1977; and Klein, September 29, 1987).
 Hermann Kühn, "A Study of the Pigments and the Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer," Studies in the History of Art (Washington, D.C., 1968), 194, analyzed the pigments. Robert L. Feller, Carnegie Mellon University, found chalk with perhaps a trace of yellow ocher in the ground (see report, dated July 12, 1974, in NGA Conservation department files).
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara focal plane array InSb camera fitted with H and J astronomy filters.
 According to a memo dated February 2, 1968, in NGA Conservation files, Louis de Wild "retouch[ed], put down blisters, and revarnish[ed]."
Related IconClass Terms
- conservation of a work of art
- historical person +Jan Coelenbier