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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer/Girl with a Flute/probably 1665/1675,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 04, 2022).

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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.[1] There he discovered, hanging high on a wall, a small picture that he surmised might be by Vermeer of Delft. Bredius asked for permission to take down the painting, which he exclaimed to be “very beautiful.” He then asked if the painting could be exhibited at the Mauritshuis, which occurred during the summer of 1907. Bredius’ discovery was received with great acclaim. In 1911, after the death of Jonkheer Jan de Grez, the family sold the painting, and it soon entered the distinguished collection of August Janssen in Amsterdam. After this collector’s death in 1918, the painting was acquired by the Amsterdam art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, and then by M. Knoedler & Co., New York, which subsequently sold it to Joseph E. Widener. On March 1, 1923, the Paris art dealer René Gimpel recorded the transaction in his diary, commenting: “It’s truly one of the master’s most beautiful works.”[2]

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.[3] Partially because of their wood supports and similarly small scale, and partially because of subject matter, Girl with a Flute and Girl with the Red Hat  [fig. 1] have frequently been cited as companion pieces and accepted or rejected together. They may even have been considered companion pieces in the Dissius sale in Amsterdam in 1696.[4] Slight differences in the size of the panels, in the compositional arrangement of the figures, and in the quality of execution have led me to argue in previous publications that the paintings are not companion pieces and that the attribution of the Girl with a Flute to Vermeer could not be maintained.[5] Subsequently, I have concluded that removing the Girl with a Flute from Vermeer’s oeuvre was too extreme given the complex conservation issues surrounding this image.

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 Dendrochronology has determined a felling date in the early 1650s.[6] A paint sample taken from a yellow highlight on the girl’s left sleeve, moreover, indicates the use of seventeenth-century pigments characteristic of Vermeer’s paintings: natural ultramarine, azurite, and lead-tin yellow.[7] Stylistically, the jacket worn by the girl is comparable to jackets seen in other works from the late 1650s to the mid-1660s, for example,  Woman Holding a Balance in the National Gallery of Art andThe Concert in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Other artists, particularly Gerard ter Borch the Younger (Dutch, 1617 - 1681), Gabriel Metsu (Dutch, 1629 - 1667), and Frans van Mieris (Dutch, 1635 - 1681), also depict women in similar costumes.

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.[8] This hat, however, has an oriental character that may relate to a vogue for oriental dress apparent in the latter decades of the seventeenth century.[9] Chinese hats were generally constructed of woven bamboo. This one appears to have been modified by the addition of a gray, white, and black fabric covering, presumably to enhance its appearance.[10] Indeed, this strange hat actually reinforces the argument that the origins of this painting are seventeenth-century. It would be extremely unlikely for an artist of a later period to include such a hat in a painting that purported to be a Vermeer.

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.[11] The flute she holds, which is actually a recorder, is curiously undefined and seems inaccurately rendered.[12]

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.[13] The thumbnail of the girl’s ill-proportioned hand is indicated by a uniformly dense paint whereas during the mid-1660s Vermeer generally would accent only a portion of a nail with a light highlight. Finally, the uniformly thin necklace has none of the modulations of accent and tone that Vermeer delighted in rendering.

Comparisons of the lion finials in the Girl with a Flute [fig. 2] and the Girl with the Red Hat [fig. 3] also point out the relatively unrefined brushwork of the former. The lion finial in the Girl with the Red Hat is modeled wet-into-wet by subtle variations in the weight and thickness of the strokes, whereas the finial in the Girl with a Flute does not have the same degree of articulation. The essential vocabulary of thin diffused strokes superimposed by opaque highlights is the same, but the lines necessary to create a sense of volume and form are less successfully integrated.[14]

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).[15] By the end of the 1660s, moreover, Vermeer began to create more abrupt transitions in his modeling that are not unrelated to the way in which the face in this painting is handled.

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 [fig. 4] [see X-radiography] and the infrared reflectogram [fig. 5] [see Infrared Reflectography] and andindicate that the composition was reworked in the seventeenth century. The patterns of the collar folds on both shoulders were altered, the size of the left cuff reduced, and the contour of the right arm changed. Other alterations include the addition of the fur trim on the front of the jacket and a reduction in the size of the hat. Finally, the girl’s finger that rests on the recorder was also apparently added, a change that may have occurred when the position of the flute was moved to the left. This change is evident in the reflectogram [fig. 5].

It appears that when the painting was reworked, the initial composition was still largely at the blocking-in stage.[16] The reworkings slightly altered the woman’s pose by lowering her left shoulder and adjusting the position of the cuff. As a consequence, she no longer appears to lean to such a degree on her left arm. Although the reasons for the reworking of this painting are not known, they suggest that the painting was not brought to completion and that damages subsequently occurred to the original design layer.[17] The x-radiograph reveals that quite defined losses exist under the white collar on the girl’s left shoulder [fig. 4]. Other losses exist below her left eye, between her nose and mouth, and on her cuffs and right hand. Just why these losses occurred is not known. Perhaps some inherent problem of adhesion existed between the paint layers and the ground. This latter explanation might account for some of the peculiar alligator crackle pattern that occurs in the paint on the woman’s cuff and in the thin blues of her jacket.

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.[18] As these paintings were to be auctioned the following year, Coelenbier may have tried to bring the work to completion to secure a higher price. Whether Montias’ hypothesis proves true, the artist who reworked Girl with a Flute certainly knew Vermeer’s paintings from the late 1660s and early 1670s, for he incorporated a number of stylistic features from this period of the artist’s career.

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 Abrasion, is not only detrimental to the appearance of the image but also complicates any assessment of the work’s attribution. It seems appropriate to indicate the uncertainty surrounding the work’s attribution by designating it “Attributed to Vermeer.”


Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


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;[1] (sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, probably no. 39 or 40).[2] 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);[3] 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);[4] Knoedler's three-quarter share sold July 1915 to (P. & D. Colnaghi, London). August Janssen [1863-1918], Amsterdam, after August 1916;[5] his estate; sold 1919 with the entire Janssen collection to (Jacques Goudstikker, Amsterdam);[6] purchased jointly April 1921 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, and Frederick Muller & Co., Amsterdam);[7] 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.

Associated Names
Widener, Joseph E.
Exhibition History
Loan for display with permanent collection, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1907.
La Collection Goudstikker d'Amsterdam, Pulchri Studio, The Hague, 1919, no. 131, repro.
Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1995-1996, no. 23, repro., as Young Girl with a Flute by Circle of Johannes Vermeer.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 62.
Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999-2000, not in brochure.
Technical Summary

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 [3] 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.[4]


[1] 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).

[2] 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).

[3] Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara focal plane array InSb camera fitted with H and J astronomy filters.

[4] According to a memo dated February 2, 1968, in NGA Conservation files, Louis de Wild "retouch[ed], put down blisters, and revarnish[ed]."

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Hertel, Christiane. Vermeer: Reception and Interpretation. Cambridge, 1996: 73-74, fig. 21.
Hunter, Sam, and Melissa de Mederios. The Rise of the Art World in America: Knoedler at 150. Exh. cat. M. Knoedler & Company, New York, 1996: 13.
Larsen, Erik. Jan Vermeer. Translated by Tania Gargiulo. Biblioteca d'arte. Florence, 1996: no. A 8, 120-121, repro.
Netta, Irene. Das Phänomen Zeit bei Jan Vermeer van Delft: eine Analyse der innerbildlichen Zeitstrukturen seiner ein- und mehrfigurigen Interieurbilder. Studien zur Kunstgeschichte 105. Hildesheim, 1996: fig. 18.
Gowing, Lawrence. Vermeer. 3rd ed. London, 1997: no. 56, repro.
Scholz, Georg. Lyrische Bilder: Gedichte nach Gemälden von Jan Vermeer. Munich, 1997: 52-53, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works. New York, 1997: 50, fig. 21.
Broos, Ben P. J. "Vermeer: Malice and Misconception." In Vermeer Studies. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, eds. Studies in the History of Art 55, Symposium Papers 33 (1998): 25.
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."
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