Exhibition Reveals New Findings About Vermeer’s Process
Washington, DC—Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) is one of the most significant artists of the 17th century, yet much of the Dutch painter’s life and practice remain a mystery. On view at the National Gallery of Art from October 8, 2022, through January 8, 2023, Vermeer’s Secrets will unveil new findings about him and his process. The exhibition offers a behind-the-scenes look at how National Gallery curators, conservators, and scientists investigated the museum’s four treasured paintings by and attributed to Vermeer—as well as two 20th-century forgeries—to understand “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”
Building on a half-century of technical study, National Gallery researchers took advantage of the museum’s COVID-related closures in 2020/2021 to examine these paintings, which are rarely taken off view. Using advanced imaging techniques that virtually penetrate layers of paint to visualize what lies beneath in combination with microscopic examination of the paintings’ delicate surfaces, these experts now have a clearer understanding of Vermeer’s process, materials, and compositional changes and are eager to share these revelations with the public.
There are around 35 known paintings by Vermeer in the world. As the National Gallery’s research team examined and compared the museum’s four works, one of their goals was to evaluate whether one of them—Girl with a Flute (probably 1665/1675), whose authorship has been long debated—is in fact by Vermeer. Exact findings of the team’s studies will be announced ahead of the exhibition’s opening.
In 2021, the team shared preliminary findings that enhance our understanding of Vermeer’s process. Chemical imaging visualized layers beneath the surface of Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), revealing quick, spontaneous, sometimes textured brushstrokes in the underlayers—radically different from the precise finished composition, where individual brushstrokes are barely perceptible. This discovery brings into question the common assumption that the artist was a painstakingly slow perfectionist.
Vermeer’s Secrets will also be the final opportunity for visitors to experience the National Gallery’s paintings by Vermeer before the works travel to Amsterdam for inclusion in an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, February 10–June 4, 2023.
“Vermeer’s Secrets encourages visitors to play the role of art detective, inviting them to join our art historians, conservators, and scientists in studying the works and learning what stories paintings tell about the hand that made them,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. “The National Gallery’s paintings by Johannes Vermeer are some of the jewels of our collection, and thanks to this talented team of collaborators and their cutting-edge research, we have a greater understanding of this Dutch master and his process.”
Exhibition Dates and Location
October 8, 2022–January 8, 2023
West Building, Ground Floor
Exhibition Organization and Curators
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art.
The exhibition is curated by Marjorie E. Wieseman, curator and head of the department of northern European paintings, and Alexandra Libby, associate curator, department of northern European paintings, both of the National Gallery of Art.
Research for the exhibition was conducted by:
Marjorie E. Wieseman, curator and head of the department of northern European paintings
Alexandra Libby, associate curator, department of northern European paintings
Dina Anchin, associate paintings conservator
E. Melanie Gifford, former research conservator of painting technology
Lisha Deming Glinsman, former conservation scientist
Kathryn A. Dooley, imaging scientist
John K. Delaney, senior imaging scientist
Vermeer’s Secrets will offer visitors an inside look at how the National Gallery’s curators, conservators, and scientists work together to understand artists’ techniques, materials, and processes. In this instance, an intensive study of four paintings by and attributed to Johannes Vermeer yielded surprising information about the paintings which will be shared for the first time in the exhibition. The exhibition also includes two 20th-century forgeries, The Lacemaker (c. 1925) and The Smiling Girl (c. 1925), which were attributed to Vermeer when they first entered the museum’s collection in 1937 as part of Andrew Mellon’s original bequest, but were later determined not to be by the artist. Juxtaposing these two non-Vermeer works with paintings firmly attributed to the Dutch artist—Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), A Lady Writing (c. 1665), and Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1666/1667)—will demonstrate how curators utilize research from a range of disciplines to evaluate works of art and determine attributions, as well as the qualities that make a Vermeer a Vermeer.
The exhibition incorporates vivid technical images made using innovative technologies pioneered by two leaders in the field of scientific imaging, the National Gallery’s senior imaging scientist John K. Delaney and imaging scientist Kathryn A. Dooley. Using hyperspectral reflectance imaging techniques first developed to map minerals for remote sensing of the earth and subsequently the moon and Mars, as well as X-ray fluorescence imaging spectroscopy, Delaney and Dooley are able to identify and map pigments and also reveal what lies beneath the surface of a painting. While earlier technical examination (magnified examinations of the paintings, analysis of microsamples, and X-ray fluorescence spot analysis) allowed Melanie Gifford and Lisha Glinsman to hypothesize the stages in Vermeer’s working methods, these advancements in imaging technologies provided the opportunity to try and visualize those stages. The resulting images allowed the team to analyze the distribution of pigments across the paintings, distinguish compositional changes, and in the case of the Girl with the Red Hat, reveal more details about an earlier unfinished bust-length portrait of a man with a wide-brimmed hat.
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