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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Art

Val Castronovo details the vetting of the newly authenticated Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, exhibiting at Sotheby’s galleries but due, eventually, on the auction block.

Ms. Castronovo reviews The Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser, at the Cooper-Hewitt, a dazzling array of domestic design objects— textiles, wallpapers, furnishings, carpets, glass, ceramics and metalware — by an ornamentalist regarded by many as the world’s first professional industrial designer.

Books

Julia Sneden reviews The Secret Life of Bees, more than just the picaresque tale of the adventures of a white Southern girl and her black housekeeper, this little story offers profound truths about what constitutes family, and the need of every human being to experience the kind of love and acceptance that a mother can give.

Art

It’s Really Real!
The art world learns that a Vermeer painting, long suspected to be a fraud, is the genuine article


By Val Castronovo

Just when art lovers were still basking in the glow of last year’s luminous film about Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, comes news that one of his unsigned paintings has been confirmed to be the work of the Dutch master. Young Woman Seated at the Virginals (c.1670), a somber but tender portrait of a young woman playing the harpsichord, can be added to the artist’s slender output, only some three dozen canvases painted before his death in 1675 at age 43.

Sotheby’s made the announcement at the end of March on the heels of even bigger news: the 10 x 8 in. jewel-like oil will be auctioned on July 8 in London, the first Vermeer to be auctioned off since 1921 when The Little Street (1657-58) was on the block in Amsterdam (there were no takers for that one, so it was later purchased by a collector who then donated it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, by contrast, is expected to take in millions, according to the experts at Sotheby’s, $5.4 million by one estimate.

But price is actually besides the point. Said Alexander Bell, head of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in London, to The New York Times: “There’s every indication the painting will do a lot better because of its rarity and because Vermeer is such an iconic artist. We wanted people to concentrate on the picture, not the price.”

So the picture is being exhibited at Sotheby’s galleries on York Avenue in Manhattan from April 28 to May 9 and from May 22 to May 27, before heading to Sotheby’s in Paris (June 1 to June 3) and London (July 2 to July 7) for final viewings. The smoky painting, spotlighting a young woman with ringlets and a yellow cloak that hangs in heavy folds, is expected to make waves wherever it goes because the public’s appetite for Vermeer has been whetted by the recent movie and book about the painter but also by the exquisite show at the Metropolitan Museum in 2001, Vermeer and the Delft School.

There the painting was relegated to the last gallery, leaving viewers to consider for themselves its merits and authenticity. But the process of positively authenticating the picture had been going on since the mid-1990s, when its owner Baron Freddy Rolin of Belgium first approached Sotheby’s Old Masters specialist Gregory Rubinstein, setting off a ten-year quest by art historians, curators, conservators, restorers and technical experts to determine its provenance. (Baron Rolin, a collector and dealer, died in 2001; his family has offered the painting for sale.)

One of the first tests involved a technical study led by Libby Sheldon of University College London. The results led right back to Vermeer’s studio, for Sheldon discovered that the pigments in the painting matched the costly and very unusual pigments that characterized the master’s work. For instance, Lead-Tin Yellow was one of the pigments discovered in the picture, a pigment only used until the end of the seventeenth century, thereby demonstrating that the painting could not have been a later forgery.

In addition, the pigment Green Earth was found to be mixed in the flesh tones of the canvas; such mixing, memorably explained on the silver screen by Vermeer’s stand-in, Colin Firth, to an astonished houseservant played by Scarlett Johansson, was one of the artist’s trademarks. Lastly, the painting was found to employ another one of the master’s signatures: the pigment Ultramarine, a wildly expensive color produced by grinding lapis lazuli, and one which Vermeer, unlike other 17th-century Dutch artists, made extensive use of, both to create deep blues but also to mix with creamy hues for background surfaces. “This specific extravagance is something that has never yet been found outside the work of Vermeer,” Sotheby’s claims.

The evidence was mounting, but Sheldon dug further. She compared the canvas used in Young Woman with that used in an identically sized picture at the Louvre, The Lacemaker (c.1670), the only other Vermeer painting that matched Young Woman in scale. The dimensions were the same, but the structure of the canvases also matched; the warp and the weft were even, suggesting that both canvases had been cut from the same cloth. Adding to the drama was the fact that the priming layers in each canvas were identical, meaning they were both prepared at the same time.

But Sheldon also discovered that some retouching had been done along the way, hindering the path to a final conclusion. A committee of eight experts was put together in October 2002 to supervise the restoration and continue the inquiry. Once the repaintings were removed and the canvas restored to its original state, the artist’s true hand shone through in such aspects as the lighting and the space. By the end of 2003, the Committee of eight unanimously agreed that the painting bore all the hallmarks of a genuine, late Vermeer.

Says Sotheby’s committeeman Gregory Rubinstein, “I’ve lived with this picture and worked on it for more than 10 years, and it has been incredibly exciting and rewarding to watch its original delicacy and beauty re-emerge in this amazing way. Now that the leading scholars have seen and understood its beauty and quality, the painting can be restored to its rightful position amongst Vermeer’s works.”

Baron Rolin, a dealer in tribal art with a choice collection of paintings, would have been pleased. When he bought the picture in 1960, he was aware of the controversy, but didn’t care. He loved the painting and wanted it, Vermeer or not. But he traded valuable canvases by Klee, Signac, Bonnard and Riopelle to cinch the deal. In hindsight, prescient.

(Photo: PA)

>>Val Castronovo's review of the Christopher Dresser exhibit and Julia Sneden's review of The Secret Life of Bees>>

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