From the identity of the young woman in Johannes Vermeer’s most famous painting, the Girl With a Pearl Earring, to the techniques he employed, much about the Dutch master remains a mystery.

The lack of certainty about the life and works of the Sphinx of Delft, as he was known, has now injected a little controversy – and perhaps even some inter-institutional tension, albeit politely denied – ahead of what is being billed as the biggest ever exhibition of his paintings, in Amsterdams’ Rijksmuseum, next February.

Girl With a Flute – a piece whose attribution to Vermeer has long been in question and which is now the cause of a transatlantic standoff, of sorts – is one of four canvases being lent by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for the much-anticipated show.

The Washington gallery last month announced that microscopic pigment analysis and advanced imaging technology had convinced it that the painting, one of only two attributed to Vermeer on wooden panels, was not authentic.

It said tell-tale signs had been found in the layering of the pigments on the painting that pointed to it being a good – but ultimately botched – imitation of a work by the 17th-century Dutch artist.

The Rijksmuseum, however, leaning on its arguably even more expansive research into Vermeer, is having none of it. Not only does the Dutch national museum believe the painting is an original, one of 35 or 36 surviving works, but it intends to tag it as such when its exhibition opens on 10 February.

“They have been doing great research at the National Gallery, Washington on their four Vermeers, and we have, during the pandemic and in research ahead of the exhibition, been able to do research on 10 Vermeers,” said Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum director. “We have discussed the technical findings with Washington and our view of Vermeer based on these technical findings is a more inclusive one than that of Washington.”

Dibbits was diplomatic about the difference of opinion. The National Gallery’s findings will be cited in the exhibition’s catalogue, he said.

“Attribution is not a hard science but we feel that Vermeer is such an innovative artist who took so many directions in his art that we feel that for us as yet the painting is by Vermeer”, Dibbits said. “We keep it within the oeuvre. We differ in view. It is something we have discussed at length. We are all happy with it.” It didn’t seem to be a source of irritation. “No. Not at all.”

Vermeer, who died at 43, left no diaries or letters and little is known about many of the subjects of his paintings. The Rijksmuseum will exhibit 28 of them at its exhibition thanks to loans from other European galleries, and galleries in the US and Japan.

On Tuesday, it was announced that the Frick Collection in New York would provide three of its masterpieces: The Girl Interrupted at Her Music; Officer and Laughing Girl; and Mistress and Maid. The Rijksmuseum exhibition will be the first time all three paintings will be shown together outside New York since they were acquired more than a century ago.

Vermeer will run daily at the Rijksmuseum from 10 February to 4 June 2023



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