Was Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman’ a genuine Vermeer?

Can genius be counterfeited?

Can you spot a counterfeit? How about a bad fit? It’s something to consider while viewing Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at a Virginal at the Art Museum.

Not quite the Mona Lisa, but was that Vermeer's fault?

The painting, on loan from the Leiden Collection until March 3, is the only Vermeer that’s privately owned; it’s also one of only 35 surviving Vermeers in the world. So its rarity adds to its worth. It’s thought to be one of Vermeer’s last works, still unfinished when he died in 1675. Therein lies the clue to the counterfeit fit. For years, it was considered a near-Vermeer— an excellent imitation.

You have to needn’t be an art detective to enter this controversy. Simply recall your last personal experience with funny money. The dollar bill seemed authentic, yet something wasn’t right— perhaps an almost imperceptible lack of quality in a detail.

Household distractions

Vermeer lived and worked in Delft, Holland. He married a Catholic named Catharina Bolnes and had 15 children. Four died in infancy. One can imagine, even in those years of prosperity following Holland’s wars with Spain, that Vermeer’s life was a constant explosion of wails— an atmosphere quite different than the calm depicted in his paintings.

In lesser hands, the serenity on the canvas would be compromised. But Vermeer didn’t play to the choir. His works are gentle glimpses that paradoxically exclude and invite the reader. That’s his magic.

The Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is poetry in paint. She’s gentle and remote. One second I love her moonish face, the next second I don’t. This reaction speaks to a great master’s ability to tickle a nerve long after he’s gone. I find the painting, and not the woman within it, to be a rare beauty. She owns Mona Lisa’s enigmatic gaze and smile, but she lacks The Gioconda’s power in repose as she slumps against a backdrop of beautifully diffused light.

Lack of poetry?

Everything here is perfect except her posture. Everything is perfectly convincing, and worthy of Vermeer’s loving touch, but the  shawl that muddles the composition. Its gold color can’t redeem its leaden weight.  One might think that the shawl was painted by an impostor. It’s the bad ink on an otherwise fine dollar bill.

Experts always agreed that the painting looked like an authentic match to A Lady Seated at a Virginal.  But there was something hinky about it.  The fault-line lies between the shawl and the skirt.

There’s real genius evident in the silver skirt with its satin tufts. One sees volume and lightness reconciled with ease. Vermeer anchors the painting in fluff, but the master’s art of antinomy ends at the shawl. It’s gross in scale and touch. Sure, it has horizontal folds that that take the eye upward in steps, but it’s a technician’s work that doesn’t caress the woman under the fabric. It simply lacks poetry.

Settling a debt

This flaw is difficult to perceive because Vermeer’s genius with light creates a mesmerizing effect: One succumbs to the overall dazzle. But the shawl lacks a natural downward cascade that would simultaneously take the eye upward with majestic ease. It’s a blotch in the arc of the painting.

All that glimmers isn’t gold. I was fooled by the bright gold shawl, shiny as new money, until I was informed that the painting was suspect.

Vermeer died in bankruptcy, and it’s theorized that the incomplete work was touched up by a lesser talent, a mere craftsman, before being sold. It’s interesting to note that Vermeer’s widow sold Lady Writing a Letter to her baker for the equivalent of about $100 in today’s money to settle a debt. That explains the desperation that may have led to the “improved” shawl. And you thought that a Vermeer couldn’t make you laugh.

According to the Art Museum’s website, “Recent analysis has provided further proof, finding that its canvas is from the same bolt of cloth that Vermeer used for his famous Lacemaker, which today hangs in the Louvre.” So it’s not a near-Vermeer after all; tests have proven that it’s the real deal. The counterfeit controversy seizes our imagination only because Vermeer was a genuine genius to begin with.

Our readers respond

W.S. Partington

of Cambridge, NY on December 23, 2013

Wait! Couldn't the desperation of poverty lead a widow to use the same bolt of canvas (conveniently left over) to have a painting forged? Or perhaps a much later forger gained access to the bolt of canvas. The hairstyle seems off: too "Jane Austen" for Vermeer, although it appears a lot of research was done to isolate the brief period when the style was popular.
As for the composition, it's a very cramped setting and quite unlike most works by Vermeer, which are so airy and spacious. Most other virginal scenes have much more in them than simply woman and virginal. The face lacks that ethereal quality so integral to Vermeer. The features and modeling are heavy. Also, except for the yellow shawl, the whole is rather oddly devoid of color.
Then again: An electronic copy is only a tepid copy of the original. Impossible to be certain of much without seeing the original.
And of course we all want so much for the work to be a Vermeer. Perhaps it is...

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.