At first glance, Girl With a Flute looks just like a Johannes Vermeer painting, with soft strokes and muted colors that depict a young, rosy-cheeked woman holding a flute. But upon closer inspection, the National Gallery of Art has concluded that the work was likely painted by somebody else.
It’s a momentous discovery about Vermeer, the famed 17th-century Dutch artist behind works like Girl With a Pearl Earring. His body of work is relatively small; only about three dozen paintings that are agreed-upon Vermeers exist today. Now, that figure has shrunk by one.
Until now, the National Gallery has “cautiously attributed” Girl With a Flute to Vermeer, as it writes in the painting’s updated description, and art historians elsewhere have long questioned whether the work was a true Vermeer. So when COVID-19 arrived in 2020 and forced the gallery to close, the museum took the opportunity to investigate its own Vermeer collection.
A team of National Gallery curators, conservators and scientists analyzed the four Vermeer paintings in its collection, two of which raised red flags. Unusually, both of the paintings—Girl With a Flute and Girl with the Red Hat—are smaller than his other works, and are rendered on wood panels instead of canvas.
Specialized imaging technology allowed the team to peek into the process behind each painting. The brushstrokes behind Girl With the Red Hat appeared consistent with other Vermeers. But imaging of Girl With a Flute revealed a messier and less precise process.
“The science techniques showed the artists used similar materials in similar ways, but they handled the paint differently, from the underpaint to the final surface paint,” Kathryn A. Dooley, an imaging scientist on the National Gallery team, tells the New York Times’ Zachary Small.
The National Gallery now believes that Girl With a Flute was created by an associate of Vermeer’s. Experts are surprised by the discovery, as no evidence indicates that the artist ever worked with students or assistants.
“The idea that Vermeer worked with studio associates challenges the long-held belief that he was a lone genius and, instead, posits him as an instructor or mentor to the next generation of artists,” says the museum in a statement.
Another theory is that the work was crafted by Vermeer’s eldest daughter, as Marjorie Wieseman, who oversees the gallery’s northern European paintings, tells the Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey. Her name was Maria, and she would have been between 15 and 21 when the painting was completed.
In any case, the artist was likely someone familiar with Vermeer’s work—someone who “understands the technique but has very limited skill in executing it,” John Delaney, an imaging scientist who worked on the project, tells the Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee.
Not everyone is ready to accept that Vermeer wasn’t involved in Girl With a Flute. Aneta Georgievska-Shine, author of Vermeer and the Art of Love, tells the Times that she thinks the painting was possibly a collaboration between Vermeer and someone else.
“I’m not surprised that the museum is changing the attribution, but I’m not sure that I entirely agree,” Georgievska-Shine says. “I still think that it was more likely started by Vermeer.”
Art enthusiasts can decide for themselves: This month, the National Gallery opened “Vermeer’s Secrets,” an exhibition that features its Vermeer collection and Girl With a Flute, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the imaging process that led to the reattribution.
“Vermeer’s Secrets” will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through January 8, 2023.