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Johannes Vermeer

Can you cheat at art?

What’s the big deal with Vermeer?

Vermeer was a perfectionist, he painted slowly and with expensive pigments. He made only 34 paintings, most of them quiet, eerily realistic domestic scenes. His work was mildly successful in his day, but his death left his family impoverished and for the next two centuries his work would be attributed to more well known artists.

Today, Vermeer is among the most popular and obsessively researched artists in history. His work is scrutinized around the world and analyzed by scholars and scientists. So what happened? What’s the big deal with Vermeer?

Now it must be said that Vermeer made outstandingly beautiful paintings of incredible subtly and depth. His work shows an incredible sensitivity to face and attitude, and his incredible work is discussed at length in by critics the world over. But we think it could be said that controversy brought his work back to life.

A case of mistaken identity

First was the rediscovery of Vermeer’s work — for 200 years many of his paintings had been attributed to more popular artists, like Gabriël Metsu or Frans van Mieris. In 1860, a German Museum director named Gustav Waagen recognized the Art of Painting as a Vermeer, and during the next few years the French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger went on a rampage of rediscovery, attributing over 70 works to Vermeer. Many of these attributions have now been disproven, but every claim brought Vermeer further into to the public eye. Everyone loves drama.

The struggle for attribution took a dark tone in 1945 when nearly all of Vermeer’s supposed religious paintings were tracked back to the soon legendary forger “Han van Meergeren. Meergeren’s invented Vermeer’s Christ with the Adulteress had sold just a few years earlier to Hermann Göring for 1.65 million guilders, approximately 7 million USD today. Practically overnight Vermeer’s oeuvre shrank dramatically, with The Head of Christ, The Last Supper II, The Blessing of Jacob, The Adulteress, and The Washing of the Feet identified as fakes.

And the trouble was just getting started.

Did Vermeer “cheat” at art?

In 2001, David Hockney proposed a radical theory explaining Vermeer’s nearly photo-realistic work. His book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, claimed that Vermeer, along with other renaissance artists used a camera obscura, and camera lucida to project the subjects of their paintings onto their canvases, allowing them to reproduce reality with a previously impossible precision.

It’s a fascinating theory — and while there’s no historical proof that Vermeer used optical technology to trace his work from life, it absolutely blew up the art world with controversy. Historian James Elkins denied Hockney’s claim, saying the camera obscura technique was “radically undertested.” The Washington Post’s art critic Blake Gopnik claimed Hockey’s theory was fraught with “technical ignorance, philosophical incoherence and logical inconsistency,” and essayist Susan Sontag expressed a common attitude of dismay that the ‘great masters’ would stoop to using technology to support their work — “If David Hockney’s thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.”

The controversy heightened in 2013, when noted illusionists Penn and Teller released a documentary about the Texan inventor Tim Jenison, who constructed a camera lucida and reproduces Vermeer’s The Music Lesson with debated success. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called the project ‘depressing’ and ‘crass’ — but one thing can’t be argued. People are still talking about Vermeer.


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Reed Enger, "Johannes Vermeer, Can you cheat at art?," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 08, 2016; last modified May 27, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/johannes-vermeer/.

Read More
Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer

Diana and her Companions

1653-1654
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

1654-1656
The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer

The Procuress

1656
A Maid Asleep, Johannes Vermeer

A Maid Asleep

1656-1657
Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl

1657
A Lady and Two Gentlemen, Johannes Vermeer

A Lady and Two Gentlemen

1659
Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window

1659
Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, Johannes Vermeer

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman

1660
Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Johannes Vermeer

Girl Interrupted at Her Music

1658-1661
The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer

The Glass of Wine

1661
The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer

The Little Street

1657-1661
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid

1658-1661
View of Delft, Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft

1660-1661
Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace

1662
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

1662
Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer

Woman Holding a Balance

1662-1663
Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer

Woman Reading a Letter

1663
Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Lute

1662-1663
A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer

A Lady Writing

1665
Girl with a Flute, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Flute

1665
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring

1665
The Concert, Johannes Vermeer

The Concert

1665
Girl with the Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat

1665-1666
Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer

Mistress and Maid

1666-1667
Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeer

Study of a Young Woman

1665-1667
The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting

1666-1668
The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer

1668
The Geographer, Johannes Vermeer

The Geographer

1669
The Lacemaker, Johannes Vermeer

The Lacemaker

1669-1670
The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer

The Love Letter

1669-1670
A Woman Writing a Letter with her Maidservant, Johannes Vermeer

A Woman Writing a Letter with her Maidservant

1670-1671
A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, Johannes Vermeer

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals

1670-1672
Allegory of the Catholic Faith, Johannes Vermeer

Allegory of the Catholic Faith

1670-1672
Young Woman Playing a Guitar, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Playing a Guitar

1670-1672
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal

1670-1672
Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Standing at a Virginal

1670-1672

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