Obelisk Art History
The Artists

Johannes Vermeer
Can you cheat at art?

Johannes Vermeer, The Artists

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/.

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch artist born on October 31, 1632. Vermeer contributed to the Baroque movement and died on January 15, 1675.

Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer

Diana and her Companions

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer

The Procuress

A Maid Asleep, Johannes Vermeer

A Maid Asleep

Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl

A Lady and Two Gentlemen, Johannes Vermeer

A Lady and Two Gentlemen

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, Johannes Vermeer

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman

Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Johannes Vermeer

Girl Interrupted at Her Music

The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer

The Glass of Wine

The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer

The Little Street

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid

View of Delft, Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer

Woman Holding a Balance

Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer

Woman Reading a Letter

Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Lute

A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer

A Lady Writing

Girl with a Flute, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Flute

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring

The Concert, Johannes Vermeer

The Concert

Girl with the Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat

Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer

Mistress and Maid

Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeer

Study of a Young Woman

The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting

The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer

The Geographer, Johannes Vermeer

The Geographer

The Lacemaker, Johannes Vermeer

The Lacemaker

The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer

The Love Letter

A Woman Writing a Letter with her Maidservant, Johannes Vermeer

A Woman Writing a Letter with her Maidservant

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, Johannes Vermeer

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals

Allegory of the Catholic Faith, Johannes Vermeer

Allegory of the Catholic Faith

Young Woman Playing a Guitar, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Playing a Guitar

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal

Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman Standing at a Virginal


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