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Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

An in-depth look into the materials and methods of Johannes Vermeer and the studio practices of 17th-c. Dutch painters

False Vermeers

Lacemaker, fake

The Lacemaker
Theodorus van Wijngaarden

In the mid 1800s Vermeer's name had slowly begun to be recovered from almost complete obscurity principally through the patient work of French art connoisseur Thoré-Burger. By the 1920s, the commercial value of Vermeer's paintings had soared since they were avidly sought by important collectors.

In 1925, the Girl with a Red Hat was discovered in a Paris collection. "The excitement surrounding this discovery, widely reported by the press, was repeated only two years later with yet two more discoveries of "Vermeer" paintings: The Lacemaker and the Smiling Girl." 1 Both paintings were false. Both had been bought (from the art dealers Duveen Brothers) by one of the most important American collectors, Andrew Mellon. Willem Martin, of the Mauritshuis, had signed their attributions.

"The forger of these "Vermeer's," a Dutchman by the name of Theo van Wijngaarden, gained significantly from a unique historical situation. In the 1920s Vermeer as a newly discovered master, and recognized as a forgotten genius. In their eagerness to learn more about the artist, and to expand his oeuvre beyond a few securely attributed paintings, many scholars accepted uncritically works that suddenly appeared in the art market. Contemporary art historians recognized the possibilities for deception posed by his historical moment. Ironically Wilhem Valentiner introduced his 1928 article on the Smiling Girl and The Lacemaker with the following warning:

'To hear almost every year of a newly discovered Vermeer may cause suspicion. And indeed we can be sure that in the endeavor to discover unknown works by this rare master in recent times, paintings have often been associated with this name which cannot stand serious criticism ....(nevertheless, we know that)...Vermeer used a very small number of models, and repeated certain details like costumes, curtains, pillows, mantelpieces, and even the painting hanging in the wall so often that newly discovered works by him frequently seem like puzzle pictures composed of pieces taken from different groupings in known paintings by him.' 2

Smiling Girl, fake Vermeer

The Smiling Girl
Theodorus van Wijngaarden

As can be seen from the images below, Van Wijngaarden obviously had based his Lacemaker on Vermeer's authentic work of the same name and the Smiling Girl on the Girl with a Pearl Earring. What is not so obvious is how Willem Martin could have been described rather poor fake Lacemaker so:

"The Vermeer in question is a painting whose authenticity no one doubts....the girl gazes at the viewer with large, slightly puzzled eyes."

  1. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Marguerite Glass, "The Appreciation of Vermeer in the Twentieth-Century America," in The Cambridge Companion Guide to Vermeer, edited by Wayne E. Franits, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 175-17
  2. ibid.