WASHINGTON, DC — Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) is one of the most significant artists of the 17th century, yet much of the Dutch painter’s life and practice remains a mystery. On view at the National Gallery of Art from October 8 through January 8, 2023, Vermeer’s Secrets will unveil new findings about him and his process. The exhibition offers a behind-the-scenes look at how National Gallery curators, conservators, and scientists investigated the museum’s four treasured paintings by and attributed to Vermeer — as well as two 20th-century forgeries — to understand “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer.”
Building on a half-century of technical study, National Gallery researchers took advantage of the museum’s COVID-related closures in 2020 and 2021 to examine these paintings, which are rarely taken off view. Using advanced imaging techniques that virtually penetrate layers of paint to visualize what lies beneath in combination with microscopic examination of the paintings’ delicate surfaces, these experts now have a clearer understanding of Vermeer’s process, materials and compositional changes, and are eager to share these revelations with the public.
There are around 35 known paintings by Vermeer in the world. As the National Gallery’s research team examined and compared the museum’s four works, one of their goals was to evaluate whether one of them — Girl with a Flute (probably 1665-1675), whose authorship has been long debated — is in fact by Vermeer. Exact findings of the team’s studies will be announced ahead of the exhibition’s opening.
In 2021, the team shared preliminary findings that enhance understanding of Vermeer’s process. Chemical imaging visualized layers beneath the surface of Woman Holding a Balance (circa 1664), revealing quick, spontaneous, sometimes textured brushstrokes in the underlayers — radically different from the precise finished composition, where individual brushstrokes are barely perceptible. This discovery brings into question the common assumption that the artist was a painstakingly slow perfectionist.
Vermeer’s Secrets will also be the final opportunity for visitors to experience the National Gallery’s paintings by Vermeer before the works travel to Amsterdam for inclusion in an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, February 10–June 4, 2023.
“Vermeer’s Secrets encourages visitors to play the role of art detective, inviting them to join our art historians, conservators and scientists in studying the works and learning what stories paintings tell about the hand that made them,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. “The National Gallery’s paintings by Johannes Vermeer are some of the jewels of our collection, and thanks to this talented team of collaborators and their cutting-edge research, we have a greater understanding of this Dutch master and his process.”