Art historians have generally agreed that there are 36 authenticated Vermeer paintings -- until this week, that is. Researchers from the Rijksmuseum and Vrije Universiteit have announced a new attribution to Johann Vermeer (1632-1675).
Attributed to Johann Vermeer. Saint Praxedis, 1655. Oil on canvas, 40" by 32 1/2".
Credible 17th and 18th century sources reference at least six Vermeer paintings that are not presently accounted for. Only one of these, Saint Praxedis, has in recent years been seriously considered for inclusion in the canon of Johann Vermeer.
Many art historians consider Saint Praxedis to be the work of the 17-century Italian painter Felice Ficherelli, who painted a nearly identical version of the painting with the same title (right). In 1986, Arthur Wheelock, Jr., the esteemed curator of Northern Baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art, expressed full confidence that Saint Praxedis was indeed an authentic Vermeer.
The debate has not stopped since. (Read this excellent history about the history of authenticating Saint Praxedis).
Right. Felice Ficherelli. Saint Praxedis, ca. 1640-1645. Oil on canvas, 41" by 32". Collection Fergmani, Ferrarra.
Although Saint Praxedis is signed "Meer", its subject matter and style are atypical of Vermeer's.
Saint Praxedis was painted when Vermeer was in his early 20s, a period in which he was heavily influenced by Italian art and had just converted to Christianity. That, coupled with tests indicating that the white lead paint of Saint Praxedis is identical to that in
Vermeer's Diane and Her Companions, has swayed some authorities. Others point out that the ultramarine blue is also typical of Vermeer paintings.
I'm not an art historian; I'm not trained in authentication; and I'm not persuaded that Saint Praxedis is the real deal.
Vermeer initially created history paintings, including biblical and mythological paintings, so
the theme of Saint Praxedis is unusual but not impossible. When you look at the Vermeer painting previously considered the oldest, Diana and Her Companions, you are reminded what unites all Vermeer paintings, regardless of subject matter: the quality of his light.
Johann Vermeer. Diana and her Companions, ca. 1653-1656. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4" x 41 3/8". Mauritshuis, The Hague.
My case is simple: compare two other Vermeer paintings created at nearly the same time, Diana and her Companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (left), with Saint Praxedis, and it is nearly inconceivable that they were created by the same artist.
Johann Vermeer. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, ca. 1654-1655. Oil on canvas, 63" by 55 7/8". National Gallery of Scotland.
Disbelief in a Vermeer attribution of Saint Praxedis was succintly expressed by Jon Boone in 2002:
In looking at Saint Praxedis, one does have a hard time understanding its attribution to Vermeer. It is a second-rate copy of a mediocre painting by an undistinguished artist, with certain features – such as the awkward wrap-around hands –antithetical to Vermeer’s sensibility as well as his draftsmanship. While the face itself is beautiful, certainly more charming than that of the original, it is still a facsimile face, a close copy of the source...
The simplest explanation covering all the facts of the case is that the painting is a copy executed either by the original painter, Ficherelli, in Florence, or by another artist in Ficherelli’s circle. The later signatures on the painting likely refer to one or several of the many artists at the time with the name of Meer or van der Meer, not Johannes Vermeer of Delft.
Do you believe that Saint Praxedis is by Vermeer? What persuades you so?
For a timeline of all fully attributed Vermeer paintings, check out essentialVermeer.com.
And stay tuned -- this is a story I'll be following!