100 years ago Vermeer visited SMK in Copenhagen

The world only has few paintings by “Un celebre Peijntre nommé Verme[e]r”, the Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).[1] Pending on scholarly judgements, just 35 or 36 paintings are preserved, and they are all on display in public museums. Based on his professional career that spanned only twenty-two years, a qualified estimate of Vermeer’s complete oeuvre reaches no more than forty works. He left no drawings or preliminary paintings behind.[2]

Archival research and provenance studies are still ongoing in order to understand more about the life and work of Johannes Vermeer. Naturally, an attribution’s authenticity is significantly strengthened if direct links over time to the artist himself can be established. Equally so if an ownership during the artist’s lifetime or soon after his death can be proven.

In the past it was imagined that Vermeer after his untimely death in 1675 was soon forgotten and appeared relatively unknown during the 18th and early 19th centuries until rediscovered by Thoré-Bürger (1807-1869) in 1866 in his article “Van der Meer de Delft” as the ‘sphinx of Delft’.[3] However, research has established that both in his own days and ever since there was a marked for the eloquent painter of first history pieces and later more quiet interior scenes with mundane activities. Private collectors in Delft, The Hague, and Amsterdam possessed his works.[4]

Sometimes Vermeer’s works drew attention under wrong attributions, and in 1742 the Elector of Saxony acquired the Girl Reading at an Open Window as a Rembrandt.[5] The Music Lesson, now in the Queens collection in London, was acquired as a Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) in 1762. Art dealers in Paris praised Vermeer’s works early in the 19th century and he was traded as a pupil or follower of Gabriël Metsu (1629-1667) as well as of Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684). In the late 19th and early 20th century collectors and museums acquired Vermeer’s works as they became discovered and correctly attributed to the Delft painter, who signed less than half of his works and only dated one.

The art historian, artist, and museum director Karl Madsen. Photo: H. Damgaard.

No Danish museum has a painting attributed to or by Vermeer in their collections, however, this could have been different. In 1919 the director of Statens Museum for Kunst, Karl Madsen (1855-1938) had engaged with a Swedish art collector to display his paintings within the museum. It appeared that several of the works were for sale, which caused a rouw in the news press. It offended museum directors and the public opinion and in the journal Social-Demokraten one could read: “…and now the story goes that a Dutch art dealer, who stayed in Copenhagen recently, has given voice of a deal with the [SMK] Director who has offered him space in the Museum, where he intends to open his Shop in the Hammershøi-Gallery!”.[6]

The director proceeded with his plans and in January-February 1920 a collection of old master paintings from the Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker (1897-1940) from Amsterdam was on display at SMK, the National Gallery in Copenhagen.[7] Among the paintings were works by Frans Hals and Rembrandt, however the highlight was Vermeer’s Young Girl with a Flute, a small panel measuring only 20 × 17,8 cm.[8]

What is noteworthy is that, despite the exhibition catalogue being praised for its beauty, Vermeer’s painting was not mentioned, nor illustrated in the catalogue listing the 65 works on show.[9] Was it added as an extra painting ex-catalogue? Was it important for its provenance having it listed as exhibited at the Danish National Gallery? Today this exhibition is not listed anywhere in the literature on the painting.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Girl with a Flute, 1665-1670. Public domain

Madsen did not hide the fact that the Goudstikker collection was for sale, and he even openly declared his hope that a patron would offer the museum to acquire not only the work by Vermeer, but also works by Van Dyck, Jan Steen, and Frans Hals – unfortunately his aspirations were in vain.[10] Maybe the price of 325.000 guilders was simply too much [today app. € 2 million]. Otherwise SMK now would have had Vermeer’s Girl with a Flute on permanent display – and not merely on a brief visit in 1920, a visit that does not figure in the exhibition history of the painting.

Reviewing the provenance history of the painting, it has been established that it was once part of the Pieter van Ruijven collection in Delft. Later in 1696 it was on sale in Amsterdam. It went to ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from 1876-1911 it went to Brussels. Briefly it was in Paris in 1911. Augustus Janssen in Amsterdam possessed the painting 1919-1921. Apparently commissioned to Goudstikker, the Girl with a Flute already in 1919 was part of the exhibition La Collection Goudstikker d’Amsterdam in the Pulchri Studio in The Hague, as cat.no. 131 with an illustration.[11] It was shortly after that the prolific art dealer Goudstikker had it on show at SMK in Copenhagen in 1920 ex-catalogue.[12]

The exhibition catalogue / Newspaper review, 22 February 1920.

During the exhibition at SMK, a newspaper prints a picture of Vermeer’s Young Girl with a Flute with the text that the most precious painting in the exhibition is the one by Vermeer. The review concludes that “It would indeed be a national achievement if one of our art-loving tycoons would secure our Gallery with such an artwork”.[13]

During the exhibition at SMK the following assessment of the painting was published: “The costliest portrait in the exhibition is no doubt Johannes Vermeer van Delft’s young ‘Girl with the Flute’. Although the painting has not gone unharmed through life, it is characteristic of the master. It has, to its fullest extent, this extraordinary, opulent atmosphere which characterizes his art. And its colours show his characteristic, saturated harmony. The basic tone is achieved by the young girl’s blue-grey coat, and it is emphasized by her Chinese-like hat, in which various coloured stripes – brown, yellowish, and white tones – are the most prominent. However, the best in shape and colour is the young girl’s left arm and hand. In the rendering of both soft and prominent contours, in the perception of the softness of the carnation, Vermeer unfolds all his peculiarities. Unfortunately, the perception is harmed in different ways. The colours of the scarf and the white fur coat are heavily yellowed, and a less fortunate restoration of the left upper lip and nose tip seems quite disturbing”.[14]

Later the same year, the Young Girl with a Flute was on show in Stockholm and in Kristiania (Oslo) where the Goudstikker exhibition, equally to the Copenhagen venue, was comprising 65 paintings announced in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet.[15] A Danish newspaper wrote that the very small painting, the size of only three columns in their newspaper, in Norway was for sale for the very high amount of DKK 600.000. It was argued that the painting had a wonderful sense of completion, but also highlighted the fact, as the article continued, that “…only very few paintings by Vermeer are known… and out of these the ‘Lady with the Flute’ is regarded as one of the most famous”.[16]

It appears peculiar that Vermeer’s painting was not included in all of the catalogues at all the venues of the Goudstikker exhibitions, however, in the Rotterdam presentation in May 1920 it was indeed.[17] In the following year, it was again exhibited in a public museum like the SMK, this time on loan to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.[18] Shortly after it was acquired by M. Knoedler & Co. of New York, who in 1923 sold the painting to Joseph Early Widener (1871-1943). In his private ownership, the Young Girl with a Flute hung at Lynnewood Hall, a Neoclassical Revival mansion in Pennsylvania. Widener was a wealthy American art collector and, as a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, he bequeathed the painting in 1942.[19]

It is noteworthy that museum director Karl Madsen’s Dutch counterpart, art historian and former director of the Mauritshuis, Abraham Bredius (1855-1946), who privately had acquired Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith, in 1928 sold it to an American collector for $ 300.000 [today app. € 2.4 million].[20] The painting had been on loan to the Mauritshuis for almost 25 years, and to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, for another five. Bredius had acquired the painting in 1899 for less than 700 guilders.[21] Although Bredius allegedly never liked his purchase, which he in 1907 called “a large unpleasant Vermeer”, one cannot help speculate if having the painting exhibited in the Mauritshuis and in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen would have boosted its value? Could Goudstikker’s presentation of the Young Girl with a Flute at the Danish National Gallery in 1920 have had such an intention? But why then, wasn’t it in the catalogue? Or did Goudstikker anticipate that Karl Madsen indeed would have been able to convince a benefactor to include the Young Girl with a Flute in the Danish national collection?

* This article is dedicated to the memory of my late colleague Ben Broos (1944-2019), head curator at the Mauritshuis 1986-2001.

[1] B. Broos, Un celebre Peijntre nommé Verme[e]r, in Johannes Vermeer, exh.cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C./Royal cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague (1995-1996), pp. 47-65.

[2] http://www.essentialvermeer.com/how_many_vermeers.html

[3] W. Bürger (Etienne Joseph Theophile Thore), ‘’Van der Meer de Delft’, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts 21: 297-330, 458-470, 542-575.

[4] Just to mention the most important, Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt left 500 guilders, a considerable amount, to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual of patron-painter. It would seem that in his lifetime, the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer’s artistic output, most likely, more than half.

[5] https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/research/vermeer/the-acquisition-of-the-painting/

[6] V. Villadsen, Statens Museum for Kunst 1827-1952. Copenhagen 1998, p. 216: ”Og nu hører man, at en Hollandsk kunsthandler, som for nogen tid siden opholdt sig her, har ladet sig forlyde med, at Kunstmuseets Direktør ogsaa har tilsagt ham Lokaler i Museet, hvor han altsaa agter at aabne sin Butik i Hammershøisalen”, Soc-Dem, 11-09-1919.

[7] This took place only shortly after another show in The Hague the previous year: La Collection Goudstikker d’Amsterdam, Pulchri Studio, no. 131 and ill.

[8] Catalogue de la collection Goudstikker d’Amsterdam exposée dans le Statens Museum for Kunst. Janvier-fevbrier 1920, Harlem/Utrecht. See also V. Villadsen, o.c., ref.s 77, 78, 79.

[9] Berlingske Tidende, 19 January 1920, p. 5.

[10] V. Villadsen, o.c., p. 216.

[11] Catalogue de la collection Goudstikker d’Amsterdam : exposée dans les localités du Schilderkundig Genootschap “Pulchri Studio”, Lange Voorhout 15, La Haye, November 1919.

[12] A newspaper article mentions that Goudstikker recently acquired the Janssens-collection, including the “…enchanting portrait of a lady by Vermeer…”. Berlingske Tidende, 19 January 1920, p. 9.

[13] Berlingske Tidende, 22 January 1920, p. 5.

[14]Udstillingens kostbareste Portræt er dog utvivlsomt Johannes Vermeers van Delfts af den unge Pige med Fløjten. Skønt det ikke er gået uskadt gennem Tilværelsen, er det dog særdeles karakteristisk for Mesteren. Det har i fuldt Maal dette underlige, livsfrodige, som særtegner hans Kunst. Og dets Farver danner den for ham egne, mættede Harmoni. Grundtonen anslås her af den unge Piges blågraa Kaabe, og den understreges af hendes kineseragtige Hat, i hvis forskellige farvede Striber brune, gullige og hvide Toner er de mest fremtrædende. Bedst i Form og Farve er dog den unge Piges venstre Arm og Haand. I Gengivelsen af dens baade vege og faste Linier, i Opfattelsen af Karnationens delikate Blødhed udfolder Vermeer sig i hele sin Ejendommelighed. Desværre skæmmes Helheden paa forskellig Vis. Halstørklædet og Pelsværkets hvide Farver er stærkt eftergulnet, og en mindre heldig Restauration af venstre Overlæbe og Næsetip virker ret forstyrrende”, Berlingske Tidende, 5 February 1920, p. 3.

[15] Morgenbladet, 3 April 1920, p. 5.

[16] Social-Demokraten, 21 April 1920, p. 4.

[17] May 1920: Catalogue de la collection Goudstikker d’Amsterdam exposée dans les localités de la Rotterdamsche Kunstkring, cat.no. 19. with illustration.

[18] B. Broos, o.c., p. 207 and ref. 30: Algemeen Handelsblad, 20 April 1921, Evening Edition, 3rd section, p. 9: “Het ‘Meisje met de fluit’ van Vermeer uit de verzameling Goudstikker, dat eenigen tijd als bruikleen in de Oude Pinacotheek te München is geweest, werd, naar men ons mededeelt, naar Amerika verkocht.”

[19] Girl with a Flute,c. 1665–1670. Oil on panel, 20 x 17.8 cm. (7 7/8 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
acc. no. 1942.9.98. The painting is currently rejected by Albert Blankert; Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. ascribes it as “attributed to Johannes Vermeer.” Most all other scholars accept it as authentic. See also Cat. Johannes Vermeer (1995-1996), pp. 204-208.

[20] Johannes Vermeer, Allegory if the Catholic Faith, c. 1670-72. Oil on canvas, 114,3 x 88,9 cm. The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

[21] B. Broos, o.c., p. 194-195.

Published by Jørgen Wadum

Jørgen Wadum is a Danish technical art historian.

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