At Large  March 29, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Three New Theories on Vermeer, Da Vinci, and Van Gogh

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Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat, 1665-67, oil on panel, National Gallery 

Lately there have been investigations that highlight new theories on some of history’s greatest artists and their paintings. We wanted to dive into these theories to discuss their arguments, histories, and if there is any validity to them. Regardless, these new theories have proven that even if a work is three, or four, or five hundred years old, it can still cease to amaze and perplex us.

1. Was Vermeer’s daughter the painter of some works attributed to the great artist?

With the historic Johannes Vermeer survey open at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, it seems there is a renewed interest in a theory on Vermeer’s daughter, evident by Lawrence Weschler’s newly published report in The Atlantic, that once again highlighted potential issues of authorship in Vermeer’s work. 

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Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Flute, 1666, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art

About fifteen years ago, Cooper Union art history professor Benjamin Binstock developed a theory that Vermeer’s daughter, Maria Vermeer, was trained behind closed doors as an apprentice to her father, and is the real artist behind one-fifth of the works attributed to Vermeer. When Vermeer passed away, two paintings were traded by Vermeer’s family against a huge debt. The idea is that these paintings were sold, and potentially produced as forgeries to alleviate the financial burden on the family after Vermeer’s passing. Binstock speculated that Maria was an apprentice to her father, and they would not have had to register his daughter as an official studio member. He proposed that Maria painted works including Mistress and Maid in the Frick Collection and Woman with a Lute. Two additional paintings, Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat have been associated with Maria as well, as perhaps being produced as self-portraits.

Binstock published a book in 2008, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, that unfolded the details surrounding this new theory. It wasn’t touched by book critics and was mostly ignored by top scholars of the artist, until in 2013, when NYU hosted a symposium on the subject and reinvigorated public interest on the theory.

Things proceeded to get stranger in recent years. Back in October, scientists and historians at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. announced that Girl with a Flute (c. 1669/1675) was definitely not painted by Vermeer, reigniting Binstock’s theory. Because of the global pandemic, the museum’s closed doors allowed researchers to take Vermeer’s works off the wall and analyze them. This research found that several of Vermeer’s techniques that help signify a real from a fake—such as green underpaint, highlight on the lip, etc—proved this work to be not from Vermeer’s hand but perhaps from a followers. This discovery has inspired a new exhibition at the National Gallery, opening this October: “Vermeer’s Secrets.”

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Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1515–1518), attributed to Francesco Melzi. Royal Collection, United Kingdom

2. Have scholars figured out who Leonardo da Vinci’s mother is?

All we know about Leonardo da Vinci’s mother is that her name was Caterina. But historian Carlo Vecce from Orientale University in Naples, wanted to learn more about this mysterious Caterina. According to NBC, Vecce found documents that suggest da Vinci’s mother was an enslaved Circassian woman. Signed documents by da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero da Vinci, and a free slave called Catarina were signed in 1452, just six months after the artist was born out of wedlock. However, Vecce told NBC that the document is full of mistakes, a sign that perhaps the notary was nervous when he drafted it, “because getting someone else’s slave pregnant was a crime.” 

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Leonardo da Vinci, studies of the Foetus in the Womb, circa 1510-13

The findings are the basis of Vecce’s new historical novel, “Il Sorriso di Caterina” (Catarina’s Smile). It goes into detail about the maritime business of moving slaves from the Black Sea to Venice and Genoa at the time. The Circassians are a Muslim ethnic group. They lived north of the Caucasus until the 19th century. 

If this is true, it would make Leonardo half Italian, and half Circassian, adding a new layer to his rich legacy. But some scholars are not so sure. Martin Kemp, another Leonardo expert and professor, wrote a book in 2017 concluding that Leonardo’s mother was Caterina di Meo Lippi, an orphan who lived in a farmhouse in Tuscany.

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Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art

3. Was van Gogh’s Starry Night inspired by the Eiffel Tower?

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh’s most recognizable painting, is known for its spiral sky, undulating cyprus trees, and spindly church spire. But could he have been influenced by something completely different, say, the Eiffel Tower? James Hall, professor and former art critic, seems to think so. Hall just came out with a new theory in the Guardian, saying that the iron Tower’s introduction in Paris in 1889 gave Van Gogh a vision for his Starry Night. 

The painting was made in a series in June 1889, shortly after the Eiffel Tower was installed and unveiled in Paris at the International Exposition. The opening event was accompanied by pyrotechnics: electric light and explosions, that to Hall, are repeated in the music of the stars, sky and clouds of Van Gogh’s painting.

The hard truth about all of this is that these are just theories, and we will never definitively know any of the answers. But, without these types of theories and researchers passionate about uncovering history, the art world would not be where it is today.

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