Imagine for a moment that in the days after Johannes Vermeer’s death in 1675, that his widow Catharina and eldest daughter Maria, sitting in a darkened room of the Vermeer home, conspired to settle their numerous family debts in a secretive way. Owing their baker the largest sum of money, the widow and her daughter would give up two of the Master’s last paintings to settle their debt.
For instance, how would the value of a Vermeer change if, all of a sudden, it became a Maria Vermeer?
In a theory developed by Cooper Union art history professor Benjamin Binstock, the two debt-settling paintings were actually the work of the daughter, Maria Vermeer. According to Binstock’s 2008 book, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, Maria was trained behind closed doors as the Master’s apprentice and is the true creator of one-fifth of today’s known Vermeers.
Nearly untouched by book critics and completely ignored by top Vermeer scholars, Binstock’s text was the subject of a one-day symposium entitled “Vermeer’s Daughter?”, presented by the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU’s Cantor Film Center on Saturday, May 18. Three impressively appointed panels — of historians, artists, and generalists, respectively — dealt with the author’s elevation of Maria Vermeer as a new 17th-century wunderkind.
Jonathan Gilmore, a philosopher and art critic at the symposium explained, “Ben’s book is a victim of its advanced press — it was judged literally by its cover. But those of you that read the book know that after the introduction, it’s not until page 270 or so that he makes these explosive claims.” Conscious of his naysayers, Binstock seemed resigned to criticism from the start of the symposium, but stuck to his guns. “I now recognize that the way I presented my hypothesis — as an obvious fact — is less convincing,” he said in his opening statement. “I stand before you chastened and ask you to reconsider the subject. Can we give these figures their living names?”
Vermeer’s Family Secrets goes to work on numerous topics, not just a theory concerning the painter’s daughter. In his presentation, Binstock covered the erratic technical output seen during Vermeer’s career, examining the conflicting treatment of, for instance, cupids rendered in paintings that hang on the walls behind sitters or of red thread articulated with mastery in one work and then very flatly just one year later.
Binstock, who shuffled life-sized reproductions of the Dutch master’s work on stage, also presented a newly completed chronology of Johannes and Maria’s work, pasted onto a timeline. The author made special mention that the images can be peeled off and resituated — and made it an open proposition for panelists to do so.
Binstock elucidates six or seven paintings that he believes Maria created herself, including two shadowy works that he dubs self-portraits, which currently hang in Washington, DC’s National Gallery. “Girl with the Red Hat” (1665–66) is the more celebrated of these two works, and it was the most discussed painting at the symposium.
Painter Gerri Davis made interesting use of “Girl with a Red Hat” by ruminating on self-portraiture and the penetrating stares that often appear when artists paint themselves from mirrors, as seen in her examples by Parmigianino, Rembrandt, and Frida Kahlo. As attention returned to “Girl with the Red Hat,” it was difficult to not feel a pang of hope for the case of Maria the painter. “Girl with a Red Hat” truly has those deep, self-portrait eyes.
Still, strong intuition brought about by any viewer’s inner sense of visual perception alone is not enough evidence to make important leaps when assessing attribution. At one point in his talk, Binstock placed a highly coded narrative onto the 1673 work “Girl Interrupted at her Music” where, as he claims, Maria is caught in a moment of conflict — interrupted by not only her father but also her impending marriage that would eventually disrupt her study of painting.
Bard Graduate Center professor Ivan Gaskell argued that Vermeer held a much greater distance between his art and family life than Binstock has conjured in his book. Gaskell showed Vermeer’s “View of Delft” (1660-61) and noted the liberty Vermeer wielded as he adjusted the heights of buildings along the Delft skyline to suit his own compositional tastes. In essence, Vermeer chose visual harmony over accurate record keeping — reinforcing the artist’s separation between painting and life.
Speaking alongside painters Vincent Desiderio and April Gornik, Chuck Close asserted that the true family secret of note was to hide Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura and not to conceal an unknown apprentice. Close spent time marveling at Vermeer’s notoriously maverick technical skill, proclaiming, “I know how every painting in the history of the world was made, except for Vermeer’s!” He went on to disregard Binstock’s daughter-theory. “Nothing would make me happier than to find a woman who painted these incredible paintings,” said Close, “I just don’t buy it. Not that she couldn’t, as woman or as a girl, but I just don’t buy it.”
For those in the audience hoping to learn more about Maria Vermeer as a woman or an artist (or to find a place where those issues intersect) — little was illuminated. Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, originally billed to present at the symposium, was absent and replaced by poet and historian Martha Hollander. Still, a thorough reading of gender in Binstock’s theory, which seems desperately needed, was largely missing in the symposium.
Jonathan Gilmore chimed in, “It’s odd that feminist art history hasn’t embraced this thesis. It was easier, at least, with Artemisia Gentileschi who, at least in my view, was a better painter than her father. So, when a lot of these paintings were de-attributed from her father and then re-attributed to her, it made sense because her other works were of a similar quality.” Maria Vermeer, however, inherits a varied cluster of paintings from Binstock, unlinked by subject matter or iconography and widely diverging in technical accomplishment.
Although Maria’s life as an artist remains more-or-less unfounded, the notion is not entirely implausible. Binstock’s re-attribution, if correct, would be wonderfully romantic — full of enough 17th-century scandal and secrecy to inspire new scholarship, exhibitions of Maria’s work and may even be likely to inspire a re-make of the 2003 film, based on Tracey Chevalier’s novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, where Scarlet Johansen played opposite Colin Firth, not as Vermeer’s daughter but as a servant in the Vermeer family home. In such richly ambiguous territory, where do we paint a line between fact and fantasy?
Panelist and Art Institute of Chicago scholar James Elkins found bravery and personality in Binstock’s work as a piece of creative writing but less authority as a scholarly text. David Poeppel, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at NYU and Ulrich Baer, professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU, turned their attention to the other panelists, expressing dissatisfaction with the merits of presented arguments. Poeppel pointed out the methodological flimsiness he noticed in many statements made by art historians who had presented earlier. By day’s end, no presenter had really come out swinging toward the matter at hand. Many speakers seemed extremely careful or often reticent with their opinions.
Why is Vermeer and the emergence of Binstock’s insurgent theory handled with kid gloves? If not for a lack of scholarly ingenuity by panelists that would contest Binstock’s ideas or for a reluctance to be in the minority with their point of view, the reason could rest in the balances of financial pressures. Innocuous or circular commentaries by historians don’t shift a work’s value at Christie’s the way that re-attributions tend to do. For instance, how would the value of a Vermeer change if, all of a sudden, it became a Maria Vermeer?
Claims like Binstock’s jiggle a carefully assembled house of cards. “Sometimes people don’t want to see an artist in that way,” remarked writer and panelist Rachel Cohen. “They don’t want to see the homely side of an artist — surrounded by family and children, the mutual dependencies of friendship and influence of teachers and students.” If re-attributed, Vermeer’s number of known paintings would dwindle and the Old Master’s legacy as we know it would shift, along with value of each work — perhaps prompting knee-jerk de-accessioning by museums or upsetting the allegiances between collectors and the historians who have previously made attributions one way or another.
Panelist and Princeton University history professor Anthony Grafton, who was especially poignant as a closing speaker, paused to consider what a glorious find Maria would be if she could in fact be brought into focus. He said of the theory, “If it’s right, it’s something to be pursued with passion, as Binstock has already done, but pursued deeper and in the light of a richer sense of fathers and daughters, women as artists and the larger social world of Dutch art, into which this also is a piece.”
Currently on exhibit in San Francisco’s de Young Museum, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” will arrive at The Frick Collection this fall, on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. While it is re-united with the Frick ‘s Vermeers, New York audiences will be able to see what Binstock claims is both a loving portrait of a daughter but also a portrait of a master in her own right. Lawrence Weschler, an NYU scholar who moderated the symposium agreed with this, or at least with the notion that the young woman in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is most definitely Vermeer’s child — “any father of a daughter can tell that.”
Vermeer’s Daughter, the all-day symposium, took place on Saturday, May 18 (11am–6pm) at NYU’s Cantor Film Center (36 East 8th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).
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