While taking inventory in preparation for an estate sale in Yorkshire County, England, a pair of agents stumbled upon an astonishing collection of canine-inspired oil paintings by Johannes Vermeer. Displacing David Hockney from the “dog art” pedestal, the agents uncovered 243 oil paintings featuring dogs as subjects from the separate storage unit that sat untouched for decades on the property of a castle in the town of Hawes. The unbelievable discovery explains why there were thought to be so few works by Vermeer, as only some 35 paintings were previously attributed to the artist.
Art conservators from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam confirmed that all of the paintings were from the hand of the Dutch painter after conducting material tests and analyzing the signatures in verso. In an interview with Hyperallergic, one of the estate sale agents said that they were still “breathless” from the discovery after the paintings were attributed to Vermeer.
“We didn’t think it was pawssible — ehm, possible, to uncover a trove like this,” they said. “In a small village and with the fact that the garage hadn’t been touched in years, we expected to sift through rubbish that nobody wanted and toss everything in the skip.”
While conservators at the Rijksmuseum work fastidiously to restore the paintings that were kept in dark, damp conditions for decades, they provided Hyperallergic with images of several paintings in the collection. One depicts a small white dog sleeping beside a green glass bottle, likely dated between 1670 and 1672. Another, which portrays a hunting dog wearing a pearl earring, is thought to be related to Vermeer’s most famous work, “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” (1665), a painting that experts now affirm was but a rough study for the canine masterpiece.
Art historians now believe that Vermeer’s true aspiration was to become a famous dog portraitist, and that his masterful grasp of light and expert rendering of intimate domestic interiors were “just a side hustle,” affirmed Delft-based Vermeer specialist Aletta van der Poedel.
“There have been dogs in his paintings before — sure,” van der Poedel told Hyperallergic as the world tries to make sense of these works. “Diana and her Companions” (c. 1653) shows a hunting dog with its back facing the viewer, and van der Poedel also referenced the X-ray image of Vermeer’s “A Maid Asleep” (1657) that shows a dog in the doorway that the painter eventually chose to cover up.
“But dogs have never appeared as primary subjects in Vermeer’s paintings until now, I suppose,” van der Poedel continued. “Perhaps he was drawn to the soft quality and color contrast in the fur. He may have wanted to bring more attention to canine domesticity by highlighting that softness.”
The discovery happens to coincide with the largest Vermeer retrospective in history at the Rijksmuseum, which has been so popular that resale tickets are going for hundreds and even thousands. A curator for the Amsterdam institution confessed she was relieved the finding was made after the works in the exhibition were selected, as “God only knows how the lines would be if people had known Vermeer was a dog painter.”