Johannes Vermeer lived in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The painter died at age 43 in 1675. What is arguably his most famous work—and not just because of Scarlett Johansson—is Girl with a Pearl Earring. (It almost seems as though it is one in the “Girl” series, as among his other works are Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, and Girl with the Red Hat.) Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665. Quite a talent at 33.
While it is a painting that is certainly wonderfully executed and valued as one of the world’s masterpieces (it is sometime referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the North”), the painting was lost for 200 years. In 1881 a collector, Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, bought a painting that was in not particularly good condition for not a whole lot of money. When cleaned it was discovered to be what is now considered to be one of Vermeer’s masterpieces.
There are approximately 35 Vermeer oils in existence. There were thought, until recently, to be approximately 36.
In 1942 the U.S. National Gallery of Art received a collection of paintings known as the Widener Collection. The recent provenance of the painting had it discovered in 1906 by Abraham Bredius, director of the Mauritshuis in the Hague; the Mauritshuis happens to be the museum that des Tombe had donated Girl with a Pearl Earring to in 1902. Arguably Bredius was familiar with Vermeer’s work. Girl with a Flute was purchased by Joseph Widener in 1923. René Gimpel, an influential Parisian art dealer, wrote of the sale in his diary, “It’s truly one of the master’s most beautiful works.”
The name of the painting may be familiar to you because earlier this month the National Gallery came to the conclusion that it isn’t by Vermeer. As the museum’s Marjorie E. Wieseman wrote of Girl with a Flute, “With present knowledge, we cannot be sure whether it was created in honest emulation or with the deliberate intent to fool a discerning 17th-century Dutch art market, as it fooled connoisseurs in the early 20th century.”
Think about it: for more than 100 years people—experts and laypeople alike—looked at the painting and knew it to be a Vermeer. Hundreds of thousands of people looked at Girl with a Flute and saw a Vermeer. Yes, there had been some serious doubts over the years by some scholars, but until recently they were all dismissed. It could be thought that it was in the National Gallery of Art’s best interest that the painting be a Vermeer, not something “From the School of Vermeer” (especially as it is thought that Vermeer had no pupils, which would have made that attribution a bit dodgy in and of itself).
In 1976 an album titled 3.47 E.S.T. was released. The band’s name was Klaatu, which certainly went to “Klaatu barada nikto!” from the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu was played by Michael Rennie; Keanu Reeves played him in the 2008 remake. A theme of the movie(s) is a misunderstanding of what seems to be known.
3.47 E.S.T. was to become thought to be an album by The Beatles, not a Canadian group. But there was no written information saying who is who on the album. People who listened thought they heard the Beatles. A music reviewer in Rhode Island in 1977 suggested that it might have been the band. Presumably Klaatu, while not trying to fool anyone, did far better in terms of sales because people thought it was a Beatles album. Something along the lines of the National Gallery getting more visitors who have an interest in Vermeer.
Some people wanted to believe that it was a Beatles album because, of course, the Beatles broke up in 1970, so were they to have gotten back together—Imagine! It was, to borrow a line from Samuel Johnson on a completely unrelated subject, “the triumph of hope over experience.” Wanting something to be so isn’t, necessarily, the case.
In 1998 British author Stephen Baxter published a short story titled “The Twelfth Album.” Essentially, it is about an album from an alternative universe, one in which The Beatles continued to exist. Tracks that were released by individual Beatle members (e.g., “Gimme Some Truth,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”) are recorded by The Beatles II and an album titled God was released in that universe.
(Yes, there is some question about the numbering of albums, but the characters in the story don’t consider Yellow Submarine to be anything more than a George Martin production and Magical Mystery Tour isn’t counted.)
But isn’t it conceivable that there is The Twelfth Album, something that the Beatles in the universe as we know it, created, something that perhaps will be released only after the last remaining member dies? Would anyone accept it as being an album by The Beatles, anyone who wouldn’t have thought that 3.47 E.S.T. was?
Fanciful, but then there are those who looked at Girl with a Flute (and it isn’t actually a flute that she’s holding but a recorder, yet the accepted title misidentifies it) and saw a Vermeer.
There are only so many people—a small number, indeed—who had the artist’s talent. And a similarly small number of musicians with the talents that Lennon, Harrison, Starr and McCartney had or have.
Wouldn’t we like The Twelfth Album the same way curators and scholars wanted what isn’t a Vermeer to be one?
It is interesting how we can know something that isn’t but not necessarily know what is.
From 3:47 EST (Capitol, 1976).