/ Essays / 2004 / No.3: Echoes of Vermeer

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.3March, 14 2004

Echoes of Vermeer

Forgery and the New Vermeer. Where have the value and wonder of this Dutch master lead? And what about today?

Woman Reading a Letter
Figure 1:
Woman Reading a Letter
Hans Antonius van Meegeren

With friendly permission of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
This isn’t a history of Vermeer’s reception. Jan Vermeer, who lived from 1632 to 1675, has already been introduced in essay no. 2. Here, however, I’d like to gesture toward two remarkable, contrasting developments in the wake of his influence and impact.

The Counterfeiter

Already during the 17th century, and while he was very much alive, Vermeer received considerable adulation and awe. His style as well as subjects would be copied then and in the years to come. But the most audacious counterfeiter of all was Hans Antonius van Meegeren, from 1937 onward. A highly talented Dutch artist, he found success elusive until he began, not to copy Vermeer, but ‘merely’ to imitate his style, a procedure that escaped the watchful eye of contemporary critics and art historians who failed to detect his forgeries.
With a fine-tuned instinct, he anticipated the growing sales value of Vermeer on the international art market. Thus, he turned to Vermeer’s Christian themes as less conspicuous and also answering to his epoch’s expectations, should undiscovered Vermeers come to light. As a result, for years, his ‘Vermeers’ were indeed ‘discovered’ and sold to collectors and museums for significant sums. It was only the political circumstances at the end of the Second World War that permitted his unmasking. And this revelation occurred, I might suggest, with considerable hesitation.
First, van Meegeren was accused by his native land of collaborating with Hitler’s regime. As everyone knew, he had sold a ‘Vermeer’ to Hermann Göring during the Nazi era. Although van Meegeren, in court, swore he was a mere counterfeiter in order to escape the charge of collaboration, the judge remained unconvinced. True, in prison he had painted a new ‘Vermeer’ for his accuser (Jesus among the Doctors) but the painting sold to Göring, “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,” had been proven by laboratory tests to derive from the 17th century. By reproducing pigments of that era, the counterfeiter fell into his own trap. Only in 1958 would renewed tests reveal that this painting, too, was a forgery, and I can just imagine the expression on the earlier experts’ faces. Of course, they hadn’t then enjoyed the technological advances available later on. For collectors and museums, however, the damage was considerable. Thus the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam possesses the counterfeit of “Woman Reading a Letter” (figure 1).

A forgery only makes sense, as we know, if the counterfeited artist is worth a great deal in the art market because in such cases, the experts themselves will be all the more ready to accept as genuine a forgery.

Young Woman Reading Glamour / Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster / Woman in blue reading a letter
Figure 2:
Young Woman Reading Glamour, 1999, Jonathan Janson (USA), Oil on canvas; 18 1/2 in. x 19 in.
With friendly permission of Jonathan Janson

Figure 3:
Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster, Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675), canvas, 83 x 65 cm
With friendly permission of Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Photo: Estel/Klut, gallery-number: 1336

Figure 4:
Woman in blue reading a letter, C, Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)
With friendly permission of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

New Vermeer

Things are quite different when today, an artist devotes himself enthusiastically to Vermeer’s influence.
For years now, American Jonathan Janson has been living, not in Delft, but in Rome, and has busied himself with Vermeer’s work and the history of his reception. A comprehensive website offers his research results, discussions and relevant publications, an exhaustive resource on Vermeer.

So far, so good. With regard to my research into reading women, it’s astonishing to find a present-day artist who has not only developed an intensive interest in Vermeer, has become an expert on the historical literature and promotes further studies, but also follows the master’s path in his own painting.
Now, Janson isn’t copying Vermeer in the usual sense – obviously, he’s not engaged in discovering ‘new’ Vermeers – yet he calls his pictures New Vermeers. Clearly, he makes major demands of his own work.

To a large extent, Janson has adopted the subjects, composition, style and technique of Vermeer.

His pictures came to my attention because he has produced at least three canvasses with women reading or writing. Neither a counterfeiter nor a copier, he interprets these motifs in his own contemporary manner. I would call them examples of homage to Vermeer.
He modernizes the theme in that, for instance, in the picture “Young Woman Reading Glamour” (figure 2) he presents a young woman in a yellow dress reading a magazine and not an old-fashioned hand-written letter. He also adds a screen (tv or computer monitor?) sitting on the table. If you look at Vermeer’s picture “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (figure 3) you will also find there an open pane. In contrast, Vermeer’s “Woman in blue reading a letter” (figure 4) shows a book on the table. Jansen’s picture features a simple yellow jacket, reminiscent of the shiny yellow ermine in many Vermeer pictures. The coiffeur and clothing style appear to have been inspired by “Woman in blue reading a letter”(figure 4).The composition, borrowing elements from both of these Vermeer canvasses, appears to have been inspired by them.

Girl Listening to a Radio
Figure 5:
Girl Listening to a Radio, 1998
Jonathan Janson (USA)
Oil on canvas; 15 in. x 14 1/4 in.

With friendly permission of Jonathan Janson
If we turn now to Janson’s “Girl Listening to a Radio” (figure 5), we’ll find a composition that echoes in detail Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing” (figure 6). Still, minutiae such as the coiffeur and clothing are clearly modern versions. And naturally the woman is writing not with a feather but an up-to-date utensil. That she’s also listening to music, we might conclude only from the fact that a radio has replaced the inkstand on the table. In any event the woman has been certainly interrupted as she casts an annoyed glance at the viewer. In this picture Jansen detours slightly from his model.

A Lady Writing
Figure 6:
A Lady Writing, ca 1665
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas; 45 x 39,9 cm

Image permitted for this size by: National Gallery of Art, Washington. For a larger image it is necessary to visit the website.
In his picture “Girl Writing with a Bic” (figure 7) Janson has chosen to excerpt from Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter” (figure 8). Here he reduces the writer to that single activity alone, other details having been eliminated and the maid, too, erased. Instead of a hat the young girl at the table wears a headscarf. Complementing the carpet on the table, typical of the Netherlands but only half of which is showing, she is wearing a green blouse and jacket.

Of course we would need a more careful comparison of Jansen’s canvases with those of Vermeer to determine what has stayed the same, been adapted or changed. But what we’re really interested in here are the reasons why a contemporary artist would have borrowed the reading and writing women from Vermeer.

Regarding his motives, the artist himself is now given the floor.

Mr Janson, what brought you to study Vermeer so intensively?

I developed a strong interest in painting as an adolescent, especially in modern forms of painting. Abstract expressionists such as Pollock and de Koning fascinated me most. I decided to pursue painting seriously and enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Art in Providence, R.I., USA. The artistic milieu was quite stimulating. Discussions of conceptual art and pop art dominated discussion. Realism,
Girl Writing with a Bic / Lady writing a letter, with her Maid
Figure 7:
Girl Writing with a Bic, 1996-97
Jonathan Janson (USA)
Oil on canvas; 12 1/4 in. x 11 in.

With friendly permission of Jonathan Janson

Figure 8:
Section of: Lady writing a letter, with her Maid
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)

With friendly permission of The National Gallery of Ireland. Copyright: Any form of reproduction, transmission, performance, display, rental, lending or storage in any retrieval system without the consent of the copyright holders is prohibited.
other than for of artistic training, was tacitly shunned. In my first year I took an obligatory art history course and was exposed for the first time to the paintings of Vermeer. From that moment on, my interest in Vermeer’s painting has never waned. His works seem to have another dimension in respect to contemporary realists and realists of other times and at the same time were based on extremely subtle abstract foundations.

What attracted you so much that you decided to follow in Vermeer’s footsteps in art?

It seemed to me that Vermeer’s art described the nuances and secrets of his contemporary world, the world in which he participated as a human being first, and as an artist and rational being second. Twentieth century art seems to confront above all the modern world from a conceptual and theoretical point of view. The distance created by a more theoretical approach seemed to denote not so much a genuine interest in philosophical questions as rather an excessive consciousness of one’s role as an artist and an unconscious fear of exposing oneself personally.

What did you have in mind painting three works with reading women?

The three women reading are immersed in somewhat contradictory activities: self introspection and narcissism. The women who read in Vermeer’s times, read with the same expectancy, need for self gratification and thirst for knowledge as they do today.

Mr Janson, thank you very much.

[translated by Rosa von Gleichen]

Links & further information:

[1] Jonathan Janson: Essential Vermeer

Reader comments:

Il philosopho
BArabasch from Bamberg, Deutschland wrote on January, 16 2011: Ich habe das Bild Jonathan Janson "il filosofo" - eine ebensolche Vermeer- Rezeption. Das Werk ist im Werkverzeichnis enthalten und wurde 1982 gemalt.

Dr.Richard Barabasch
Paradiesweg 2 d
96049 Bamberg

Englische Version
Henner from , wrote on March, 14 2004: Wieso wird die amerikanische Flagge und nicht der englische Union Jack verwandt?

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