The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has five, not counting one now established as fake. The National Gallery of Art in D.C. has four, not including its two known examples of forgeries. But no West Coast museum owns a single painting by the widely celebrated — and imitated — Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
So the fact that the Norton Simon Museum is borrowing a Vermeer from the Metropolitan — one accepted by scholars as authentic — is good news for any local fan of the Dutch master. The painting, “Woman with a Lute,” believed to date from 1662-63, will be on display July 8 through Sept. 26.
The painting is one of nearly a dozen so-called “pearl” pictures by Vermeer, featuring women wearing pearls that the artist polished to perfection. One of the most famous “pearl” paintings, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” inspired the 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier and the 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson. Here, the subject wears a pearl choker and large pearl-drop earrings, as she sits at the table holding her lute.
Familiar Vermeer props abound, from the map of Europe hanging behind the sitter to the ermine-trimmed jacket that she wears. Norton Simon chief curator Carol Togneri calls it “a classic Vermeer” in another respect as well. “That magical way he can reproduce light coming into a room or reflecting on a single pearl earring. It’s a diffused type of light, and he’s absolutely virtuosic when it comes to this ability to relay light through a leaded glass window or unidentified source,” she says.
The painting also has the emotional elusiveness typical of Vermeer, as it remains psychologically inscrutable despite its precisely detailed surface. “Is the map an indication that she longs for a husband or lover who is away?” Togneri wonders. Or, “does the fact that the chair is pulled out indicate she is waiting for someone to sit down and play a duet with her?”
Little is known about the painting’s earliest owners. But Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate whose heirs went on to found the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, bequeathed the work to the Metropolitan Museum when he died in 1900. It has never been displayed in California.
Vermeer worked in Delft at a time when the merchant class and art market were both taking off, but he made relatively few paintings before his death at age 43. Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan, writes that Vermeer painted “perhaps about 45 (of which 36 are known today).” Both numbers have been in flux over the last century because of the flood of imitations discovered, including those by the notorious forger Han van Meegeren, who successfully avoided criminal charges that he collaborated with the Nazis and sold them a Vermeer by proving that the painting in question was actually a fake of his own making.
Generally, the Norton Simon is not known for borrowing or lending works. But the Pasadena museum has partnered with the Frick Collection and the National Gallery of Art to periodically borrow masterpieces. In 2008, it showed another Vermeer under this agreement: “A Lady Writing” from the National Gallery.
The new loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not part of this alliance. Rather, it’s the sort of trade that’s common in the museum business when one institution covets another’s painting for a particular show. In this case, the Metropolitan sought to borrow the Norton Simon Raphael painting “Madonna and Child with Book” to round out a 2006 Raphael exhibition. In exchange, it offered Vermeer’s “Woman with a Lute.”
Togneri plans to install the Vermeer in what the museum calls its “Rembrandt gallery,” featuring its prized Dutch 17th-century paintings. There it will hang alongside works such as “Woman at her Toilette” by Gabriel Metsu, another Dutch interior filled with images of musicality and melancholy.
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Image: "Woman with a Lute," ca. 1662–63 by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–75), oil on canvas from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900.