Vermeer the Forger, Part Three

Vermeer’s Visitors
There are two brief diary accounts of contemporaries meeting Vermeer: Pieter Teding van Berkhout (above) and Balthasar de Monconys (below). The former mentions seeing several Vermeer paintings of which their chief virtue was their “most extraordinary and curious perspectives”. Van Berkhout made two trips to see Vermeer originals; the first appears to have been to Pieter Van Ruijven’s digs to survey his collection*. There is no mention of a purchase, which is troubling because van Berkhout was a prominent collector. Odder still is the second diary entry, written a little more than a month after the first visit, which reads almost as if van Berkhout doesn’t recall meeting Vermeer that first time. It’s possible that Vermeer was not in attendance if van Berkhout did meet with van Ruijven the first time around.
*I’m convinced that Van Ruijven owned Vermeer’s entire output, even that which was yet to be painted. Vermeer worked for, was essentially indentured as an artist to, Van Ruijven; and that is why Van Ruijven’s son in law’s estate had over twenty Vermeer originals put up for auction in 1696.

De Monconys’ entry is more detailed: He relates how he was brought to Vermeer’s door and was told by the painter that he did not have any work at home but that there was a painting at the local baker’s shop. The party arrived at Hendrick van Buyten’s bakery and De Monconys was not impressed, writing that the asking price for the painting which contained only a single figure was not worth one tenth of what the baker claimed he paid for it. Curiously, the figure van Buyten quotes is 600 guilders, exactly what Vermeer’s credit debt at the bakery was at his death.
There is a school of thought that the price quote was an attempt to con a foreigner into believing Vermeer sold at top dollar and that his work would soon be as notable in finer circles as Dou and Metsu, among others working steadily for the nobles.
It’s not impossible that an attempt to get Vermeer in the black and his credit back on track with the locals required a joint effort to promote the fiction that Vermeer was selling top shelf stuff. Rich people usually pay others to tell them what’s good for their reputation and here a man of means was thought to be vulnerable to a ruse without his house scholars to steer him away from a bum steer. As it happened, De Monconys knew what he liked and the under populated canvas was not worth the investment in Vermeer’s career. The Frenchman returned to court and Vermeer missed a chance to have his name go abroad.
Yes Means No
What’s revelatory in these two encounters is the reaction, somewhat subtle, to the viewing of Vermeer’s work. Van Berkhout describes Vermeer as an “excellent painter” which on the surface sounds like an endorsement. However, there are more enthusiastic honorifics available, such as Master, which Vermeer was actually entitled to refer to himself as within the ranks of the St. Luke’s artisan guild, but which van Burkhout deliberately avoids. He also refers to Vermeer as celebrated, which in this context smells awfully sarcastic, as if hinting at the backwater nature of this hamlet with pretensions to political significance being so short on breeding that the perspective tricks of a Vermeer drew applause.
At the same time, a more neutral interpretation would have it that van Burkhout described the “celebrated” with a certain amount of mystification but reserving personal judgment as trends sometimes have to catch up with an artist doing something as odd as what he witnessed in Vermeer’s work.
My feeling is that van Burkhout is not only recording his adventures for posterity but also as show notes for the salons where he will regale his peers with a description of his encounters. To label Vermeer as an “excellent” painter to his genteel listeners is a form of courtly politesse, a code in societal vernacular that the guy is not quite there yet without having to employ a pejorative, per se.
As a contemporary example of what I mean, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is generally dismissed as a failure, from over commercialization to poor living facilities, not to mention attempted mass murder by bombing. At the closing ceremonies, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC, said “Well done, Atlanta,” and labeled the games, “most exceptional”, a valedictory universally translated as “Atlanta, you screwed the pooch!” given that Sammaranch labeled all other Olympics he was in charge of as “the best Olympics ever.”
Studied Carelessness
For a van Berkhout, raised in the most genteel environment the upper crust could provide, the idea of denigrating the obvious was not an option; one would simply elide mediocrity. However, when criticizing someone was deemed necessary, the “yes means no” form of diplomatic rhetoric practiced at the highest levels of society could slay with bloodless efficiency. And a proper gentleman should, under no circumstances, ever be seen exerting effort in doing anything, least of all dispatching an unworthy. The term for this is “sprezzatura”, in effect “studied carelessness”.
The bottom line is this man was a noted collector, and in a position to assess the best collection of Vermeer’s available and he walked away without a purchase. Not much of an endorsement.
De Monconys, who was in town on something of an intelligence mission for the Jesuits, was more plain spoken, his point specific in a reactionary way, his entry like a muttered aside that he’d shrugged off the hype and was noting the visit more for comprehensiveness than to leave a lasting testament of the failed artist.
Misreading the Room
And so stands the only eyewitness accounts outside of three or four official documents which record the existence of Johannes Vermeer of Delft. Neither witness responds to the work with cash offerings, and both likely for the same reason- the paintings are undernourished in the aesthetics of the day- just too austere for the times- nothing that would enhance the decor of each man’s collection of curios.
And on that subject, much more can be contextualized regarding the lack of enthusiasm for Vermeer’s compositional restraint. Most interiors of the wealthy were stuffed with possessions, a sign of opulence that cued the visitor that they were in the presence of real affluence. To celebrate the tasteful discretion seen in the tableaus that Vermeer was offering was a concession to the possibility that there was beauty in restraint. Given the aesthetic excesses of nobles and above, Vermeer smacked of deprivation; and given the few expensive items appearing within many of the paintings, each affair seemed staged, as if the viola da gambas, Turkish rugs, ornate frames and apparent original oils on the walls were rented, that the models were indeed models and not native to the interiors, that the artifice was not only implausible for that level of society, but down right depressing.

However, if what the viewer was looking at was an accurate reflection of Vermeer’s circumstances, what family would possess such luxurious items and in such short supply? A family in collapse and methodically selling or having their effects repossessed. Who of influence and means would want such a scene staring their guests in the face? The whole thing is a buzz kill. I mean, it’s one thing to have a show of middle class existence as long as the chins on the women are multiplied, the babies well fed and the assorted flora and fauna succulent and gleaming. But Woman in Blue Reading a Letter has all the celebratory feel of an unwed mother imprisoned in a convent and reading a summons that her unborn child will become a ward of the state and the fallen woman will be lucky to get the position of scullery maid.

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5 Responses to Vermeer the Forger, Part Three

  1. daddieuhoh says:

    I’m quite enjoying this series. Using ‘excellent’ as a subtle dig reminds me of The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.). For example: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/humor/ambiguous-recommendations.html

    Also, I’m guessing that between now and the original writing of this captivating tale you’re probably much more likely now to suspect that the Atlanta Olympics Bombing etc. was all a big hoax.

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    • tyronemccloskey says:

      Of course- I’m adding an addendum after the final chapter to review the changes in my own perceptions since 2011 even though the series posted here at POM is about 98% the original release-

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  2. Inside Baseball says:

    Regarding the Atlanta Olympics bombing, it’s interesting how little interest the authorities took in solving the case. As is apparently quite common they will ask anyone who was taking pictures or video to contact them, and then not bother to follow up on it. A local I know suspected at the time that it was done by the son of someone highly connected, since they weren’t making much of a real effort. I guess now we know why that was. There really was “nothing to see here.”

    Only one person was allegedly killed, even though they counted a cameraman who allegedly had a heart attack while running to cover it. I thought at the time how extremely foolish it was to blow it up into such a big deal, which would seem to have the effect of inviting more of the same. Then of course, the laughable story that Eric Rudolph, a modern day Bonnie Prince Charlie, was behind it. He was a convenient catch all for several things. Well before I had any inkling of all this fakery, I figured Rudolph was a fictional character. But my suspicion was that the cops were using him as an excuse to look like they were competent. Oh, the bliss of ignorance!

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    • daddieuhoh says:

      I spent a bit of time looking into this yesterday. Rudolph was also the fall guy for a few other bombings, including one of an abortion clinic. In that one, a nurse named Emily Lyons was allegedly severely injured by the blast. I looked into her story, and it sure seems legit. That is to say, the pictures seem to show genuine injury that more or less matches the description of what happened, as far as I can tell. Here is her website: http://www.emilylyons.com/webs/emily/

      I’m not saying this lends more credence to the Atlanta bombings as something real. But if these injuries are real, then it leaves us with some interesting questions. For example, perhaps this bomb was real (planted not by Rudolph but by some intelligence agents) but not intended to harm anyone and she got caught in the crossfire by accident? Or deliberately? Or perhaps her injuries were from some other event at some other time and they placed her in this story? Or it was fake and I’m just not sharp enough to see it. If that’s the case, I can at least say that they sure faked injuries a lot better back in the 1990s…

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      • tyronemccloskey says:

        O’er glancing this Rudolph’s bio, he’s another McVeigh-like concoction tasked with actually pushing forward the abortion/gay agenda- So loathsome is he and his politics that everyone runs to the other side of the issue in sympathy for the victims- He’s no more a prisoner in Super Max than McVeigh was a victim of lethal injection-
        As for injuries, it is very possible to just pay injured people to pose as victims for one fake event or another- Studying any video interviews of said victims might reveal whether they even know what they are supposed to be victims of- A good editor can make anyone look like a victim of “terrorists” when in fact they were in, say, a common car accident-

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