Authenticity and restoration

We somehow managed to get ticket to the Vermeer exhibition, and even better it included an hour-long lecture about the works in the exhibition beforehand.

It wasn’t touched on, but there’s some dispute whether each work in the exhibition was actually painted by Vermeer. For example: Girl with a Flute.

The lecture did touch on the fact that all of the paintings had gone through some level of restoration, and thus many of the paintings were shiny and bright. For example: View of Delft.

In a few cases older parts of the paintings were uncovered and “restored”. For example: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

This all raises questions that I’ve been thinking about for a long time about tradition, continuity, and the particular Western obsession with finding a pure, primordial version of things.

What is a true Vermeer painting? He wasn’t particular popular in his lifetime nor in the generations immediately following his life. And ‌Girl with a Pearl Earring certainly wasn’t his most popular work until quite recently. Thus any perception of a work of Vermeer, or the mere fact that almost 400 years after the fact we’re looking as his artwork rather than someone else’s, carries with it more of the history of the painting than a connection the “pristine” original.

And so if people for generations, even centuries appreciated Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window with a plain off-white wall, it’s an odd break with continuity to “restore” the original when we’ll never be able to experience the original as the original.

For what’s it worth, my favorite work on display was ‌Woman Holding a Balance. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all understated and very much open to interpretation. A lady is holding a small scale, seemingly weighing her gold jewelry while a painting of the Last Judgement overlooks her. Is this a contrast between a material, secular person opposed to the spiritual weighing of Christ? Or is her weighing somehow complimentary to His? Perhaps the appeal of Vermeer over later, more well-documented artists is that we just don’t know that much about him or his motives, making it much easier to impose our own on his work.