The Frick Collection
Frick's Vermeers Reunited
Special Installation: Vermeer

Frick’s Vermeers Reunited
Extended through November 23, 2008

  Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780), Sheet of Studies Including a Portrait of Mademoiselle Clairon, 1773, Black chalk, brush and colored washes, 22.9 x 16.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Arts graphiques, Livre des Saint-Aubin, fol. 21
  Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660–61, oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague

As late as 1834, the London dealer John Smith listed “Vander Meer, of Delft” among the “scholars and imitators” of Gabriel Metsu in his renowned Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. He noted that other writers seemed to be “entirely ignorant” of this “excellent” artist, whose pictures showed “much of the elegance of Metsu, mingled with a little of the manner of De Hooge.” Smith mentioned specifically one painting by “Vander Meer,” the View of Delft, which he described as “superb.” In 1822, the picture had been acquired at a public sale for the grand sum of 2,900 guilders by the State of the Netherlands, at the behest of Willem I. It was placed on view at the Royal Picture Gallery at The Hague, now better known as the Mauritshuis, where it remains to this day.

An important turning point in the history of the taste for Vermeer came when the French art critic, journalist, and politician Théophile Thoré (1807–1869) paid a visit to the Royal Picture Gallery and had his first and unforgettable encounter with the View of Delft, sometime around 1842. “In the Museum at The Hague, a superb and most unusual landscape captures the attention of every visitor and makes a vivid impression on artists and sophisticated connoisseurs,” Thoré wrote in the Gazette des beaux-arts, almost a quarter of a century later. “It is a view of a town, with a quay, an old gatehouse, buildings in a great variety of styles, walls and gardens. . . .” The “strange” painting surprised Thoré, he confessed, as much as the famed Rembrandts on view. Not knowing to whom to attribute the arresting cityscape, he consulted the museum’s catalogue: “‘Jan van der Meer of Delft’. Heavens! Now there is someone we don’t know in France, and who deserves to be better known.” Thanks to Thoré’s enthusiasm for the forgotten painter and to his tireless quest during the next two decades to locate his works, interest in Vermeer grew. While the artists of the French avant-garde were among the first to embrace the “Sphinx of Delft,” as Thoré nicknamed him, it took almost half a century before a wider audience discovered Vermeer.

America came by its first Vermeer in 1887, when the New York financier Henry Marquand bought the splendid Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, formerly in a private collection in Ireland, for a mere $800. He gave the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889, the same year he became that institution’s second president. The picture is generally thought to be the best of the five Vermeers now in the Metropolitan’s holdings. Another Vermeer, The Concert, which earlier had been part of Thoré’s collection, crossed the Atlantic a few years later, in 1892, after Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston purchased it for 29,000 francs (about $5,800) at the Thoré estate sale in Paris. (This, by the way, is the Vermeer that was stolen from the Gardner museum in 1990.) A third Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, was brought to America shortly before the turn of the century by the New York financier Collis Huntington.

Remarkably, Huntington later told The New York Times that he had known “nothing” about Vermeer or his growing reputation when the picture was offered to him in Paris; he simply “took a fancy” to it, purchasing it for a scant 2,000 francs (about $400). It was part of Huntington’s 1900 bequest to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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