New Discoveries Offer Answers to Mystery of Frick's Vermeer

Two conservators seated at a table in a lab, one looking at Vermeer's "Mistress and Maid" painting through a microscope


Perhaps more than any other artist at The Frick Collection, the enigmatic Johannes Vermeer raises more questions than he answers in his intimate masterpieces. Now, thanks to a collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Doerner Institut in Germany, the “sphinx of Delft” has revealed some of his hidden secrets.

The Frick’s celebrated Mistress and Maid (1666–67), the third Vermeer and last painting Henry Clay Frick purchased for his collection, has long been a topic of debate. One of only about thirty-six recognized paintings by the Dutch seventeenth-century artist, the canvas displays the domestic setting and bravura lighting effects typical of Vermeer. What stands out is the boldly stark background usually reserved for single-figure studies, like the famed Girl with a Pearl Earring, an anomaly that caused scholars to question its originality.

A recently published technical study has confirmed that Vermeer indeed painted the background—a barely visible curtain once green in color—after abandoning a sketch of a tapestry or painting with multiple figures behind the cryptic action in the foreground. The Met and Doerner Institut’s detailed study, assisted by the Frick’s former Associate Research Curator Margaret Iacono, settles this mystery and uncovers other technical details that shed new light on Vermeer’s artistic process.

Below, read the Met’s blog post on the conservation project and its groundbreaking revelations on one of the Frick’s most beloved, and rare, works of art. To explore the painting even more, check out Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, the second publication in the Frick Diptych Series.

Take a Look Behind the Curtain of Johannes Vermeer's Enigmatic Masterpiece

June 18, 2020
Dorothy Mahon, Conservator, Department of Paintings Conservation; Silvia A. Centeno, Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research; Federico Carò, Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research; Margaret Iacono, Former Associate Research Curator, The Frick Collection, New York; Heike Stege, Head of the Scientific Department, Doerner Institut, Munich; and Andrea Obermeier, Chemical Technical Assistant, Natural Sciences Department, Doerner Institut, Munich

Woman seated at a table, looking back at a woman handing her a letter

In Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid (1666–67), at The Frick Collection in New York City, two women contemplate a newly arrived letter. The elegantly dressed mistress is dramatically lit, while the modest maid emerges from the dark background to deliver the message. The letter's inscrutable contents and the mistress' ambiguous expression evoke a sense of mystery and foreboding.

The painting also appears somewhat unfinished, given the simple curtain in an otherwise dark and empty background. Art historians have puzzled over this since at least since the 1950s. Some have even suggested that the painting was completed after Vermeer's death to make it salable.

Scientists, conservators, and art historians interrogate works of art by looking at them under the microscope. They also use non-invasive analytical and imaging techniques including X-radiography, infrared reflectography, and macro X-ray fluorescence. In some cases, important questions cannot be answered with these techniques alone, so experts use surgical tools to take micro-samples; imagine something the size of a period in ten-point font. These samples are often kept in archives so they can be revisited when more powerful micro-analytical methods become available.

Today, some of the questions surrounding Vermeer's enigmatic painting have been put to rest. The team's recent investigation using infrared reflectography, macro X-ray fluorescence, and the analysis of a few micro-samples reveals that the composition began with a tapestry or painting filling the background, which Vermeer later painted over, perhaps deciding that a dark, plain backdrop would better focus the viewer's attention on the women's interactions. In the previous background, Vermeer sketched at least four human figures and other elements in a mixture of black and earth colors, except for a few features composed of a copper-based greenish or bluish pigment. These were only blocked in and not fully painted. Maps, mirrors, paintings, and tapestries frequently embellish Vermeer's painted interiors, so the initial presence of one such element is consistent with other works in the artist's oeuvre.

Comparison of four colored X-rays of an oil painting in a grid

Our team's study also established that the curtain is original, and that an alteration of its color and form is responsible for its seemingly unfinished appearance today. We can now confirm that this change in color results from the degradation of copper-based pigments like copper resinate. Pigments of the resinate, oleate, and verdigris families are known to change from green to brown as they age.

The tablecloth was originally green and looks blue today due to the fading of a yellow lake, but retains its modeling and visual impact. Notably, the inventory of Vermeer's estate includes a green tablecloth. Since he was an artist keenly interested in direct observation, it is probable that elements of this composition are depictions of his own possessions.

This collective detective work, undertaken by a wide range of professionals, continues to reveal important clues about the artists, their techniques, and their creative processes. We hope that our findings bring you even closer to Vermeer and his extraordinary work.

Read more about these discoveries in our recent article for Heritage Science.

Paintings Conservator Dorothy Mahon and Research Scientist Silvia Centeno of The Metropolitan Museum of Art examining Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), Mistress and Maid, 1666–67. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 31 in. (90.2 x 78.7 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

Elemental distribution maps obtained by macro X-ray fluorescence in Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Clockwise, from top left: iron, copper, calcium, and potassium. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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