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Art exhibition reveals Vermeer's secrets using technology to look under paintings


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There is big news in the art world.

A painting thought to be by Johannes Vermeer isn't a Vermeer after all. The 17th century Dutch master left behind few works. So take even one away, and it's a big deal. Also a big deal, new technology allowing experts to see art in a different way and help make these judgments.

Jeffrey Brown visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The painting is called Girl With a Flute. And though there have been questions about it in the past, it's long hung in Washington's National Gallery of Art as one of the museum's four works by Johannes Vermeer.

Now there are three. And Girl With a Flute is something else.

Curator Alexandra Libby:

Alexandra Libby, Co-Curator, Vermeer's Secrets: There's so many headlines: Vermeer is not a Vermeer. It's a fake.

It's not. It's not fake.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, but what is it? If it's not a Vermeer now, is it diminished? Is it a lesser painting?

Alexandra Libby: No.

Jeffrey Brown: No?

Alexandra Libby: I think it's closer -- I think we're closer to Vermeer than ever when we look at this.

Jeffrey Brown: There are just around 35 paintings in the world definitively credited to Vermeer, an extraordinarily small number for such a renowned artist.

He was the focus of a major forgery scandal in the 1940s. The exhibition shows two paintings that once hung in the gallery as authentic Vermeers. Pulling together a large group of the real ones, as the National Gallery did in a 1995 exhibition, is a big event in the art world, one that drew throngs.

What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? Libby points to the painting Woman Holding a Balance.

Alexandra Libby: This extraordinary sense of stillness and tranquility. And when you look at a painting like this, this hidden light source, you know that the sun is coming in through this window. But he hides it. But it allows this light to fall so gently on her face.

Jeffrey Brown: Now the exhibition Vermeer's Secrets offers a different kind of portrait of the artist, below the surface, at the underpainting, sometimes multiple layers of sketches, brushstrokes, and, of course, the paint itself, and shows how ever more refined cameras, like those that do remote sensing of the earth and space, can peer underneath without damaging the paintings and find hidden images, how the angle of a pen was subtly shifted to impact the overall effect, or the head of an unknown man.

Studying the images and chemical components allows scientists to create a kind of map that offers clues to how an artist worked.

John Delaney, Senior Imaging Scientist, National Gallery of Art: We're trying to look at a fingerprint that's related to the material. And then, in those maps, you can actually see the paint strokes.

Jeffrey Brown: John Delaney, the museum's senior imaging scientist, came to this work in 2007 from the aerospace industry. Now he builds cameras to look at art.

John Delaney: So, we're in position, Kate, and we can initiate the scan.

Jeffrey Brown: In the museum's lab, he and colleague Kathryn Dooley demonstrate it on a painting by another rather well-known Dutch artist, Rembrandt.

A scan captured the work beneath the face we see on the canvas.

John Delaney: But, already, we can see there's this modeling in the build of the face, especially in the shadow area. The lit side of his face, of course, is bright. But, over here, we see the shadowing coming up.

But a lot of these are not actually at the surface level. You can see it's very sharp.

Jeffrey Brown: Side-by-side images show the handling of paint and materials. And that's what we see with Vermeer in the exhibition.

It's a very different way of looking at a painting, clearly.

John Delaney: It is much more abstract, yes.


John Delaney: But what you see is...

Jeffrey Brown: You turned Vermeer into an abstract painter.

John Delaney: In a way, I suppose. Some people say our images we make a very abstract.

But you see the texture of the paint. That's the process. And that's what they wanted to know.

Jeffrey Brown: One key thing they, the curators, wanted to know is how Girl With a Flute compared to the other paintings. And it's the differences that emerged from these digital maps and images that led to the determination it's by a different artist.

John Delaney: Materialistically, it's right. The layering is right. It's the handling, the handling on the surface. And what we're learning and what we're understanding from the curators is, it also -- they also see it in the handling below and in the preparation of the paint.

Alexandra Libby: The thing about all of this work is, it's all interpretive.

Jeffrey Brown: Alexandra Libby and her colleagues feel confident Girl With a Flute is not by Vermeer, but that it is close, perhaps by someone who learned some of the masters techniques, but not all.

Previously, Vermeer was thought to work alone. These findings could begin to change that.

You're thinking about who would have done this.

Alexandra Libby: Yes. And...

Jeffrey Brown: And?

Alexandra Libby: Would that I knew.

What I hope is that museums will look anew at those follower of or imitator of, especially ones that they know, are period, are 17th century, because maybe there are more. And then we can start to really understand how maybe Vermeer was teaching or who this artist may have been.

There are -- there are more out there. I know it.

Jeffrey Brown: Oh, you do?


Alexandra Libby: I mean, I just -- I feel it.


Alexandra Libby: I feel it.

Jeffrey Brown: Imaging expert John Delaney says the science is still evolving, and more museums are using it.

John Delaney: Wait five more years, and people will know a lot more about these artists. I think we're in a pretty exciting time period by pulling this all together.

Jeffrey Brown: Vermeer's Secrets is on exhibition through January 8.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Judy Woodruff: When is a Vermeer a Vermeer? It's a big question.

And, meantime, earlier today, in The Hague in the Netherlands, climate activists targeted Vermeer's masterpiece Girl With a Pearl Earring with glue and liquid, the latest in a series of recent attacks. This video posted online showed one man pouring a can of red substance over another protester who appeared to attempt to glue his head to the glass-protected painting.

Officials say that the painting was not damaged.

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