A speculative theory holds that Maria Vermeer was not only a model for her father but also an artist who created several of the paintings attributed to him. Could it be true?
ifteen years ago, a distinguished academic publisher brought out a densely argued, lavishly illustrated, wildly erudite monograph that seemed to completely reconceive the study of Johannes Vermeer. The author, an art historian named Benjamin Binstock, said that he had discerned the existence of an entirely new artist—Vermeer’s daughter Maria, the young woman Binstock had also identified as the likely model for Girl With a Pearl Earring—to whom he attributed seven of the 35 or so paintings then conventionally ascribed to Vermeer. To hear Binstock tell it, Maria’s paintings include one of the most popular: Girl With a Red Hat, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. He believes that painting and another at the National Gallery are self-portraits by Maria, and that she is also the artist behind two out of the three Vermeers at the Frick, in New York; two out of the five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York; and one in the private Leiden Collection.
I happened upon Binstock’s book, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, not long after it was published, in 2008; at the time, I was picking up pretty much anything about Vermeer (and writing about Vermeer myself). I found the author’s argument by turns absorbing, perplexing, and confounding, but also curiously plausible and certainly worth entertaining. I was struck by how Binstock’s account helped explain the smattering of “misfit paintings”—those strangely uncharacteristic efforts, especially toward the end of Vermeer’s career, whose attributions were regularly being contested (or defended) by experts. So I was eager to see how the wider community of scholars and curators was going to respond.
The establishment did not respond at all. There was not a single academic review—not then and not ever. I started broaching the subject with some of the experts I’d encountered during my own forays into Vermeer and was urged to give the book the widest possible berth. Its arguments were ridiculed (privately) as preposterous, and Binstock himself was dismissed (privately) with disdain. No one seemed willing to engage with Binstock’s actual contentions.
Which was strange, because I could imagine the arguments the Vermeer establishment might have made. If Vermeer didn’t paint all of the works attributed to him, then why is there no record of Vermeer ever having had any kind of assistant, despite the strict rule of the local painters’ guild (of which Vermeer was for a time the head) that assistants be registered? How could a girl as young as Maria—a teenager, if Binstock’s chronology is correct—have possibly created a painting as extraordinary as Girl With a Red Hat? Also: Why would Maria have suddenly stopped painting—and isn’t it too much of a coincidence that she stopped painting when her father died? And is Binstock’s chronology even correct? The dates he assigns to paintings are crucial to his narrative, but some differ significantly from the dates proposed by others, providing ample scope for debate. Critics could have raised these and other questions—but again, no one did.
I decided to seek Binstock out, and across a series of visits more than a decade ago began to see what may have been some of the reason for the lack of engagement. Then living in northern Manhattan, Binstock was no longer academically affiliated—he’d somehow managed to burn through not one but two highly competitive tenure-track positions—and seemed a bit lost. He had a Gibraltar-size chip on his shoulder, and he could be prickly and cantankerous. And yet he was so guileless—his modus operandi, he once joked, was to shoot himself in both feet and then shout “Nobody move!”—that his manner could be almost endearing.
At the time, I happened to be directing something called the New York Institute for the Humanities, at NYU, and I decided to give Binstock’s theory a whirl in a public symposium. In the months leading up to the day-long convocation, in 2013, I spent hours trying to coach the protagonist (“Be nice!” I’d insist. “Can’t you just be nice?”), and he succeeded in presenting a civil and indeed congenial demeanor. (You can access a video of Binstock’s presentation here.) Others who spoke that day included artists (Chuck Close, April Gornik, Vincent Desiderio) as well as generalist art historians and other scholars (Martha Hollander, James Elkins, Anthony Grafton). The idea was to subject Binstock’s arguments to a stress test, and I myself—eager to hear the strongest arguments against Binstock, as I still am—occasionally took the position of devil’s advocate. Those who spoke at the symposium had a wide range of responses but were unanimous in feeling that Binstock deserved a hearing. Not a single Vermeer specialist could be persuaded to participate.
The years passed. I moved on, and, to an extent, so did Binstock. He married a clarinetist named Meighan Stoops and the couple moved to Amsterdam, where they soon had two children. Binstock established a niche for himself as an independent scholar and editor working with wealthy private clients in a range of areas involving art connoisseurship and other fields in the humanities.
And then, just recently, things began to shake in the conventionally staid world of Vermeer. Restorers in Dresden made a drastic and controversial intervention upon one of their own Vermeer canvases, the beloved Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. They literally peeled away the exquisitely rendered, light-bathed blank background behind the woman to reveal a painting of Cupid hanging on the wall, which was clearly Vermeer’s initial impulse, though it may also have been Vermeer himself who’d chosen to paint over it (don’t get Binstock started on this!). Meanwhile, senior curators and technical experts at the National Gallery built an entire show around its curators’ surprise revelation that one of the gallery’s Vermeers, Girl With a Flute, wasn’t by Vermeer at all—as Binstock had already argued—and must instead have been painted by some assistant, though no such assistant had been previously known (by them, anyway) to have existed. Finally, the Frick, closed for renovation, announced that it would allow its own three Vermeers to travel for the first time ever; curators at the august Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, took advantage of this to mount the most ambitious Vermeer retrospective of all time—28 works in total. Notwithstanding the National Gallery’s misgivings, the Rijksmuseum decided to include Girl With a Flute as an actual Vermeer. (“The doubt,” one of the curators assured a local newspaper, “will disappear somewhere over the ocean.”) The exhibition opened to ecstatic acclaim in February.
I decided it might be a good time to visit Amsterdam and pay another call to Binstock.
lthough Benjamin Binstock regularly gets cast (if he is even acknowledged) as some kind of wild-eyed outsider, he is not an outsider at all. He was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1961, the third child in a high-powered though dysfunctional intellectual family. Alighting as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, in 1979, he began by majoring in Dutch. (He had a Dutch girlfriend; his mother, after her divorce from his father, had married a Dutch diplomat.) A class taught by the charismatic Svetlana Alpers—“Types of Dutch and Flemish Painting”—made him switch to art history. Binstock displayed a savant’s capacity for noting and memorizing detailed visual subtleties across virtually the entirety of the 17th-century Dutch painterly canon, coupled with an extravagant inability to observe even the most rudimentary of social niceties. “And the two were of a piece,” Elizabeth Razzano, a friend from those days, told me. “It’s not that he’s insensitive. He’s oversensitive. And yet I can’t think back on him without a wide smile spreading across my face.”
In graduate school, Binstock began falling away from current trends in art history, which variously favored esoteric iconographic readings of individual paintings, or specialized technical analyses, or ever more narrowly focused investigations of topics pitched to ever more siloed academic readerships. He began instead to revel in what he saw as the core task of art history: coming to terms with the entire arc of any given artist’s career, figuring out which works belonged and which works did not, and determining the order in which the confirmed works would have been created. He paid close attention to the paintings themselves—the subject matter, the models, the style, the maturity—and how they might be informed by what one knew about an artist’s life at any moment (and vice versa). For instance, if we know that the artist’s wife gave birth to more than a dozen children, and many of the artist’s paintings feature a pregnant woman, do any possibilities suggest themselves as to who the model might be? If two paintings seem to portray the same model, does the fact that the model is a girl in one and a young woman in another offer a hint as to when the paintings were created?
After research fellowships in Germany (focusing on Rembrandt) and graduate work at Columbia (where he studied under such eminent scholars as Richard Brilliant, Leo Steinberg, and David Freedberg), Binstock completed his doctorate and accepted a post at NYU, where, alas, he was expected to teach theory and criticism rather than his true passion, the painters and paintings themselves. So that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, his attention came to focus on Vermeer and on Vermeer’s immediate precursor in Delft (and Rembrandt’s greatest student), Carel Fabritius. Armed with a book contract from the British academic publisher Routledge, Binstock spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, and then moved to the American Academy in Berlin.
At the time, only 12 paintings had been attributed to Fabritius, who died tragically young, but Binstock became convinced that he’d painted many more. In 2006, after months of visits to European museums and their storage vaults, he delivered an address to a conference in Berlin, effectively informing the top figures in Netherlandish art that they had been wrong about paintings they had been studying their entire lives. He claimed to have identified nearly 50 unacknowledged works as being by Fabritius. The talk did not go over well—one by one, participants rose to question his findings. “A career-ending performance” is how the late Walter Liedtke, then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, summarized the event for me years later. Binstock returned to New York and taught briefly at Queens College (the second tenure-track fiasco) and as an adjunct at the Cooper Union. Then, in 2008, he published his book, with its claims about Vermeer’s daughter Maria.
In Vermeer’s Family Secrets, Binstock did not merely go against the grain of conventional wisdom. He saw himself as an apostate, a heretic rising up from the very heart of the profession. At least, that’s the message of the last of the nine extraordinarily detailed and useful appendices at the end of the book (on such topics as the Vermeer family tree, the provenance of Vermeer paintings, and the disputes over dating). In the last appendix, with typical cheekiness and disregard for scholarly convention, Binstock contrived to distill the entirety of his argument into “Ninety-Five Theses,” an obvious allusion to the tract Martin Luther was said to have nailed to the door of All Saints Church, in Wittenberg, effectively launching the Reformation.
eviving close contact with Binstock after almost a decade, I found him more sedate; domestic life obviously agreed with him. Of course, I sometimes still had to weather the churning roil of his stream of consciousness. I won’t try to replicate his frenetic, perseverating mode of expression here. But when Binstock grows focused, and whenever he writes, he sets out his arguments with precision.
During the five days of my visit to Amsterdam, on the eve of the Vermeer show, we visited the Rijksmuseum together and stood spellbound in front of The Milkmaid and The Little Street. We went down to the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, to visit Girl With a Pearl Earring and, opposite her, View of Delft, which we argued about—not the attribution but the image’s deeper meanings. I thought the vantage conspicuously alluded to the devastation caused by the explosion of the armory a few years before the painting’s creation, which had killed, among many others, Carel Fabritius; Binstock disagreed. Off to the side was Fabritius’s exquisite Goldfinch (1654), on which I could still make out, once Binstock drew my eye to them, tiny pockmarks left by spray from the explosion. We went to Delft, where Binstock showed me the house (now a Delftware souvenir shop) where Vermeer had grown up; and then the site of his mother-in-law’s house, no longer there, into which Vermeer had moved when he married.
Across these various perambulations, Binstock unfurled for me the story of how, to his astonishment, he came to realize that although most catalogs and monographs provided general date ranges for Vermeer’s individual works (say, “1660–62”) and overall thematic summations, many of the date ranges varied and nobody had yet attempted a painting-by-painting analysis that put chronology and the family’s biography in the foreground. Such a timeline, with its emphasis on the relations between paintings and the artist’s development over the years, could prove immensely clarifying: Nailing down the sequence would be revelatory in itself and at the same time provoke questions. Binstock began trying to work out this timeline, using a long wall in his apartment on which he spread accurately scaled reproductions of all the paintings, shuffling and reshuffling. (The painting dates provided below are based on Binstock’s array; most of them track mainstream opinion in a general way but depart from it with respect to a number of specific paintings, in particular the ones he assigns to Maria.)
As Binstock worked on his wall, several things became apparent to him. For starters, plenty of information exists regarding Vermeer’s life, despite the endlessly repeated lament about a lack of just that. Ever since the Yale professor John Michael Montias published the results of his heroic labors—sifting through the Delft municipal archives and church registries and auction records for his highly regarded book Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (1989)—we have had a great deal of factual data. Scholars have mined the book for their studies of individual paintings. Binstock, by contrast, employed the information as one form of evidence for his chronological reconstruction of Vermeer’s life.
Moreover, using the evidence in the paintings themselves—for instance, the apparent reappearance of certain individuals—combined with what can be known or surmised about Vermeer’s life and household, Binstock attempted to identify the various models. The idea that Vermeer may have used family and household members in his paintings is not that controversial, but Binstock assigned specific individuals to specific works. In his telling, some individuals appear in multiple paintings, and their gradual aging can be used as a clue to establish—or revise—the proper chronological sequencing of Vermeer’s work.
And finally, try as Binstock might to piece together a sequence, things got somewhat bollixed, especially toward the end of Vermeer’s life. If the chronology was right, then several paintings didn’t seem to fit. For various reasons, such as style and quality, they seemed inconsistent with other Vermeer paintings that had been made, according to Binstock’s reckoning, at about the same time. Could they have come from someone else’s hand?
Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632, the son of a tavern keeper and part-time art dealer. At age 21, he married Catharina Bolnes, a neighbor and the daughter of a well-to-do matron named Maria Thins. In its general outline, especially toward the start, the course of Vermeer’s life and work as laid out by Binstock dovetails with the course laid out by others. But much of the detail Binstock provides, connecting family members to Vermeer’s paintings, is novel. His scenarios amount to hypotheses, buttressed by evidence and argument, but still hypotheses. That said, in his book, he has a disconcerting way of slipping from the conditional (Vermeer could have been …) into the self-evident indicative (Since we now know that Vermeer was …), presenting possibilities as settled facts.
One of Binstock’s key early contentions is that, in most of his paintings across the first decade of his career, Vermeer used his wife, Catharina, as his model. As Binstock sees it, she appeared initially in biblical or mythological guises—as Martha in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1653) and as Diana in Diana and Her Companions (1655). In both cases, the woman in the painting is shown to be pregnant. Soon, however, the artist began shifting from such portentous themes to genre subjects celebrating everyday life. These years saw the birth of Johannes and Catharina’s daughter Maria, in 1654, the first of what would eventually be 11 surviving children. Catharina, Binstock believes, is shown pregnant again in 1657, likely with another daughter, Elisabeth, in the exquisite Girl Reading a Letter, with its evocative bowl of ripe fruit: the earliest of Vermeer’s signature portrayals of a woman standing alone, seemingly unaware that she is being gazed upon. Binstock notes that, throughout this period, Vermeer was an achingly slow and exacting painter, his canvases taking eight or nine months to complete so that, in a sense, the husband and wife were involved in a parallel and overlapping roundelay of conception and creation.
In 1664, Vermeer began to work outdoors, first to paint his enchanting The Little Street, which Binstock believes must show the mother-in-law’s house, where Vermeer and his family lived. (He is not entirely alone in this conjecture.) Binstock points out how the differently gridded windows on the various floors align perfectly with the side windows that feature so prominently in Vermeer’s various interiors—so much so that he can tell you which painting was painted in which room. If this is indeed Vermeer’s house, then the figures in The Little Street, Binstock argues, likely include Catharina, pregnant again, sewing at the front door; the housemaid Tanneke Everpoel in the narrow side alley; and 10-year-old Maria crouched at play on the sidewalk. After The Little Street, Vermeer set off for the town’s outskirts to create what many regard as his single greatest painting, View of Delft (1665), in which, incidentally, one can make out a woman (Binstock says it’s Catharina) carrying a baby, having just disembarked from a boat.
Once Vermeer began working again in his studio, in 1666, a new figure appears in the paintings: a model Binstock identifies as Maria, now 13. In Binstock’s reconstruction, Maria took over the main role as model beginning in Woman With a Pearl Necklace and, the next year, The Art of Painting. Continuing the reconstruction: In 1670, Vermeer immortalized Maria, who would have just reached 17, as the blue-turbaned subject of Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The suggested dates of the paintings are entwined with the age of the supposed model.) Binstock is not the first to have identified the girl as the painter’s daughter—and any father of a daughter can tell you that her expression of fondness tinged with exasperation is a familiar one. Marcel Proust’s friend Jean-Louis Vaudoyer made the same connection between daughter and portrait. Writing at the time of the famous 1921 Paris Vermeer show, he trained his eye first on the young woman who posed for The Art of Painting, then at the girl wearing the pearl earring: “Here is the model with lowered eyes, probably the painter’s daughter, a child who is without any doubt the same whose divine head in the blue turban is included to torment our hearts in the exhibition at the Jeu de Paume.” An outing to that show, at Vaudoyer’s urging, was one of the largely bedridden Proust’s last excursions before his death the following year.
p to this point, the main difference between Binstock’s narrative and that of other scholars involves the way he pinpoints specific models and the conclusions he draws about specific dates. But as Vermeer enters the 1670s, Binstock’s account begins to diverge more sharply from that of the scholarly mainstream.
The most heterodox element of Binstock’s thinking has to do with Maria. In these years—starting in the late 1660s—she had been serving not only as her father’s model, Binstock argues, but also as his assistant, grinding his paints and the like. If this is so, she would have had ample opportunity to study his methods at close quarters. In time, Binstock believes, Maria began to produce paintings of her own, starting with two works on wood panels (the only two such works in the entire Vermeer canon), both self-portraits, as was often the case with beginning painters. (What other model is so easily available?) The first of the paintings Binstock attributes to her is the National Gallery’s decidedly awkward Girl With a Flute (1672) and the second, produced that same year, is the accomplished and ravishing Girl With a Red Hat. (He gives a later date for both of these paintings than other accounts do, in part because of the age of the person he believes to be the model.)
Was Vermeer known to have had an assistant? Were the daughters of other artists known to have ever taken up the brush? To the first question: No documentation says so, but last year, when the National Gallery of Art decided to reclassify Girl With a Flute as not from Vermeer’s hand, it pointed to an apprentice or student as having been the painter. I saw the gallery’s exhibition and afterward spoke with Betsy Wieseman, the head of the museum’s department of Northern European painting. She said, “For the first time, we have concrete evidence, against all previous thinking, that suggests to us that Vermeer had an apprentice, that he had a workshop with at least one such student; and that, in turn, opens all sorts of avenues for further study.” Of course, the museum’s finding did not go against all previous thinking—Binstock had made the case years earlier. He had also advanced an explanation for why no documentation from the painters’ guild, which required members to register apprentices and students, had ever turned up: There was an exception to this rule. As he wrote in his book, “A painter’s own children were never registered.”
To the second question: After the National Gallery made its announcement, an article in The Guardian included a comment from Eric Jan Sluijter, an art-history professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam. Sluijter spoke to various theories—including Binstock’s, though his name was not mentioned by the professor or the newspaper—about who the painter of Girl With a Flute might be, including that she was the painter’s daughter. “It’s not that eccentric,” Sluijter said of the idea. “It is a possibility. We know of other daughters working in their father’s studio in the seventeenth century. Often they married and then stopped painting, so they didn’t become independent artists.” As for Maria’s youthful age: Fresh and dynamic work by young artists is hardly unknown in the history of art, especially in the case of those reared in the family of other artists—the Italian Renaissance, for instance, provides many examples.
Girl With a Flute and Girl With a Red Hat constitute the first of three principal tentpoles, as it were, in Binstock’s argument for assigning the late misfit paintings to Maria Vermeer. The two paintings are clearly—Binstock insists—by the same artist. The model is the same in both, as are the chairs, and both have tapestry-like backdrops; both are on wood panels; in both, the figures occupy the same relative scale. And the artist, whoever it was, seems to have had trouble painting hands—they are awkwardly pudgy in one and occluded in the other.
Furthermore, he argues, Girl With a Red Hat in particular affords a conspicuous mirror image of the model in Girl With a Pearl Earring. Flip the image, and Red Hat girl is remarkably similar to Pearl Earring girl.
Binstock’s explanation is that Maria was painting a self-portrait—looking at herself in a mirror, trying to replicate and in a sense take ownership of the very pose she herself had had to maintain for all those hours for the earlier painting of her father’s. And if Red Hat seems slightly more static, there may be a reason for that. At the Institute for the Humanities conference, years ago, Gerri Davis, a prolific portraitist and self-portraitist, pointed out a big difference between the two genres: The faces in portraits tend to be more animated, the artist having been engaged across time in a lively interaction with the subject, whereas in self-portraits, the face muscles tend to slacken and the gaze becomes more silently intent—on itself—as is the case here.
Binstock surmises that Maria followed up Red Hat with Study of a Young Woman (1672). This painting, he believes, depicts a new sitter in the Vermeer household, whom he identifies, in part on the basis of age, as Maria’s sister and Vermeer’s second daughter, Elisabeth.
The high forehead and the bulging eyes would recur in several paintings by both Vermeers—as Binstock would put it—but in this one, the blocky, relatively rudimentary treatment of the enveloping shawl (and where exactly is the shoulder?) calls to mind similar treatments in both Flute and Red Hat. And once again there’s the inability to deal with hands. Years ago, standing beside me before this painting at the Met, the curator Walter Leidtke had zeroed in on the truncated stump as definitive proof of Vermeer’s genius, the inspired way the master had tucked the hand itself behind the frame, adding to the image’s three-dimensionality. I didn’t quite buy it.
The second tentpole of Binstock’s argument involves the three paintings at the Frick, and specifically a comparison between the two that are almost always displayed in close proximity, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658) and Girl Interrupted at Her Music (1673).
Because, seriously, Binstock asks, how could these two paintings be by the same artist? The first shows a master at the peak of his powers—the even tidal flow of light across the room; the intricate and contrasting treatment of the clothing fabrics, chair backing, and wall hanging; the subtle play of expressions across both faces; the assured placement of figures in space. The second, which mainstream dating puts closer to the first, is more tentative in every respect, and steeped in a countervailing gloom. Binstock dates it later and attributes it to Maria, noting that across history, the initial virtuosity of many young artists becomes momentarily constrained as they begin to take on the full weight of the achievements of previous masters and start bending their work accordingly. In this instance, the master is her father, and the result is a sort of pastiche, a mash-up of some of his earlier paintings—The Glass of Wine (1658), now in Berlin, and The Girl With the Wine Glass (1659), now in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, in Braunschweig—that his daughter would have had occasion to study at the nearby home of Vermeer’s principal patron. (Not that the painting isn’t arresting all the same.)
Similarly, the third Frick painting, Mistress and Maid (1673), which Binstock reassigns to Maria, is a pastiche that plays off A Lady Writing (1669), in Washington; The Love Letter (1671), in Amsterdam; and Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid (1673), in Dublin. And again there is the flattened gloom of a backdrop curtain, and the lobster-claw hands. Furthermore, recent X-rays reveal that the deep-brown background curtain covers an earlier flat backdrop, the same sort of tapestry found in Girl With a Flute and Girl With a Red Hat.
The third tentpole in Binstock’s argument involves a final Vermeer masterpiece, The Lacemaker (1674), which Binstock considers alongside another canvas, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (also 1674). Two decades ago, a technical investigation of the thread weave of Virginal’s canvas showed that it had been cut from the same bolt of canvas as The Lacemaker, leading to the painting’s wide acceptance as a Vermeer. The authors of an analysis in Burlington magazine after a 2004 Sotheby’s sale summed up the matter: “The evidence thus suggests that, if the artist who painted Young Woman Seated at a Virginal was not Vermeer, it can only have been someone who was not only intimately acquainted with his materials and practice, but also with his individual style. No such painter is known to us, and the facts therefore provide compelling arguments for accepting the painting as a work by Vermeer.”
Of course, one of the facts—about a possible apprentice—has changed significantly since 2004; the case for an apprentice has now won support from the National Gallery. Binstock regards Virginal, too, as one of Maria’s paintings. There are suggestive features: the clunky shawl, the awkward hands (“those pig trotters,” as one critic characterized them). Further, Binstock asks: Is it really plausible that these two paintings (though clearly of the same model, again Elisabeth), so markedly different in quality, could have been rendered by the same painter, one after the other, as they would have had to have been given the proximate positions of their underlying canvases on the same bolt?
he Lacemaker was Vermeer’s last painting, as Binstock sees it; and, in his telling, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal was Maria’s last painting. If it is not her best, in Binstock’s view—a step below Girl With a Red Hat—it is still fresh and vivid.
I asked Binstock why Maria, if the artist was Maria, would have suddenly stopped painting. Perhaps she didn’t, Binstock said—maybe other paintings will turn up. But Maria had married in 1674 and Vermeer had died in 1675, and “she and the family would have had ample reason to keep her authorship secret and to destroy any supporting documentation.” How so? “Well, that has to do with the circumstances of Vermeer’s own death,” Binstock said.
It’s not as though Vermeer was an old man, he explained, despite the way that some historians try to chalk up the decline apparent in his later production—the various misfit paintings—as evidence of his onrushing senescence. He was only 43, and—witness the The Lacemaker—still capable of work that was among his best. Senescence-school historians try to put The Lacemaker much earlier in his career—the Rijksmuseum catalog places it as early as 1666—but the subject seems to be his grown daughter Elisabeth, or at any rate the same model as in so many of the other later problem paintings. (This is the kind of dating issue—which also involves Girl With a Red Hat, Girl With a Flute, and Study of a Young Woman—that might lead to fruitful debate if Vermeer experts were to take Binstock’s challenge seriously.)
“Vermeer had been suffering blow after blow during those last years,” Binstock told me. The basic facts are not in dispute. In 1674, his main patron died and Maria married and left the household. More to the point, two years earlier, Louis XIV had invaded the Netherlands, cutting a terrible swath across the south of the country, and in defensive response the Dutch had breached their dikes—which, incidentally, is why you come upon so many paintings of the pharaoh’s armies being swallowed up by the Red Sea in subsequent Netherlandish painting. The tactic proved successful, but severely damaged the economy.
Vermeer’s side business as an art dealer dried up, and there he was with all those children and no income. He became frantic. At one point we know he settled a debt with the baker by giving him a large painting (which Binstock believes was the Met’s Young Woman With a Water Pitcher), but another debt was coming due, and as Catharina subsequently reported (Montias, the Yale professor, found her statement in an inquest document), “he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead,” leaving the surviving family in desperate circumstances.
To follow Binstock’s reconstruction: One can imagine Maria and her mother huddling together in the weeks after Vermeer’s death and gazing over at her canvases propped against the wall, thinking, Huh. The family settled their remaining debt with the baker and secured future supplies by passing along two more paintings (which in Binstock’s view happened to be two of Maria’s)—the Frick’s Mistress and Maid and the Met’s Young Woman With a Lute. Others likely found their way into circulation in similar fashion. “Maria and the family,” Binstock told me, “would have had every reason to keep the matter secret, and that circumstance may have played into Maria’s own decision to stop further painting, or calling attention to herself, if that is indeed what she did.”
“The trouble with Binstock,” David Freedberg, his old doctoral supervisor, told me, “is that he just knows so much, has such prodigious visual and cultural-historical information at his continuous command, that he can always produce convincing material to support his side of the case, however unusual.” After a pause, he went on, “Still, it’s a real shame that the field has not found some way to incorporate his thinking.” Shame, as in too bad for him? “Oh no,” Freedberg clarified, “too bad for the field.”
On that day 10 years ago when we’d tarried before the Young Woman with the disappearing hand at the Met, Walter Liedtke, in response to prodding on my part about Binstock, had given way to exasperation. A person can build up the most magnificent edifice and just be wrong, he explained. “You can come up with scenarios that are internally consistent, even cogent, but that doesn’t make them historically accurate. When you’re looking for something, as in a Rorschach, you will find it.” Just as if you aren’t, I suggested, you won’t—that kind of thinking cuts both ways. “No,” Leidtke countered. “Two things are required: documentation and consensus, and Binstock has neither.”
Documentation and consensus. The issue with the first is what gets to count as “documentation”—or as evidence more generally—given the current mindset of this academic field. I was reminded of the presentation by James Elkins, at the 2013 symposium, in which he ticked off the many avenues Binstock had pursued: conservation studies, provenance tracing, legal records, church records, art-market records. Elkins lamented that most of those sources of insight are “peripheral to the current concerns of the discipline.” (Elkins devoted a chapter to Binstock and to this and other questions in his 2017 collection, What Is Interesting Writing in Art History?) Whether or not one goes along with Binstock’s interpretation, any reader of Binstock’s book cannot help but be struck by the onslaught of factual information, over and beyond the internal evidence of the paintings themselves. There is, of course, no bill of sale bearing the name Maria Vermeer, but there is enough documentation to underpin considerable circumstantial speculation about Vermeer’s life and family.
As for consensus, the difficulty with that concept is its self-reinforcing circularity. How can one be expected to affect the consensus if one is not already of it, or is steadfastly ignored by the gatekeeping establishment? And the stakes are very high, not just in terms of money. As Eric Jan Sluijter told The Guardian: “There is so much invested in these paintings, literally, but also in the reputations of art historians or museums.”
On my last day in Amsterdam, I went to visit Pieter Roelofs, the dapper young head of painting and sculpture at the Rijksmuseum and one of two co-organizers of the Vermeer show (though he is not a Vermeer specialist himself). I found him somewhat exhausted (how would he not be?) but excited at the prospect of the coming weeks. “Every generation deserves an exhibition of Vermeer,” he said. “The last exhibition on Vermeer was Washington in 1995–96, meaning that anyone under 40 has never had the opportunity to see a monographic show of Vermeer.” When I brought up some of the recent controversies, such as the Dresden restoration and the attributional disagreement with the National Gallery over Girl With a Flute, he said he was looking forward to a symposium in Amsterdam at the end of March, when the greatest Vermeer scholars in the world will be able to thrash such matters out in the presence of the paintings themselves. I raised the question of Binstock, with whom he was familiar, and the conversation came around, as ever, to the lack of documentation; he said that Vermeer scholars would “dream” to discover a document proving that a member of Vermeer’s family was involved in his workshop. He didn’t seem to realize that Binstock had actually been living right there in Amsterdam for the past four years. Would Binstock be part of the symposium? “He will be. I mean, he will attend.” In what capacity? “Not as a speaker, but he will attend.”
Emerging from the building into a brisk Dutch winter afternoon to meet up with Binstock, I took note of the banners on two sides of the museum’s exterior, fluttering in the breeze and grandly proclaiming the coming extravaganza. The banners bore crisp, enlarged details from three of the featured paintings: the plush yellow jacket from Mistress and Maid, the eternally emptying jug from The Milkmaid, and the exquisite blue shoulder wrap from Girl With a Red Hat. When I mentioned the coming symposium to Binstock, he told me that he knew nothing about it. No one had yet reached out to him (and no one has reached out since). He himself spoke recently about his theories to a standing-room-only audience at the prestigious Koninklijke Industrieele Groote Club, in Amsterdam; Roelofs was invited but did not attend.
One needs to be careful about a theory like Binstock’s. For obvious reasons, it has a certain emotional appeal; one can almost see the movie. We know that a central element, long dismissed—that Vermeer had an assistant—has now won support from at least a corner of the establishment. Whatever else establishment scholars might determine—or definitively disprove—will remain conjecture until they take up the matter. Even then, we may never know the absolute truth one way or the other—and for myself, I can live in a perhaps necessary state of uncertainty. (“How can you say that?” Binstock bristled when I suggested as much. “What could possibly be more important?”)
Binstock may of course be completely wrong in his ideas. But if he is right, then two of the three paintings on the museum’s exterior banners are by Maria Vermeer. And if he is right, the Rijksmuseum exhibition, no matter what else it may be, constitutes the greatest Maria Vermeer show ever, with six of her presumed canvases gathered in one place for the first time since 1675.