Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest Dutch painters and for some the single greatest painter of all, produced a remarkably small corpus of work. In his book “Vermeer’s Family Secrets”, Benjamin Binstock revolutionizes how we think about Vermeer’s work and life. Vermeer, The Sphinx of Delft, is famously a mystery in art: despite the common claim that little is known of his biography, there is actually an abundance of fascinating information about Vermeer’s life that Binstock brings to bear on Vermeer’s art for the first time; he also offers new interpretations of several key documents pertaining to Vermeer that have been misunderstood. Lavishly illustrated with more than 180 black and white images and more than sixty color plates, the book also includes a remarkable color two-page spread that presents the entirety of Vermeer’s oeuvre arranged in chronological order in 1/20 scale, demonstrating his gradual formal and conceptual development. No book on Vermeer has ever done this kind of visual comparison of his complete output. Like Poe’s purloined letter, Vermeer’s secrets are sometimes out in the open where everyone can see them. Benjamin Binstock shows us where to look. Piecing together evidence, the tools of art history, and his own intuitive skills, he gives us for the first time a history of Vermeer’s work in light of Vermeer’s life.
On almost every page of Vermeer’s Family Secrets, there is a perception or an adjustment that rethinks what we know about Vermeer, his oeuvre, Dutch painting, and Western Art. Perhaps the most arresting revelation of Vermeer’s Family Secrets is the final one: in response to inconsistencies in technique, materials, and artistic level, Binstock posits that several of the paintings accepted as canonical works by Vermeer, are in fact not by Vermeer at all but by his eldest daughter, Maria.
The book came out in 2008 and didn’t get much attention until New York Institute for the Humanities found out about it and started an all-day symposium on the subject: “Binstock’s thesis has been met with thunderous silence in the art historical press—itself a fascinating response. But what if we were to take Binstock’s claims seriously, or at least allow them a fair hearing? (How might we go about doing so?) Beyond that, what if we in turn were to think about how such theories make their way through the art historical vetting process? How generally does scholarship evaluate such claims, and in turn how ought we evaluate how it does so? And how would our response to certain specific works (such as the National Gallery’s Girl with a Red Hat, which Binstock recasts as a self-portrait) change if Binstock were proven right?”
- Hyperallergic was at the symposium and wrote a report.
- We can’t wait until a video of the main talk is online and until then we would like you to have a look at The Essential Vermeer over here.
More on the subject:
- On Active Voice Radio: Chris Goldstein speaks with Art History Professor Benjamin Binstock about his newly released book Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice.
- PRX Radio: Vermeer’s Family Secrets
Another look at Vermeer: Tracy Chevalier: Finding the story inside the painting
When Tracy Chevalier looks at paintings, she imagines the stories behind them: How did the painter meet his model? What would explain that look in her eye? Why is that man … blushing? She shares three stories inspired by portraits, including the one that led to her best-selling novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
Vermeer on this blog:
- Write the Opening Line to Vermeer’s “Lady in Blue”
- Han van Meegeren – The great Vermeer Swindle
- Private Life of A Masterpiece – Vermeer’s “Art of Painting”
- Johannes Vermeer – The Milkmaid in 3D