Young Girl with a Flute is a fascinating and problematic painting, whose place within Vermeer's oeuvre, and even century of origin, have long been disputed. The panel support, the style of the costume, and the quality of execution all raise questions about the attribution. Although the discolored varnish and old repaint that distorted the image were removed during the painting's restoration in 1995, even now extensive abrasion of the paint surface hinders a conclusive assessment of artistic quality. The blue glaze that once covered the back or the chair, for example, has now mostly disappeared, leaving visible only the reddish-brown underpaint. Nevertheless, the restoration and related technical examinations have provided a fuller understanding of both the complex compositional alterations and the sequence of paint layers that comprise this image, information essential for any informed judgment of attribution. The Young Girl with a Flute is the only painting on panel exhibited here, other than The Girl with the Red Hat. Owing also to their similarities in scale and subject matter, scholars frequently cited these works as pendants. Indeed, both girls look expectantly toward the viewer with alert eyes and half-open mouths. Each wears an exotic hat, sits before a tapestry in a chair with lion finials, and leans on one arm. Light enters from the left in both compositions, striking the left cheek, nose, and chin of both figures. A thin green glaze pulled over the flesh tone, moreover, indicates the shaded portions of both faces. Finally, colored highlights accent each mouth, turquoise in The Young Girl with a Flute and pink in The Girl with the Red Hat (fig. 1).
Despite these similarities, slight differences in both the size of the panels and the compositional arrangement of the figures indicate that the paintings are not companion pieces. Differences in artistic quality prove even more significant. In Young Girl with a Flute, the flesh tones of the face are modulated with a better degree of refinement. Transitions between the shadow of the eye and the sunlit cheek, the shaded and unshaded portions or the chin, and the areas between the nose and mouth, appear abrupt (fig. 2). Unusually thick impasto defines the girl's thumbnail and ill-proportioned right hand, and the flute in her left hand is inaccurately rendered.
A comparison of the lion-head finials in the two paintings also illustrates the relatively unrefined brushwork of the Young Girl with a Flute. While Vermeer modeled the right finial in the Girl with the Red Hat with subtle variations in the weight and thickness of brushstrokes, those in the Young Girl with a Flute less successfully create a sense of form and volume. In addition, the diffused, yellow highlights enliven the blue jackets in a different manner. In the Girl with the Red Hat Vermeer first highlighted the blue robe with light blue strokes and then applied short dabs of thin lead-tin yellow paint. He then painted the ridges of the highlighted folds with strokes of opaque lead-tin yellow. The jacket of the Young Girl with a Flute is painted in a similar technique, but the colors appear less fresh and the strokes less fluid.
Many shared characteristics between these paintings, however, complicate efforts to attribute Young Girl with a Flute. Moreover, a judgment based on a single comparison is always ill-advised, particularly when so little is known about an artist's oeuvre. Indeed, stylistic connections exist between Young Girl with a Flute and other Vermeer paintings. The softly modeled yellow highlights on the blue jacket, for example, resemble those on the blue edging of the yellow material hanging from the turban in Girl with a Pearl Earring. By the end of the 1660s and early 1670s, moreover, Vermeer modeled forms with more, abrupt transitions, similar to those that define the girl's face. Finally, the blocky character of the brushstrokes defining the finial (fig. 4) compares well to the abstract modeling of the gold picture frame in, for example, A Lady Seated at a Virginal.
The attribution of this small panel painting is even more controversial than Girl with a Red Hat. Although the wind instrument in the girl's left hand has usually been called a flute, it is not very clearly depicted and could be a recorder. This poor representation of a musical instrument is rare in the work of Vermeer.
The girl's hat is unusual (fig. 5); its shape is similar to that of a Chinese coolie hat, which would have been considered an exotic curia in the Netherlands at the time. However, it is not made of straw and the parallel stripes would have been impossible to produce on a conical shape. Although the hat has been cited as evidence that the painting is a fake, it is strange that a forger should have invented such bizarre headwear.
Scientific examination of the picture suggests that it does indeed date from Vermeer's time. A dendrochronology analysis of the oak panel, based on an examination of tree rings, shows that the tree was felled in the early 1650s and, since wood needs to be seasoned before use, this is quite consistent with a painting dating from. 1665. This refutes the suggestion that it is a nineteenth-century fake, unless the forger had managed to find a panel of just the right period.
It has been suggested that the picture could be the work of one of Vermeer's children, although there is no evidence that any of them painted. Another possibility is that the painting might have been started by Vermeer and completed after his death by another artist, such as the Haarlem painter Jan Coelenbier (active from 1632), who bought pictures from Catharina in 1676.
Girl with a Flute was discovered in a private collection in Brussels by Abraham Bredius, who exhibited it at the Mauritshuis in 1906. It was bought by the American collector Joseph Widener in the 1920s and given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1942. There still remains considerable disagreement about the attribution. Blankert rejects it completely and Wheelock believes that the painting should be "attributed" to Vermeer. For the moment "circle" of Vermeer may welt be a fairer assessment, in that it is probably not from the master's hand, but by another artist of the period working in his style.