Vermeer's Lost Self-Portrait ?

Vermeer’s Missing Self-Portrait: In Search of Countenance

In the Dissius estate auction catalogue of 21 paintings by Vermeer (1696, Amsterdam), item number three was described as a "portrait of Vermeer in a room with various accessories uncommonly beautifully painted by him." Unfortunately, this "uncommonly" beautiful has not survived.

The Art of Painting, Johannes VermeerThe Art of Painting (detail)
Johannes Vermeer

In the past, however, a few candidates for the lost work have been advanced, including Vermeer’s grandiose Art of Painting, now permanently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The seated artist represented in this ambitious composition (see detail image left) may well be Vermeer at work, but since his back is unceremoniously turned to the viewer his identity remains entirely speculative since no documentary evidence has survived that might suggests who he really was . Even though the artist's face is not visible, his fluffy, chestnut-colored hair could be compared to the hair that falls from underneath of the a black beret of the left-hand figure of the Procuress (see detail right) which critics hold to be an authentic effigy of the young Vermeer. The hair also resembles those of the male figures in Vermeer’s Geographer and the Astronomer and probably the hair pictured in any number of Dutch paintings of artists in their studios, a very popular motif of the time. In any case, it should be remembered that in the course of legal maneuvering to prevent the Vienna picture from being auctioned off with other works of artist's estate, Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer's widow, referred it specifically as "...een schilderije waerinne wert uitgebeelt de Schilderconst" (a painting in which is represented the Art of Painting,” rather than a self portrait of her late husband.

While nothing in the Dissius catalogue description excludes a priori that the Art of Painting is indeed item number three, today’s scholars reject the connection principally because the work was sold for the low price of 45 guilders. In the same auction, the much smaller Milkmaid and Woman Holding a Balance fetched 175 guilders and 155 guilders respectively. Even accounting for cultural and personal tastes, which must have influenced the Amsterdam art collectors present at the auction, it is improbable that a complicated but perfectly orchestrated composition such as the Art of Painting would have lost on whomever attended the auction. The superlative mastery of the picture's three-point perspective alone, rarely approached by interior painters of the time, would have surely encouraged enthusiastic bidding. While Vermeer was active, geometric perspective was intesily studied for practical and artistic applications throughout Europe. In fact, the only qualified assessment of Vermeer’s art that was made during the painter's life time, written1 by the up-and-coming aristocrat Pieter Teding van Berckhout, speaks not of aesthetic or philosophical concepts such as “balance,” “transience,” “suspended time” or “allusiveness” which today are recurrently associated with the artist’s production, but of “perspective.”  In his succinct diary entry, the  liefhebber van de schilderkonst  (lover of the art of painting) Van Berckhout  unequivocally affirms that the “most extraordinary and most curious aspect” of Vermeer’s art “consists in the perspective." Only a few years later (1699) Vermeer's Allegory of Faith, comparable in size and perspectival construction to the Art of Painting, fetched 400 guilders, the highest sum paid for a Vermeer painting in the 17th-century.

self-portraits by Vermeer?

Portrait of an Unknown ManPortrait of an Unknown Man
currently attributed to Nicolaes Maes
Oil on canvas, 73 x 59.5 cm.
Musée Royal de Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Other than Vermeer's Art of Painting, several minor Dutch works have been proposed as Vermeer self portraits, one of which, the Portrait of an Artist in his Studio (see image below left), was identified as Dissius picture in question.

Another presumed Vermeer self portrait, now titled Portrait of an Unknown Man (see image left), can be immediately disqualified as a serious candidate because it clearly lacks the "accessories” described in the catalogue description.2

In the first half of the 20th century, it had been advanced that a 17th-century engraving (see black and white image right) by Joannes Meyssens (Flemish, 1612-1670) was based upon an original work by Vermeer (the already mentioned (Portrait of an Artist in his Studio) because it bore the inscription "Ver Meer pinxit." However, this inscription seems to have been added by a later hand. In addition, the initials "VM," are no longer visible on the canvas if indeed they had ever existed. At one time, the Bass Museum Of Art , where the pciture is housed, did attribute the picture to Vermeer but today it is credited to the talented Dutch 17th-century portrait painter Michiel van Musscher (1645-1705). In any case, various self-portraits and portraits of painters in their studio by Van Musscher have survived. Curiously, one of these works, now lost, is evidently based on the composition of Vermeer's Art of Painting (see black and white image below).

Van Musscher, Self Portrait

Portrait of an Artist in His Studio
Michiel van Musscher
Bass Museum
Miami Beach, Florida

In effect, Van Musscher’s Portrait of a Young Artist is not without Vermeer-like charms.3 The hanging curtain, the chair with brass tacks situated in the right-hand foreground and the window are at least vaguely reminiscent of certain compositions of Vermeer although the similar elements could be found many genre paintings of the time. However, the haphazard compositional organization and uncertain lighting of this small-scale work leaves no room for doubt that it is by a less talented hand than Vermeer's.

The only element which links the painting to Vermeer is the half-shaded face of the young man. The heavy brow and the elongated flat nose are not dissimilar to those of the young man who stares provocatively out at the viewer from Vermeer's Procuress in Dresden. The light in both paintings comes from the same direction and subtly caresses only one cheek, blocked by the beret worn by both of the young men. Low quality comparative images (none other are avalable) of the two faces can been viewed side by side by clicking here. Moreover, according to costume experts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the peculiar robe worn by the young man suggests it was painted around 1660-1665. Vermeer then would have been around thirty, instead, the face of the young man seems more likely belong to someone in his very early 20's.

For a brief discussion of the surviving painting in which Vermeer likely did portray himself, see The Procuress: Evidence for a Vermeer Self-Portrait.

Michiel van Musscher

A Painter in his Studio, Van Musscher

The Artist in His Studio
Michiel van Musscher
Oil on canvas
Whereabouts unknown

Michiel van Musscher was born in Rotterdam 1645 and died in Amsterdam 1705. According to Houbraken,4 Van Musscher received his eclectic artistic training in Amsterdam, studying first with the history painter Martinus Zaagmolen (c. 1620-69) in 1660, then with Abraham van den Tempel in 1661, followed by lessons with Gabriel Metsu in 1665. He completed his studies in 1667 in the studio of Adriaen van Ostade. The following year van Musscher returned briefly to Rotterdam before settling permanently in Amsterdam in 1668. Van Musscher became one of the most successful portrait painters of the final quarter of the seventeenth century. He specialized in portraiture and the painting of genre pieces. His style shows influences of his former master Gabriel Metsu and of Frans van Mieris. His technique is smooth and refined, but nonetheless freer and more robust than that of the fijnschilders of Leiden. Van Musscher is outstanding in the representation of fabrics.

Allegory of Painting by Van Musscher

Allegorical Portrait of an Artist
Attributed to Michiel van Musscher
c. 1680-85
oil on canvas, 44 15/16 x 35 7/8 in.

He painted a number of pictures representing an artist in his studio. One of them has many striking similarities with Vermeer's Art of Painting. The artist at work in his studio was a popular theme among Dutch painters. It is possible that the younger van Musscher may have been influenced by Vermeer artistically. Although there is no direct evidence that Vermeer actually encountered Van Musscher, an acquaintance was possible (if not probable) because of the fluid nature of Dutch society. People in every walk of life, according to the Metropolitan Museum’s Walter Liedtke, traveled with great ease, and "every day boatloads of people and their produce made the trip back and forth" from Delft to The Hague.

  1. May 14, 1669.
  2. In the early 20th century, the Portrait of an Unknown Man was attributed to Vermeer largely based on the ideas of Thoré Bürger, the "discoverer" of Vermeer, who held that the Delft artist had been influenced by Rembrandt.
  3. These observations are based on a photographic reproduction of the engraving by Meyssens of poor quality, and on a small color photograph of the van Musscher portrait.
  4. Although a competent artist, Arnold Houbraken is best known as a writer. His three-volume Groote schouburgh (The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters, 1718-21), the last volume of which was published posthumously, is generally regarded as one of the most important sources on the lives of 17th-century Dutch artists - despite its many omissions and errors. As an artist, he was taught by Jacobus Levecq and Samuel van Hoogstraten in Dordrecht and went on to have a relatively successful studio in Dordrecht and Amsterdam. He specialized in small scale, precise history paintings, portraits and gentile genre scenes.

Lost Self Portrait

Johannes Vermeer, Procuress

possible self-portrait of Vermeer
in the early Procuress

The Art of painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting
c. 1665-1666

Portrait of an Artist in His Studio
a copy (engraving) by Johannes Meyssens after the original by Michiel van Musscher now in the Bass Museum, Miami Beach, Florida