Vermeer's Lost Self-Portrait ?

(part two)

Reasons for this change in attribution are compelling. Van Musscher’s Portrait of a Young Artist is not without Vermeer-like charms.1 The hanging curtain, the chair on the right foreground, and the window are at least vaguely reminiscent of elements found in Vermeer’s mature work. But those same elements were common to many genre paintings of the time. 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. The face of the young man seems more likely to be someone in his very early 20's. The picture also seems to lack any convincing stylistic evidence that might induce attribution to Vermeer. And because the painting is unfortunately not in excellent condition, the task of judging its artistic merit is made even more difficult.

The only element which links the painting to Vermeer at all 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 the cheek, since it has been blocked by the beret worn by both of the young men. Aside from a presumed likeness between the faces of these men, which is substantially subjective, no other element or constellation of features compels belief that the painting is the lost self-portrait by Vermeer or is directly connected to Vermeer’s oeuvre in any significant way. The attribution to Van Musscher seems justified.

One final painting once believed to be the self-portrait by Vermeer from the Dissius auction is the Portrait of an Unknown Man in Brussels; however, this obviously could not be the painting described in the Dissius auction catalogue since it shows none of the "various accessories."

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

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.

Michiel van Musscher was born in Rotterdam 1645 and died in Amsterdam 1705. According to Houbraken2, 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.

The Sinfonia, Michiel va Musccher

The Sinfonia
Michiel van Musscher
oil on canvas
Detroit Instittute of arts, Detroit

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. 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. Higher quality comparative images of details of can been viewed side by side by clicking here.
  2. 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

self portrait of Johannes Vermeer

possible self-portrait of Vermeer
in the early Procuress

The Artist in His Studio

The Artist in His Studio
Miechel van Musscher

The Art of painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting
c. 1665-1666