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Thoré-Bürger and the Rediscovery of Johannes Vermeer

Photograph of Thoré-Bürger
Photograph of Thoré-Bürger from
the sales catalogue of the
Thoré-Bürger collection, 1892

Thoré, [Etienne-Joseph-] Théophile
born: 1807, La Flèche, France
died: 1869, Paris, France

Dictionary of Art Historians

The "rediscovery" of Vermeer is predominantly attributed to scholar, collector, French Salon critic and co-founder of L'Alliance des arts, Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré (1807–1869), sometimes, Thoré-Bürger, Thoré or Willem Bürger.

Thoré wrote criticism beginning in the 1830s, during the regime of the July Monarchy (1830–1848). By the 1840s his art criticism was wide ranging encompassing aesthetic and political views. He extolled the work of Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Rousseau and other Barbizon school painters, chiding the conservative painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres as well as the more popular artists such as Paul Delaroche and Horace Vernet. In 1842 he and Paul Lacroix (1806–1884) founded a private agency to sell and promote art, the Alliance des Arts.Also known as the Société de l'Alliance des Arts, a French association founded in 1842 with the aim of promoting a union of all the arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. The idea was to encourage collaboration between these various disciplines to achieve greater artistic harmony. This aspiration to unite the arts was not unique to this society but was part of a larger 19th-century movement that sought to break down barriers between different art forms. Such interdisciplinary collaborations and movements were responses to rapid industrialization and urbanization during that period. Artists and thinkers were exploring ways to create more holistic artistic experiences that could counterbalance the fragmenting effects of modern life. The Alliance des Arts might not be as renowned today as other artistic societies from the same period, but it was indicative of broader trends and discussions happening in the artistic communities of 19th-century Europe. They also published a Bulletin. Between 1844–1848 Thoré was the art critic for Le Constitutionnel. Because of his support of some of the radicals in the 1848 revolution, (he was a Saint-Simonist and exponent of Pierre Leroux, 1797–1871) was forced into exile in 1849. He returned in 1859, continuing to write under the government of Second Empire. After living in London, Brussels, and in Switzerland, he returned in 1859, continuing to write under the government of Second Empire (1851-1870). In 1855, he began using the Dutch-sounding pseudonym "Willem Bürger," focusing his writing on northern European art. An active archival researcher and connoisseur, he is credited with the rediscovery of Johannes Vermeer and significant re-evaluations of of other seventeenth-century Dutch artists, including Frans Hals.

His criticism derided French baroque painting as too heavily influenced by Italy, terming it as inauthentic of a national identity. He lauded Dutch seventeenth-century naturalism and what has subsequently come to be seen as the acme of Netherlandish painting, the art of the Dutch Republic. It's direct appeal to simple human virtues, he declared made it an art for the people ("l'art pour l'homme"). He continued to deplore the dark history painting of the Academie and the Second Empire, particularly that of Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel, in favor of Realism painter such as Gustave Courbet (his favorite), Jean-François Millet, and the Impressionists Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir. As early as 1860, Thoré began purchasing Vermeer paintings. A Lady Standing at a Virginal (1672–1673, National Gallery, London) was acquired sometime before 1876, Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1664, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) was bought from Henry Grevedon in June 1866. A Lady Seated at a Virginal (1675, National Gallery, London) was purchased for a mere two thousand francs in 1867. The sale of his collection by in 1892 brought the Vermeers and other works into more public collections.

Oct. 1, Nov. 1, Dec. 1 1866 3 articles on "Van der Meer de Delft"

Oct. 1, 1866 - pp. 297–330
Nov. 1, 1866 - pp. 458–470
Dec. 1, 1866 - pp. 542–575

Thore- Bürger, GAZETTE DES BEAUX ARTSNoël Eugène Sotain, after Étienne Bocourt, after a painting by Jacobus Vrel, Title vignette of article by W. Bürger (Théophile Thoré), ‘Van der Meer de Delft’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 8 (1866), p. 297 Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Research Library, S TS GAZE
Thore Bürger, Musee de al HollandeMUSEES DE AL HOLLANDE
Click here
to read the book online.

"A rather unusual gallery of bric-à-brac."

by Frances Suzman Jowell ( "Thoré-Bürger's art collection: "a rather unusual gallery of bric-à-brac," in Simiolus: Netherlands quarterly for the history of art, vol.30, 2003 no. 1/2, pp. 54-55)

"My picture mania relates above all to works which can help with my historical researches. I have already collected some paintings that are interesting from this point of view, and I will end up by having a rather unusual gallery of bric-à-brac." So wrote the republican critic Théophile Thoré (1807–1869), a year after returning from his ten-year exile from France. He was also known then by his pseudonym, W. Bürger, the author of several scholarly and critical publications on collections of European art, and special champion of the Dutch seventeenth-century school.

Back in Paris, Bürger soon resumed his former role as art critic with a series of controversial Salon reviews, while continuing with his historical researches and publications, and his energetic collecting of paintings until his death in 1869.

During this decade he also played an important role in the art market, and made himself indispensable to several collectors as adviser and negotiator, art historian and critic. Consulted by museum directors, collectors, dealers, critics, art historians and artists, he had a significant and lasting influence on the ways in which the art of the past (and contemporary art) was viewed, valued, and interpreted.

Bürger did not himself have the financial means to acquire paintings on anything like the scale of the major European collectors with whom he was associated. Nevertheless, his collection, informed by his avid researches and his energetic search for related works, soon developed well beyond a "somewhat unusual gallery of bric-à-brac."

By 1867, when he wrote his well-informed and lively chapter on private collections in Paris for the Paris guide, published to coincide with the Universal Exhibition (Exposition Universelle), Bürger included his own collection, albeit grouped with the more modest ones of other authors who contributed to the Guide: "W. Bürger himself has several pictures, mostly by Dutch artists, and naturally he finds them the most beautiful in the world; let us say that he has some rarities interesting for the history of the northern schools, amongst others, his van der Meer of Delft, his Fabritius, Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, Hals, de Keyser, Rubens, and Jordaens; and some modern artists: Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Rousseau, Jules Dupré, Diaz, Courbet etc." He added that these "simple collections of artists and writers" were only temporary locations for paintings destined for more important galleries.

Many of the paintings once owned by Thoré-Bürger would, as he hoped, eventually find themselves placed in "important galleries"- a few with pride of place in major public and private collections; some less celebrated but nevertheless respectably housed. The current whereabouts of most of them, however, are unknown.

John Nash

"Rediscovery," in Vermeer ( 2002)J. M. Nash, "Rediscovery," in Vermeer (London: Phaidon Press, 1991), 102–104.

Théophile Thoré, the French critic and politician, in the first major study of Vermeer, published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1866 under the pseudonym of W. Bürger. "A dozen years ago, Jan van der Meer of Delft was almost unknown in France," wrote Thoré. "His Name was missing from the biographies and histories of painting; his works were missing from the museums and private collections."

Thoré-Bürger's tomb in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris
Photograph of Thoré-Bürger's tomb in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris (Thoré's tomb is located in the 85 Division) The inscription on the tomb reads:
1807–1869 HE WAS A MAN

Thoré devoted twenty years of travel and research, in part as a political exile (hence the pseudonym), on this study of Vermeer, and in it he established not only the foundation but much of the edifice of our modern understanding of Vermeer. He begins his study with an account of his own first encounter with the View of Delft. "In the museum at the Hague, a superb and most unusual landscape captures the attention of every visitor and powerfully impresses artists and connoisseurs. It is the view of a town, with a quay, old gatehouse, buildings in a great variety of styles of architecture, garden walls, trees, and, in the foreground, a canal and a strip of land with several figures. The silver-gray sky and the tone of the water somewhat recalls Philip Koninck. The brilliance of the light, the intensity of the color, the solidity of the paint in certain parts, the effect that is both very real and nevertheless original, also have something of Rembrandt.

"When I visited the Dutch museums for the first time, around 1842, this strange painting surprised me as much as The anatomy lesson and the other remarkable Rembrandts in the Hague museum. Not knowing to whom to attribute it, I consulted the catalogue: View of the Town of Delft, beside a canal, by Jan van der Meer of Delft'. Amazing! Here is someone of whom we know nothing in France, and who deserves to be known!

"Even after seeing the Night Watch, the Syndics [by Rembrandt] and the other marvels of the Amsterdam museum, I retained an indelible memory of its masterpiece—by van der Meer of Delft! Well! In those days, we all thought of painting as something to please the eye and to write elegant descriptions for, without worrying too much about the history of art and artists.

"Later, even before 1848, having returned to Holland several times, I also had the opportunity of visiting the principal private galleries, and in that of M. Six van Hillegom—the happy owner of the celebrated portrait of his ancestor, Burgomaster Jan Six, by Rembrandt—there I found two more extraordinary paintings: a Servant pouring milk and the Façade of a Dutch house,—by Jan van der Meer of Delft! The astounding painter! But, after Rembrandt and Frans Hals, is this van der Meer, then, one of the foremost masters of the entire Dutch School? How was it that one knew nothing of an artist who equals, if he does not surpass, Pieter de Hooch and Metsu?

"Later after 1848 having become, of necessity, an exile, and, by instinct, a cosmopolitan, living in turn in England, Germany, Belgium, and Holland, I was able to explore the museums of Europe, collect traditions, read, in all languages, books on art, and attempt to untangle somewhat the still confused history of the Northern schools, especially the Dutch school, of Rembrandt and his circle and my 'sphinx' van der Meer.

The Art of Painting, Johannes VermeerOne most remarkable taspects of Vermeer's The Art of Painting is the fascinating illusionistic rendering of the individual elements in the picture, the intricate perspective and the effects of llight effects, which cannot be overstated. The art historian Hans Sedlmayr made clear – ‘the actual subject of the picture was light intselft. In the words of Thoré, "The light seems to come from the painting itself, and naive viewers could well imagine the daylight to be slipping through between canvas and frame."

"In the first volume of The Museums of Holland, in 1858, drew attention to the landscape in the Hague museum and the two pictures in the Six van Hillegom collection In 1860, in the second volume of The Museums of Holland, I authenticated more than a dozen van der Meers, and brought together a quantity of information that enabled me later to recover almost the entire oeuvre of the painter of the View of Delft. "This obsession has caused me considerable expense. To see one picture by van der Meer, I traveled hundreds of miles: to obtain a photograph of another van der Meer, I was madly extravagant. I even retraced my steps all round Germany in order to verify with conviction works dispersed between Cologne, Brunswick, Berlin, Dresden, Pommersfelden, and Vienna. But I was amply recompensed, more especially as I had the pleasure, not only of admiring the works in museums and galleries, but in acquiring more than a dozen, some that I bought for my friends MM. Pereire, Double, Cremer, and others; others that I bought for myself.

"At the same time as I was researching van der Meer's pictures, I was gathering together all the written documents and traditions concerning the man: I leafed through old books, old catalogues, the Dutch archives. "On the biography, it is true that I have still only some chronological landmarks and a few certain facts "

Thoré knew little of Vermeer's life. He knew nothing of his marriage or even the date of his death. When he found the catalogue of the sale in Amsterdam of 16 May, 1696, at which, in addition to the View of Delft, twenty other Vermeers were listed, he surmised that the sale may have followed the recent death of the artist, or had been of the effects of another Van der Meer, of Haarlem(1656–1705), who had also been a picture dealer and had died, so he had learned, in 1691."

ThorÉ Resources

  • Cottin, Paul. Thoré-Bürger peint par lui-même: lettres et notes intimes. Paris, 1900.
  • Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer: A View of Delft. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2002, 219–222.
  • Blankert, Albert. "Théophile Thoré and Appreciation in the Nineteenth Century." In Vermeer of Delft: Complete edition of the paintings, edited by Rob Rurrs and Willem L. van de Watering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, 67–69.
  • Blum, André. Vermeer et Thoré-Bürger. Genève: Les Éditions du Mont-Blanc s. a., 1945.
  • Broos, Ben. "A celebre Peijntre nommé Vermer[e]r." In Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of paintings Mauritshuis). Washington and the Hague, 1995, 47–65, esp. 59–60.
  • Broos, Ben. "Vermeer: Malice and Misconception." In Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 18–31.
  • Bürger, W. Musées de la Hollande. 2 vols. Paris, 1858–1860.

  • Bürger, W. Galerie d’Arenberg à Bruxelles avec le catalogue complet de la collection. Paris/Brussels/Leipzig, 1859.

  • Bürger, W. Galerie de MM. Pereire. Paris, 1864.

  • Bürger, W. "Van der Meer de Delft." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 21, (1866): 297–330, 458–470, 542–575.

  • Bürger, W. "Meisterwerke der Braunschweiger Galerie. In Radierungen von William Unger. III. Das Mädchen mit dem Weinglase. Oelgemälde von Jan van der Meer." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 3, (1868): 262–263.

  • Bürger, W. "Nouvelles études sur la galerie Suermondt à Aix-la-Chapelle." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 24, (1869): 5–187.

  • Charreire, Magali. "Vermeer à l'Arsenal: the bibliothèque-musée de Paul Lacroix." Littératures, 75 (2016): 45-56.
  • Dictionary of Art Historians. "Thoré-Bürger"
  • Gardner, Elizabeth. Thorés Sphinx. Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New ser., 7, no. 3 (Nov. 1948): 73–78.
  • de Groot, Hofstede. "De veiling Bürger-Thoré." De Nederlandsche Spectator, 1892, p. 405.
  • de Groot, Hofstede."Paris, Hôtel Drouot. Die auction Thoré-Bürger." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 16, (1893): 116–119.
  • Hecht, Peter. "Rembrandt and Raphael Back to Back: the Contribution of Thoré." Simiolus 26 no. 3, 1998, 162–178.
  • Heppner, A. "Thoré-Bürger en Holland. De ontdekker van Vermeer en zijn liefde voor Neerland’s kunst." Oud Holland 55, (1938): 17–34, 67–82, 129–144.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman. Thoré-Bürger and the Art of the Past. New York, 1977.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman. “Thoré-Bürger and Vermeer: Critical and Commercial Fortunes.” In Shop Talk. Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, edited by Cynthia P. Schneider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1995, pp. 124-127.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman. "Thoré-Bürger- A Critical Role in the Art Market." Burlington Magazine 138 (1996): 155–116.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman."Thoré-Bürger. A Critical Role in the Art Market." The Burlington Magazine 138, no. 1115 (1996): 115–129.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman. "Vermeer and Thoré- Bürger: Recoveries of Reputation." In Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 35–57.
  • Jowell, Frances Suzman."Thoré-Bürger’s Art Collection. 'A Rather Unusual Gallery of Bric-à-brac'." Simiolus 30, nos. 1/2 (2003): 54–119.
  • Nash, John. "Rediscovery." In Vermeer. Amsterdam, 1997, 11–14.


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