Rediscovering Vermeer

The Collection of Thoré-Bürger

Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1880/1900) by SimonetOriginal Source:


It is hard to believe today that Vermeer was forgotten so soon after his death and only known to a few collectors until his rediscovery in the middle of the 19th century. When paintings by Vermeer were shown for the first time in an exhibition in Paris in 1866, the favourite Dutch genre painters of the Golden Age were Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667) and Pieter de Hooch (1629– after 1684). Vermeer’s paintings were sometimes even adorned with false Pieter de Hooch signatures, because that would ensure that collectors would pay a better price than they would have done for pictures by the unknown Vermeer. The man who was instrumental in the rediscovery of Vermeer during that time was the French art critic Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré (1807–1869), then known as W. Bürger, a pseudonym he adopted in 1855 when living in exile and which he retained until the end of his life.

View of Delft (c. 1660 - 1661) by Vermeer, JohannesMauritshuis

The art critic Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré-Bürger

Thoré-Bürger’s interest in the painter Vermeer was sparked when he first visited the museums in the Netherlands in 1842. He was deeply impressed by the View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague) and he became curious to learn more about this unusual artist who was unknown in France. He later embarked on a search for other paintings by the master, scouring European museums and collections and the Dutch archives for more information on the mysterious artist he called his “sphinx”.

Thoré-Bürger, who held strong political views, actively promoted the Revolution of 1848, and his outspoken criticism of the new government resulted in him being exiled in 1849. He spent the following years travelling in England, Germany and the Netherlands and gradually identified as Vermeer’s work paintings that had been attributed to Vermeer’s contemporaries. The paintings he could afford, Thoré-Bürger acquired for his own collection, and those that exceeded his budget, he urged his wealthy acquaintances to buy.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

The Exposition rétrospective of 1866 in Paris

The Exposition rétrospective tableaux anciens empruntés aux galleries particulières (Retrospective exhibition of old master paintings lend from private collections) at the Palais des Champ-Élysées showcased works from the most celebrated private collections in Paris. Thoré-Bürger played an important advisory role behind the scenes of this exhibition, establishing Vermeer’s reputation in the process.

Altogether eleven paintings attributed to Vermeer were shown in the exhibition, six of which came from Thoré-Bürger’s own collection. These included the Young Woman standing at the Virginal (The National Gallery, London) and Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The selection of paintings shown at this exhibition introduced Vermeer to a wider audience, although many of the paintings were later reattributed to other artists.

Officer and Laughing Girl Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

The oeuvre catalogue of 1866

More than twenty years after his first encounter with Vermeer’s paintings in the Netherlands, Thoré-Bürger had assembled enough material to publish two long articles on Vermeer, as well as an oeuvre catalogue of his works, printed in three parts in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts between October and December 1866.

The oeuvre catalogue lists more than 73 works, firmly attributing about 45, with several others as more tentative candidates and some paintings with unknown whereabouts recorded as still to be found. Despite being too generous in his attributions to Vermeer – and Thoré-Bürger was aware of this problem – this pioneering catalogue includes the core of Vermeer’s oeuvre.

The Concert (About 1665) by Jan VermeerIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The ‘Thoré-Bürger’ collection sale of 1892

Part of Thoré-Bürger’s collection was put up for auction in 1892 at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris. The sale comprised 59 paintings, although the original collection was far more extensive. Thoré-Bürger had already sold individual paintings during his lifetime. He left some 120 works to the family friend Apolline Lacroix (1805–1896), whose family selected the paintings for the 1892 auction.

The prices realised in the sale of 1892 reflect the rise in Vermeer’s market value since the art critic’s pioneering publication and marketing of the artist in the 1860s: Approximately half of the total sum of 162,898 francs was paid for the eleven works that were by, or attributed to, Vermeer. The three star paintings of the auction were also illustrated in the sale catalogue and realised the highest prices: A Young Woman standing at the Virginal and A Young Woman seated at the Virginal (both The National Gallery, London) and the Concert (formerly Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Girl with a Pearl Necklace (Montage of Frontside & Backside) (2017) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Thoré-Bürger’s Vermeer collection

On the evidence of various sources it can be established that Thoré-Bürger had at least eleven paintings in his possession that he thought to be by Vermeer. Most of these paintings have since been identified.

Four of them, all now in public collections, are today considered authentic paintings by Vermeer. Three of these show a single woman in an interior (A Young Woman standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman seated at the Virginal in The National Gallery, London, and Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and one is the Concert that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Some paintings that were identified have since been reattributed to other artists such as Jacob Vrel (active 1654–1662), Esaias Boursse (1631–1672) and Cornelis de Man (1621–1706).

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal,
The National Gallery, London

This was probably Thoré-Bürger’s first Vermeer acquisition. It was also one of the paintings that he included in the Exposition rétrospective of 1866 in Paris. When he published it in his oeuvre catalogue the same year, he illustrated it with an etching.
After Thoré-Bürger’s death in 1869 the painting passed with a large part of his collection to his friend and business partner Paul Lacroix (1806–1884), and it was included in the ‘Thoré-Bürger’ collection sale in Paris on 5 December 1892, where it sold as the most expensive painting for 29,000 francs. It was allegedly sold on immediately to the National Gallery in London for the vast sum of 50,000 francs, “…that very same day, so they say” (“noch am selben Tag wie man sagt”), as the art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot stated in his review of the auction. Interestingly, in 1864 the former director of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake (1793–1865), in search of a Vermeer worthy of the British collection, had considered this painting when it was still in Thoré-Bürger’s collection. But according to his notebook, he deemed it “not quite eligible”.

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal,
The National Gallery, London

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal came from the collection of Graf von Schönborn in Pommersfelden, near Bamberg, and Thoré-Bürger acquired the painting at the Pommersfelden Gallery sale in Paris in 1867 for the relatively modest sum of 2,000 francs. One of the most important pictures in the ‘Thoré-Bürger’ collection sale in Paris in 1892, it was bought by the Austrian-born collector, dealer and publisher Charles Sedelmeyer (1837–1925) for 25,000 francs – making it the second most expensive painting of the sale – and it was sold on to a London dealer. It only entered the National Gallery’s collection through a bequest in 1910.

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (around 1662) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace,
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Thoré-Bürger acquired this painting in 1866 from the printmaker, painter and draughtsman Henry Gravedon (1776–1860) in Paris. Before he bought the painting for himself, he had hoped the National Gallery in London might be interested in its acquisition. He took the then director Charles Eastlake (1793–1865) to view the painting, but he didn’t think it was good enough. According to an entry in Eastlake’s notebooks, he thought that the woman’s face in profile had little substance, and he disliked the intensely dark area that divided the painting diagonally into dark and light masses.

The painting came to Thoré-Bürger’s collection after the Exposition rétrospective had already opened, but was sent to the exhibition at a later point, where it hung next to the A Young Woman standing at the Virginal (The National Gallery, London). Only two years later, in 1868, Thoré-Bürger sold the painting to the art dealer Charles Sedelmeyer (1837–1925), who acquired it for Barthold Suermondt (1818–1887), the esteemed German entrepreneur, banker and art collector in Aachen. It was acquired by the museum in Berlin as early as 1874 as part of the Suermondt collection.

The Concert (About 1665) by Jan VermeerIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Concert, formerly Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Boston

This was one of Thoré-Bürger’s later discoveries of a Vermeer painting. He found the description of the work in the 1804 sale catalogue of the collection of the Baron van Leyden, and listed it in his oeuvre catalogue of 1866 as: “A verifier et à retrouver” (To be verified and retrieved). He then evidently acquired the painting in 1869 from the collection of Prince Paul Demidoff (1798–1840). The Concert was included and reproduced in a heliogravure in the ‘Thoré-Bürger’ collection sale catalogue, and the American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) bought it as her first major acquisition in 1892.

Street Scene (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Jacob Vrel, Street Scene,
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We don’t know when Thoré-Bürger acquired this painting, but it was in his collection by 1866, as it was included in the Exposition rétrospective in Paris of that year as by Vermeer. There it was admired by critics for its tonal harmony and intimate sentiment (“… un Intérieur de ville hollandaise, de van der Meer de Delft, qui dépasse tout ce qu’on peut imaginer comme harmonie de ton et comme sentiment intime” Ch. Iriarte, Le Figaro).

Virtually nothing is known about the life of Jacob Vrel (active 1654–1662), the artist who painted this street scene. With about 38 known paintings, his works are just as rare as those by Vermeer. His somewhat unsophisticated painting technique and style – he didn’t use glazes or correct linear perspective – suggests that he was quite possibly self-taught.

Thoré-Bürger didn’t recognise Vrel’s distinctive style in this painting, even though he had already identified the then unknown painter as a rare imitator of Vermeer when he came across and bought Jacob Vrel’s signed View of a Town (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) at a sale in Bamberg in 1865.

The Geographer (1669) by Johanes VermeerStädel Museum

Thoré-Bürger‘s role in the art market

Far more paintings by and attributed to Vermeer had either directly or indirectly passed through Thoré-Bürger’s hands, as he mediated and sometimes also negotiated the purchase of several Vermeer paintings for various private collectors. For example, he acquired The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt) for the banker and financier Isaac Péreire (1806–1880), and the Officer and laughing Girl (The Frick Collection, New York) for the shipping magnate Léopold Double (1812–1881).

Credits: Story

Created in collaboration with the National Gallery
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

In addition to the different sources mentioned in this story, this text about the rediscovery of Vermeer is mainly based on:
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.
Idem, ‘Thoré-Bürger – a critical role in the art market’, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 138, no. 1115, 1996, pp. 115-129.

With greatest thanks to Frances Suzman Jowell for her advice and guidance.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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