"Backstory" - Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace

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

Have you ever wondered how the backsides of famous Paintings might look like? Let us guide you through the "Backstory" of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1663/1664) by Jan Vermeer (1632 - 1675). The back of this painting displays several old labels and seals that reveal the object’s fascinating history.

The oldest label on the back of the canvas dates from the middle of the 19th century. It reads “Momper. Rentoileur des Musées Impériaux”. M. Momper was active in Paris and specialized in the doubling of canvases. This means that he attached a second canvas to the back of the Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace in order to provide greater support for the fragile artwork. Momper’s label supports an older information on the painting’s provenance according to which it once belonged to Jacques-Marie Meffre: Momper and Meffre collaborated with the same art collectors and it is thus likely that not only they knew each other, but also that Meffre commissioned Momper with the doubling of his painting.

In 1866, Jean-Théophile Thoré-Bürger who is largely responsible for the rediscovery of Vermeer’s work in the 19th century acquired Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. In the same year, he published a catalogue of all the paintings by Jan Vermeer that he had been able to identify. The label that he attached to the back of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace states the title and the artist and refers to his catalogue. As if it were a quality certification, Thoré-Bürger signed the label with his pseudonym “W. Bürger”. Similar labels can be found on other Vermeer paintings that formerly belonged to Thoré-Bürger’s collection.

“Aachen” – this label dates from the time when Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace belonged to Barthold Suermondt, a wealthy industrialist and art collector from Aachen (1868-1874). In 1867, Thoré-Bürger had sold the painting to Léon Gauchez. Suermondt tried to buy the painting from the latter, but was unsuccessful. It instead went into the possession of Charles Sedelmeyer. However, just one year later, Suermondt was able to acquire Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace from Sedelmeyer. The rapid succession of the painting’s various owners shows the growing popularity of Vermeer’s art in the wake of Thoré-Bürger’s catalogue from 1866.

When in 1874 Barthold Suermondt’s company faced a crisis, he found himself forced to sell a large part of his prestigious art collection. No less than 218 paintings were sold to the Royal Museums of Berlin – among them Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. The red wax seal was added by the Royal Museums and bears the Prussian eagle. The number written below in black is the old inventory number given to the painting upon its entry into the Royal collections.

These inventory labels were in use between 1918 and 1945. They were introduced when with the end of the German monarchy the Royal Museums became the Staatliche Museen Berlin.

This label dates from the years between 1945 and 1949 and gives testimony of what is likely the most dramatic period in the history of the painting. In spring 1945, during the last days of World War II, Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace and other paintings were evacuated from Berlin to a salt mine. Here, the precious collection was discovered by American troops who brought the artworks to the Museum of Wiesbaden. In fall 1945, US officials decided to transport 202 of these artworks to Washington for “safekeeping”. It wasn’t until 1949 that these paintings returned to Wiesbaden. Thus, the green label that reads “Zollamtlich abgefertigt – Zollamt Wiesbaden” (“Cleared through customs – Customs Office Wiesbaden”) must have been attached either in 1945 or in 1949.

The 202 paintings from the Berlin Museum’s collection that were brought to Washington in 1945, remained in the National Gallery’s storage for three years. Finally, in 1948, the collection was exhibited in the National Gallery. With almost 1 million visitors in just four weeks, the exhibition was a tremendous success. Due to the public’s great interest, it was decided to have the exhibition tour through the United States. The first stop after Washington was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where this label must have been attached to the back of the painting. Altogether, the exhibition travelled to 14 cities in the USA.

When in 1949 the last of the 202 paintings that had been sent to the United States returned to Wiesbaden, it was decided to organize an exhibition tour through Europe as well. Thus, in 1951, after having been displayed in Amsterdam and Brussels, a selection of masterworks from the Berlin Museums, including Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace was shown at the Petit Palais in Paris. This label was attached by the “emballeur” Maurice Robinot, the French baler who probably crated the paintings for their return to Germany.

When Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace finally returned to Berlin in the early 1950s the city as well as its museums was already divided. The paintings from Wiesbaden – and thus Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace – joined the West Berlin collections. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and over 50 years after the collection’s dispersion in the wake of World War II, the paintings from East and West Berlin were reunited in today’s Gemäldegalerie Berlin in 1998. In the preparation of this complex logistic process, it was necessary to provide all paintings with new inventory labels such as this one dating from 1990.

The "Backstory" of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Jan Vermeer.

Credits: Story

Concept / Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Dr. Katja Kleinert & Svea Janzen

Editing / Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz


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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