There is much talk of how subjective and contestable the definition of “quality art” is in the contemporary world, with the supremacy of modern art that, from Picasso on, has finally killed the classical canons. Yet there are stories able to testify that even centuries ago the real value of an artist could be relative, not universally recognized, with conflicting opinions and popularity often not related with the quality of the protagonist. One of the most mentioned cases is Jan Vermeer, today one of the most famous Dutch naturalists of 600s, who remained largely unknown both in life and in the following centuries, and began to be known for his uniqueness only around the middle of the 1800: the one rediscovering his talent was the French art critic Thoré-Bürger in the writings published around 1850, where he strongly criticized French baroque paintings as an imitation of Italian art and he urged the world to revaluate the 17th century as the historical peak of Dutch art production.
In other words, it took two centuries before the world agreed that paintings like View of Delft or The Girl with a Pearl Earring were actually masterpieces. The fault belongs partly to Vermeer himself, who at his death left the family full of debts and with no more than thirty paintings, all small ones. He sold most of his paintings while he was alive, and we still know very little about them. About The Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example, you have no traces before the end of 1800, and could have been part of the long series of paintings sold by Vermeer at important prices but attributed to other artists.
Today we know much more about the “Dutch Mona Lisa” and we can grasp the exceptional traits: the realism of the subject, extraordinary for that time, the attention to details, the representation of the light in such a vivid way, with those reflections on her eyes and her lips, and of course on the pearl, reflecting both the light source and the garments of the subject. All represented in a pose which is so natural that it seems in movement, turning towards the observer.
When the painting was auctioned in 1881, in The Hague, the bidders weren’t aware of what they had in front, and probably two centuries had reduced the visual impact that the picture could give at first glance. For these reasons, or maybe for others, the auction was closed very quickly: the buyer was Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, who got the strong recommendation the historian Victor de Stuers about the values of Vermeer’s paintings (de Stuers spent his whole life trying to prevent foreigners to purchase Vermeer’s works). The cost of the painting was two Dutch guilders. Plus thirty cents for the auction fees.
Des Tombe died without heirs in 1902 and decided to leave his collection to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is still there, in a room on the second floor, just in front of View of Delft. Even today, if you sell it at auction, the price able to quantify his value wouldn’t be clear. But for comßletely different reasons.