Counting Vermeer


2.2 X-rays and Vermeer

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer were among the first paintings to be X-rayed; Burroughs was also the first to systematically study Vermeer’s paintings with the use of X-radiographs. In his archive of X-radiographs, sixteen paintings are listed under Vermeer.1 Exactly when the X-rays were made is unclear, but when Art Criticism from a Laboratory was published in 1938, Burroughs refers to 3200 X-radiographs, and by 1941 his archive included some 4100 X-rays.2

It recently came to light that the X-ray images of the Rijksmuseum Vermeer paintings in Burroughs’ archive were in fact made in Amsterdam around 1930 by Martin de Wild. Correspondence kept in the Rijksmuseum Archives shows that Burroughs, in a letter to the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, dated February 15, 1929, requested permission to X-ray thirty paintings in the Rijksmuseum. Provided permission was granted, Burroughs wrote that Martin de Wild had consented to supervise this work.3 The American art historian accordingly wrote to the director of the Rijksmuseum, Frederik Schmidt-Degener (1881-1941), asking for his help in granting the necessary permission.4 Schmidt-Degener advised the minister to support Burroughs’ request, on the condition that compensation of five guilders per painting was paid for expenses incurred and that copies of the X-radiographs were given to the museum’s archive. In a letter dated July 5, 1929 the Dutch Ministry granted Burroughs official permission.5 According to the list that was sent with the 8 x 10 inch negatives of the photographs of the X-ray films, these were received by the Rijksmuseum on March 29, 1930, and are still preserved in the Rijksmuseum’s archives.

The first Vermeer X-ray that would appear in print was that of A Maid Asleep (L04) in a chapter in Burroughs’ 1938 publication on the work of Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693).6 The art historian noted a ‘Vermeer-like style’ in some of the paintings by Maes. Burroughs was able to distinguish differences in the painting technique of Vermeer and Maes by means of the X-radiographs. He described Maes’ technique – as observed in the X-rays – as rather clean and smooth, as opposed to that of Vermeer, which was ‘loose in modelling and spotty in brushwork’. Burroughs also saw in the shadowgraphs similarities in the painting technique of Maes with that of Carel Fabritius and Barent Fabritius, an indication according to Burroughs that Maes, as well as Vermeer, must have been in contact with the Fabritius brothers.7


Detail of the X-ray of A Maid Asleep, as illustrated in Burroughs, figure 31.


Detail of the X-ray of Nicolaes Maes, Old Woman Saying Grace, circa 1656 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).


1 The Love Letter (L30) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2002); Woman Holding a Balance (L19) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2004); The Milkmaid (L07) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2005); Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (L13) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2006); Girl with a Flute (L25) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2007); Woman with a Pearl Necklace (L18) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2008); Woman with a Lute (L14) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2009); The Little Street (L11) (Burroughs X-ray ID 2010); Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (L17) (Burroughs X-ray ID 2011); A Maid Asleep (L04) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2012); The Geographer (L27) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2013); Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (L34) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2014); The Glass of Wine (L08) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2015); Allegory of the Catholic Faith (L32) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2498); Girl with a Pearl Earring (L22) (Burroughs X-ray ID: 3576, gift of M. Coremans).
No longer attributed to Vermeer: Lady with a Guitar (38), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (Johnson Collection) PA 497 (Burroughs X-ray ID: 2003). We wish to thank Kate Smith, associate conservator of paintings at the Straus Center for Conservation for kindly providing us with this information. 

2 A. Burroughs, Art Criticism from a Laboratory, Boston 1938, p. X; F.G. Bewer, A Laboratory for Art. Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900-1950, Cambridge (MA)/New Haven 2010, p. 201.

3 Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem, 476 Rijksmuseum en rechtsvoorgangers te Amsterdam, 266, letter of Alan Burroughs to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, February 15, 1929. Grateful thanks to Esther van Duijn, who is currently researching the restoration history of paintings in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and kindly provided us with this correspondence.

4 Ibidem, 266, letter of Alan Burroughs to Frederik Schmidt-Degener, March 4, 1929.

5 Ibidem, 266, letter of Frederik Schmidt-Degener to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, May 14, 1929 and letter of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to Alan Burroughs, July 5, 1929.

6 Burroughs 1938 (note 2), Figure 31.

7 Burroughs 1938 (note 2), Chapter 8: ‘The Development of an Artist’, pp. 102-109.

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