Up to now, I’ve referred to the number of Vermeer’s oeuvre still in existence at 36. I’ve travelled the world to see all three dozen of them, but it seems there’s still one more. St. Praxedis is supposedly an early painting by Vermeer. It features the woman, St. Praxedis, dressed in rich crimson robes kneeling as she squeezes a sponge filled with the blood of a martyred saint into an ewer. Fun stuff. This painting is almost identical another work by the Florentine Felice Ficherelli which Vermeer is thought to have cut his artistic teeth by the age-old technique of copying. When I started my Vermeer project four years ago, this work’s authenticity was still in question. I decided not to pursue it for a number of reasons: first because it had not been available to the public, secondly it was a copy, and lastly it was a rather gory-Catholic subject of which I wasn’t interested in seeing (no pearls).
This work was also rejected by the art world back in 1969 when it was first attributed to Vermeer. It remained in ‘art’ purgatory until 1986 when it some art experts accepted it. St. Praxedis was tentatively included in the Vermeer catalogue which raised some controversy. Shortly afterwards, a wealthy American Barbara Piasecka Johnson bought the painting and then debuted it with other Vermeers in exhibitions held at the National Gallery of Art, the Maurithuis and most recently in Rome.
In the end science tipped the scales in the painting’s favour. Recently technical analysis by the Rijksmuseum showed that the painting was Dutch and the lead white paint used belonged to the same batch as those of Vermeer’s early work Diane and her Companions. These scientific conclusions made this Vermeer a new addition to the rare oeuvre, and only one of two Vermeer works owned privately. Signed and dated 1655, this painting is now the earliest painting Vermeer is thought to have done at around age 22. The buzz this news caused in the art world obviously pleased Barbara. But she had a life that has long attracted buzz.
This Polish immigrant, named ‘Basia’ had the ultimate rags to riches story. Arriving in the US in 1968 with only an MA in art history from Wroclaw University and $200.00 in her pocket, she managed to get herself hired at a wealthy family’s New Jersey house as a cook. The family’s patriarch, John Seaward Johnson was one of the founding members of the Johnson & Johnson Company (the one that supplies much of the contents of every household’s medicine cabinet). Apparently her cooking wasn’t up to snuff, so she was transferred to a chambermaid position where she became acquainted with John. She quickly demonstrated her knowledge of art and he eventually arranged to have her help curate his collection. They discovered they shared a passion for art and soon after for each other.
The septuagenarian divorced his then second wife in 1971 to marry his 34 years-young bride and for the next dozen years they spent money together on art until his death in 1983. In his will John Seward Johnson denied all but one of his children (from a first marriage) any more of his estate. The ensuing probate battle became legendary with the six step children fighting for their piece of the $500 million to the tune of $24 million in lawyer fees. It was an epic three year, 17 week court case battle complete with character assassinations which were flung from both sides. The probate fight made the celebrity news buzz and prenupts a new word among the rich. In the end, the children settled for a paltry $40 million while Barbara settled with the rest of the estate overseas. Back in Europe, she continued her philanthropic activities and art collecting.
Of Barbara’s collection, many works reflect her Catholic faith. Along with her artistic interests, she also established a charity organization under her name. After her death at age 76, the charity was given permission to sell some of her works including this Vermeer, banking on the recent Rijksmuseum conclusions. Alas, according to the latest news out of Christies, it is rumoured that an Asian buyer made the winning bid July 8. I hate to see private collectors get such rare pieces since it often means that they lay shut away from the public eye – gory or not.