The masterpiece acquired by mistake
The dream of many an individual who’s appeared on the long-running PBS series Antiques Roadshow is to miraculously discover that an old item that’s been kicking around the house for years is a priceless relic of inestimable historical - and monetary – value.
Good old King George III, he of American Revolution fame, had an “Antiques Roadshow moment,” though he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.
In 1762, George wanted some books being sold off by Joseph Smith, the British consul to Venice. As part of the package, he had to take some paintings, too. Included was one identified as a work by Frans van Mieris the Elder, owing to a misreading of the signature.
It wasn’t until 1866, when art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger examined the piece, that it was correctly identified as The Music Lesson, a work by Jan Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life.
Also called A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, the picture was sold in May 1696 in Delft, part of the collection of Jacob Dissous, which included a score of Vermeers. It was later acquired by Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini in 1718, with Pellegrini’s collection later being bought by Smith.
The Sunday Mail describes The Music Lesson in detail: “It’s a very intricate interior, with richly decorated virginals, a mirror filling out the scene, a sumptuous oriental carpet, and everything, in Vermeer’s characteristic way, lit by softly falling light from the left.”
Smith (1682–1770) was the British consul at Venice from 1744 until 1760, and was a noted was a patron of artists. His collection of drawings form a nucleus of the Royal Collection of drawings in the Print Room at Windsor Castle.
Vermeer, who died at age 42, was never a prolific artist. Today just 34 of his paintings are known to survive. As such, George III’s acquisition nearly 250 years ago remains one of the steals of the ages.
(Above: The Music Lesson, by Jan Vermeer, 1662-65)