Baptized 31 October 1632|
Delft, Dutch Republic
15 December 1675 (aged 43)|
Delft, Dutch Republic
Dutch Golden Age |
|Works||34 works have been universally attributed to him|
Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (Dutch: [joˈɦɑnəs jɑn vərˈmɪːr]; 1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime. He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.
Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. "Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women."
Recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death; he was barely mentioned in Arnold Houbraken's major source book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists), and was thus omitted from subsequent surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing sixty-six pictures to him, although only thirty-four paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
For a long time, relatively little was known about Vermeer's life. He seems to have been devoted exclusively to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft. Until the 19th century, the only sources of information were some registers, a few official documents and comments by other artists; it was for this reason that Thoré Bürger named him "The Sphinx of Delft". John Michael Montias added a lot of details on the family from the city archives of Delft, in his Artists and Artisans in Delft: A Socio-Economic Study of the Seventeenth Century (1982).
On 31 October 1632, Johannes was baptized in the Reformed Church. [Note 1] His father, Reijnier Janszoon, was a middle-class worker of silk or caffa (a mixture of silk and cotton or wool).[Note 2] As an apprentice in Amsterdam, Reijnier lived on fashionable Sint Antoniesbreestraat, then a street with many resident painters. In 1615, he married Digna Baltus. The couple moved to Delft and had a daughter, Geertruy, who was baptized in 1620.[Note 3] In 1625, Reijnier was involved in a fight with a soldier named Willem van Bylandt, who died from his wounds five months later. Around this time, Reijnier began dealing in paintings. In 1631, he leased an inn called "The Flying Fox". In 1641, he bought a larger inn on the market square, named after the Flemish town "Mechelen". The acquisition of the inn constituted a considerable financial burden.[Huerta 1] When Vermeer's father died in October 1652, Vermeer assumed operation of the family's art business.
Marriage and family
In April 1653, Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes). The blessing took place in a quiet nearby village, Schipluiden. For the groom it was a good match. His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was significantly wealthier than he, and it was probably she who insisted Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage on 5 April.[Note 4] Some scholars doubt that Vermeer became Catholic, but one of his paintings, The Allegory of Faith, made between 1670 and 1672, placed less emphasis on the artists’ usual naturalistic concerns, and more on religious symbolic applications, including the sacrament of the Eucharist. Walter Liedtke in Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests it was made for a learned and devout Catholic patron, perhaps for his schuilkerk, or "hidden church."[Liedtke 1] So, whether it represents Vermeer’s own beliefs or only those of his patron is left to speculation. At some point, the couple moved in with Catharina's mother, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk, almost next to a hidden Jesuit church.[Note 5] Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. His wife gave birth to 15 children, four of whom were buried before being baptized, but were registered as "child of Johan Vermeer".[Montias 1] From wills written by relatives, the names of ten of Vermeer's children are known: Maria, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius.[Montias 2] Several of these names carry a religious connotation, and it is likely that the youngest, Ignatius, was named after the founder of the Jesuit order.[Note 6][Note 7]
It is unclear where and to whom Vermeer was apprenticed as a painter. Speculation that Carel Fabritius may have been his teacher is based upon a controversial interpretation of a text written in 1668 by the printer Arnold Bon. Art historians have found no hard evidence to support this.[Montias 3] The local authority, Leonaert Bramer, acted as a friend, but their style of painting is rather different. Liedtke suggests Vermeer taught himself, using information from one of his father's connections.[Liedtke 2] Some scholars think Vermeer was trained under the Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert. Vermeer's style is similar to that of some of the Utrecht Carravagists, whose works are depicted as paintings-within-paintings in the backgrounds of several of his compositions.[Note 8] In Delft, Vermeer probably competed with Pieter de Hooch and Nicolaes Maes, who produced genre works in a similar style.
On 29 December 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make clear that Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee. It was a year of plague, war and economic crisis; Vermeer was not alone in experiencing difficult financial circumstances. In 1654, the city suffered the terrible explosion known as the Delft Thunderclap, which destroyed a large section of the city. In 1657, he might have found a patron in the local art collector Pieter van Ruijven, who lent him some money. In 1662, Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he (like Bramer) was considered an established craftsman among his peers. Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year, and on order. When Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663 to see some of his work, the diplomat and the two French clergymen who accompanied him were sent to Hendrick van Buyten, a baker, who had a couple of his paintings as collateral.
In 1671, Gerrit van Uylenburgh organised the auction of Gerrit Reynst's collection and offered thirteen paintings and some sculptures to Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. Frederick accused them of being counterfeits and had sent twelve back on the advice of Hendrick Fromantiou. Van Uylenburg then organized a counter-assessment, asking a total of 35 painters to pronounce on their authenticity, including Jan Lievens, Melchior de Hondecoeter, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout and Johannes Vermeer.
In 1672, a severe economic downturn (the "Year of Disaster") struck the Netherlands, after Louis XIV and a French army invaded the Dutch Republic from the south (known as the Franco-Dutch War). During the Third Anglo-Dutch War, an English fleet and two allied German bishops attacked the country from the east, causing more destruction. Many people panicked; courts, theaters, shops and schools were closed. Five years passed before circumstances improved. In the summer of 1675, Vermeer borrowed money in Amsterdam, using his mother-in-law as a surety.
In December 1675, Vermeer fell into a frenzy and, within a day and a half, died. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15 December 1675.[Note 9] [Note 10] Catharina Bolnes attributed her husband's death to the stress of financial pressures. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer's business as both a painter and an art dealer. She, having to raise 11 children, asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer's creditors.[Montias 1] The Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee. The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs, and beds. In his atelier, there were two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers and "rummage not worthy being itemized".[Montias 4] Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten in order to pay off a substantial debt for delivered bread.
Vermeer had been a respected artist in Delft, but almost unknown outside his home town. The fact that a local patron, Pieter van Ruijven, purchased much of his output reduced the possibility of his fame spreading.[Note 11] Several factors contributed to his limited oeuvre. Vermeer never had any pupils and therefore there was no school of Vermeer. His family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time, as would acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses. His time spent serving as head of the guild and his extraordinary precision as a painter may have also limited his output.
Like most painters of his time, Vermeer probably first executed his paintings tonally, using either only shades of grey ("grisaille"), or a limited palette of browns and greys ("dead coloring"), over which more saturated colors (reds, yellows and blues) were applied in the form of transparent glazes. No drawings have been positively attributed to Vermeer, and his paintings offer few clues to preparatory methods.
David Hockney, among other historians and advocates of the Hockney–Falco thesis, has speculated that Vermeer used a camera obscura to achieve precise positioning in his compositions, asserting that this view is supported by certain light and perspective effects. The often-discussed sparkling pearly highlights in Vermeer's paintings have also been linked by advocates to the possible use of a camera obscura, the primitive lens of which would produce halation. It was also postulated that a camera obscura was the mechanical cause of the "exaggerated" perspective seen in Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (London, Royal Collection).
However, Vermeer's ownership of and dependence upon the camera obscura is disputed by historians. Aside from the accurately observed mirror reflection above the lady at the virginals, there is no historical evidence regarding Vermeer's interest in optics. The detailed inventory of the artist's belongings drawn up after his death does not include a camera obscura or any similar device. Philip Steadman has found only six Vermeer paintings that are precisely the right size if they were inside a camera obscura where the back wall of his studio was where the images were projected. In the documentary film Tim's Vermeer inventor Tim Jenison tests the theory that Vermeer used a simple mirror instead.
There is no other seventeenth-century artist who early in his career employed, in the most lavish way, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, or natural ultramarine. Vermeer not only used this in elements that are naturally of this colour; the earth colours umber and ochre should be understood as warm light within a painting's strongly-lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall. In this way, he created a world more perfect than any he had witnessed.[Liedtke 3] This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer’s understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object. This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour.
A comparable but even more remarkable, yet effectual, use of natural ultramarine is in The Girl with a Wineglass. The shadows of the red satin dress are underpainted in natural ultramarine, and, owing to this underlying blue paint layer, the red lake and vermilion mixture applied over it acquires a slightly purple, cool and crisp appearance that is most powerful.
Even after Vermeer’s supposed financial breakdown following the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672, he continued to employ natural ultramarine generously, such as in Lady Seated at a Virginal. This could suggest that Vermeer was supplied with materials by a collector, and would coincide with John Michael Montias’ theory that Pieter van Ruijven was Vermeer’s patron.
Vermeer's works are largely genre pieces and portraits, with the exception of two cityscapes and two allegories. His subjects offer a cross-section of seventeenth-century Dutch society, ranging from the portrayal of a simple milkmaid at work, to the luxury and splendour of rich notables and merchantmen in their roomy houses. Besides these subjects, religious, poetical, musical, and scientific comments can also be found in his work.
Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned Dirck van Baburen's 1622 oil-on-canvas Procuress (or a copy of it), which appears in the background of two of Vermeer's paintings. The same subject was also painted by Vermeer. After creating his own The Procuress, almost all of Vermeer's paintings are of contemporary subjects in a smaller format, with a cooler palette dominated by blues, yellows and grays. Practically all of his surviving works belong to this period; usually domestic interiors with one or two figures lit by a window on the left. They are characterized by a serene sense of compositional balance and spatial order, unified by a pearly light. Mundane domestic or recreational activities become thereby imbued with a poetic timelessness (e.g. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie). Vermeer's two townscapes, View of Delft (The Hague, Mauritshuis) and A street in Delft (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), have also been attributed to this period.
A few of his paintings show a certain hardening of manner and are generally thought to represent his late works. From this period come The Allegory of Faith (c 1670; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and The Love Letter (c 1670; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
Rediscovery and legacy
For two centuries after Vermeer's death, his works were appreciated by a number of connoisseurs in Holland—although attributed in many cases to better-known artists such as Metsu or Mieris—but were largely overlooked by art historians. The Delft master's modern rediscovery began about 1860, when the German museum director Gustav Waagen saw The Art of Painting in the Czernin gallery in Vienna, and recognized as a Vermeer the work which was at that time attributed to Pieter de Hooch. Research by Théophile Thoré-Bürger culminated in the publication in 1866 of his catalogue raisonné of Vermeer's works in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Thoré-Bürger's catalogue, which drew international attention to Vermeer, listed more than seventy works by Vermeer, including many he regarded as uncertain. The accepted number of Vermeer's paintings today is thirty-four.
Upon the rediscovery of Vermeer's work, several prominent Dutch artists, including Simon Duiker, modelled their style on his work. Other artists who were inspired by Vermeer include the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi and the American Thomas Wilmer Dewing. In the 20th century, Vermeer's admirers included Salvador Dalí, who painted his own version of The Lacemaker and pitted large copies of the original against a rhinoceros in some now-famous surrealist experiments. Dali also immortalized the Dutch Master in The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table, 1934.
Han van Meegeren was a 20th-century Dutch painter who worked in the classical tradition. Motivated by a blend of aesthetic and financial reasons, van Meegeren became a master forger, creating and selling many new 'Vermeers' before being caught and tried.
References in other media
In the first volume of Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time, entitled Swann's Way, the protagonist Charles Swann is said to be working on an extended essay concerning Vermeer's art. In addition, Vermeer's View of Delft features in a pivotal sequence of a later volume, The Captive, in the same work.
A Vermeer painting plays a key part of the dénouement in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral (1953). Susan Vreeland's novel Girl in Hyacinthe Blue follows eight individuals with a relationship to a painting of Vermeer. The young adult novel Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett centers around the fictitious theft of Vermeer's A Lady Writing. J.P. Smith's novel, The Discovery of Light, deals largely with Vermeer. The character of Barney, in Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal (1999), has a goal to see every Vermeer painting in the world before he dies.
Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring and the film of the same name (2003) are named after the painting; they present a fictional account of its creation by Vermeer and his relationship with the model. The film was nominated for Oscars in cinematography, art direction, and costume design.
Peter Greenaway's film A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) contains a plot line about an orthopedic surgeon named Van Meegeren who stages highly exact scenes from Vermeer paintings in order to paint copies of them.
The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen based his opera Writing to Vermeer (1997–98, libretto by Peter Greenaway) on the domestic life of Vermeer. The song "No one was like Vermeer" from the 2008 album Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild by Bostonian singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman pays tribute to Vermeer's painstaking technique. "Jan Vermeer" is a rockabilly song written by Bob Walkenhorst for his solo album The Beginner. David Olney's song "Mister Vermeer" on his 2010 album Dutchman's Curve imagines Vermeer's unrequited love for the subject of Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Historian Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2007) examines six of Vermeer's paintings for evidence of world trade and globalization during the Dutch Golden Age.
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|Commons has media related to Johannes Vermeer.|
- Johannes Vermeer, biography at Artble
- Essential Vermeer, website dedicated to Johannes Vermeer
- Encyclopædia Britannica
- Vermeer Center Delft, center with tours about Vermeer