Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (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.
Movements: Baroque, Allegoricism
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. As Koning points out: “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.
Relatively little is known about Vermeer’s life. He was baptized in Delft on 31 October 1632 as Joannis, and buried in the same city under the name Jan on 15 December 1675. He seems to have been exclusively devoted to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft. The only sources of information are 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”.
On 31 October 1632, Johannes was baptized in the Reformed Church. His father, Reijnier Janszoon, was a middle-class worker of silk or caffa (a mixture of silk and cotton or wool). 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, Gertruy, who was baptized in 1620.
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.
When Vermeer’s father died in October 1652, Vermeer assumed operation of the family’s art business.
In April 1653 Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes). The blessing took place in a nearby and quiet 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.
Some scholars doubt that Vermeer became Catholic, but one of his paintings, Allegory of Catholic 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, which was scorned by the Protestant order at the time. 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.”
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.
Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. His wife gave birth to 14 children, four of whom were buried before being baptized, but were registered as “child of Johan Vermeer”. 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. 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.
It is unclear where and with whom Vermeer 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 3] 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”.
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. 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 gray (“grisaille”), or a limited palette of browns and grays (“dead coloring”), over which more saturated colors (reds, yellows and blues) were applied in the form of glazes. Vermeer produced transparent colours by applying paint to the canvas in loosely granular layers, a technique called pointillé (not to be confused with pointillism). 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, and this view seems to be supported by certain light and perspective effects. The often-discussed sparkling pearly highlights in Vermeer’s paintings have been linked to this possible use of a camera obscura, the primitive lens of which would produce halation. Exaggerated perspective can be seen in Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (London, Royal Collection). Vermeer’s interest in optics is also attested in this work by the accurately observed mirror reflection above the lady at the virginals.
However, the extent of Vermeer’s dependence upon the camera obscura is disputed by historians. There is no historical evidence. The detailed inventory of the artist’s belongings drawn up after his death does not include a camera obscura or any similar device. Scientific evidence is limited to inference. Philip Steadman has found 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.
Upon the rediscovery of Vermeer’s work in the 19th century, several prominent Dutch artists, including Simon Duiker, modelled their style on his work. Salvador Dalí, with great admiration for Vermeer, 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.
A Vermeer painting plays a key part of the dénouement in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (1953). 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.
Susan Vreeland’s novel Girl in Hyacinthe Blue follows eight individuals with a relationship to a painting of Vermeer. The novel follows a reverse chronology from the current period to the time of Vermeer. And many more.
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