Johannes or Jan Van der Meer, known as Vermeer, baptized on October 31, 1632 in Delft, and buried on December 15, 1675 in the same city, was a Dutch painter of the Dutch genre painting movement.
Active in the Dutch city of Delft, which was attached to the House of Orange, Vermeer seems to have acquired a reputation as an innovative artist in his time, and to have benefited from the protection of rich patrons. But a reputation that was essentially confined to the limits of his provincial territory, a small production, estimated at a maximum of forty-five paintings in twenty years, as well as a biography that remained obscure for a long time – hence his nickname of the “Sphinx of Delft” – may explain why the painter fell into oblivion after his death – except among enlightened collectors.
Vermeer only really came to light in the second half of the 19th century, when the French art critic and journalist Théophile Thoré-Burger devoted a series of articles to him, published in 1866 in the Gazette des beaux-arts. From then on, his reputation, supported by the tributes paid to him by painters, particularly Impressionists, and writers such as Marcel Proust, continued to grow. His paintings are the object of a real hunt, made even more lively by their rarity, and attracting the covetousness of forgers. Among the thirty-four paintings currently attributed to him with certainty – three others are still the subject of debate – The Girl with the Pearl and The Milkmaid are now among the most famous works in the history of painting, and Vermeer is placed, along with Rembrandt and Frans Hals, among the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. This critical and popular fortune is confirmed by the large number of exhibitions devoted to him, and is fueled by the use of his works in advertising, as well as by bookstore and box-office success.
Vermeer is best known for his genre scenes. In a style that combines mystery and familiarity, formal perfection and poetic depth, they present interiors and scenes of domestic life, depicting a world more perfect than the one he witnessed. These mature works have a coherence that makes them immediately recognizable, and which is based in particular on inimitable color combinations – with a predilection for natural ultramarine and yellow -, a great mastery of the treatment of light and space, and the combination of limited elements, recurrent from one painting to another.
Little is known about Vermeer”s life. He seems to have been entirely devoted to his art in the city of Delft. The only information about him comes from some registers, a few official documents and comments by other artists, which is why Thoré-Bürger, when he rediscovered him in 1866, called him the “Sphinx of Delft”. In 1989, the economist John Michael Montias, after having published a socio-economic study of the art market in the city of Delft in the 17th century, undertook to write a biography of Vermeer based on his previous studies and on patient archival research: Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History thus brings the painter back into focus, shedding essential light on his life and the social history of his time.
The baptism certificate of “Joannis” Vermeer was drawn up in Delft on October 31, 1632, in the Protestant Reformed milieu, the same year as Spinoza in Amsterdam. His mother”s name was Dymphna Balthasars (or Dyna Baltens), and his father Reynier Janszoon. His first name refers to the Latinized, Christianized version of the Dutch first name Jan, which was also that of the child”s grandfather. But Vermeer never used the signature “Jan”, preferring the more refined Latin version of “Johannes”.
Vermeer”s father, Reynier Janszoon, was first known in Delft as “Vos” (“the fox” in Dutch). He was a silk weaver and upholsterer, and in the late 1630s he ran the inn De Vliegende Vos (“The Flying Fox”), named after the sign it bore, where he sold paintings, carpets and tapestries. From 1640, for some reason, Vermeer took the name “van der Meer” (“Lake” in Dutch) after his brother – the “Ver” in “Vermeer” being in fact the contraction of “van der” in some Dutch surnames. Similarly, Janszoon is shortened to Jansz.
In 1611, at the age of 20, Reynier Janszoon was sent by his father to Amsterdam to learn the trade of weaver and settled in Sint Antoniebreestraat, where many painters lived. In 1615 he married Digna Baltens, four years his junior, presenting a certificate from a remonstrant minister in Delft to facilitate the marriage.
The couple then left Amsterdam for Delft, where they had two children: a daughter, named Geertruyt, born in 1620, and Johannes, born in 1632.
Reynier Jansz. will work on several activities at once. In accordance with his training, he is a “caffawerker”, a master weaver of caffa – a rich silk fabric mixed with wool and cotton. His son may have been marked by a childhood spent among the pieces of fabric and rolls of silk of all colors, as evidenced by the carpets used as tablecloths and curtains that abound in the interiors of his work.
From 1625, Reynier Jansz. also becomes an innkeeper. In the 1630s, the couple moved to the Voldersgracht – where Johannes was born – to rent an inn called De Vliegende Vos (“The Flying Fox”). Then in 1641 he went heavily into debt to buy another one, the Mechelen, located on the Markt (the “Market”) in Delft, where Johannes spent the rest of his childhood.
His last activity was that of “konstverkoper” (“art dealer”), which surely went hand in hand with that of innkeeper, the tavern facilitating meetings and trade between artists and amateurs. On October 13, 1631, he joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft. A document from 1640 mentions him in connection with the Delft painters Balthasar van der Ast, who specialized in floral still lifes, Pieter van Steenwyck and Pieter Anthonisz van Groenewegen, and another, signed in his inn, puts him in the presence of the painter Egbert van der Poel, who came from Rotterdam. But it is unlikely that his trade went much beyond the limits of his city – even if the acquisition of one or more paintings by the Rotterdam painter Cornelis Saftleven is attested.
Vermeer”s father was of a rather sanguine temperament: in 1625, seven years before Johannes was born, he was arrested for having stabbed a soldier during a brawl with two other weavers. The case was settled by paying compensation to the victim – who died five months later – which was partially paid by Reynier Jansz.”s mother. If we add to this the fact that his maternal grandfather, Balthasar Gerrits, was involved from 1619 on in a dark story of counterfeit money, which ended in the beheading in 1620 of the two sponsors, but also the ruinous situation in which his father died in October 1652, leaving his son more debts than assets, one can get a rather gloomy idea of Vermeer”s family – even if, on the other hand, the extreme solidarity that united its members has been highlighted.
Although no document has yet been found to account for his apprenticeship, it must be assumed that young Johannes began his apprenticeship towards the end of the 1640s, since he was admitted as a master to the guild of Saint Luke in Delft on December 29, 1653, and that he was required to have completed four to six years of training with a recognized master. Several hypotheses have therefore been put forward, none of which is fully satisfactory.
Family knowledge points to Leonard Bramer (1596-1674), one of the most prominent painters in Delft at the time, whose name appears on a deposition of Vermeer”s mother and who played a significant role in the conclusion of his marriage to Catharina Bolnes in 1653. Other Flemish artists in the family”s entourage were the still life painter Evert van Aelst and Gerard ter Borch, who signed a notarial deed with Vermeer in 1653. However, the major stylistic differences between the first Vermeer and these painters make the relationship hazardous.
The style of his early works, large-scale history paintings, is more reminiscent of Amsterdam painters such as Jacob van Loo (1614-1670), from whom the composition of The Rest of Diana seems to be a direct borrowing, or Erasmus Quellin (1607-1678), for Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. But these resurgences prove nothing, and can be explained simply by Vermeer”s trip to Amsterdam – easily conceivable, even at that time – to draw inspiration from the best painters of the time.
The name of one of Rembrandt”s most gifted pupils, Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who arrived in Delft in 1650, has also been mentioned insistently, especially in the nineteenth century, as his paintings are not unrelated to some of Vermeer”s darker or more melancholy early works, such as A Drowsy Girl (ca. 1656-1657). Moreover, after his death in the 1654 explosion of the Delft powder magazine, which destroyed much of the city, a eulogy by the local printer Arnold Bon made Vermeer his only worthy successor. However, this artistic filiation is not valid as proof, especially since Fabritius was not registered with the guild of Saint Luke – a prerequisite for taking on apprentices – until October 1652, which largely undermines the idea that he could have had Vermeer as a pupil.
His early paintings are also marked by the influence of the Caravaggesque School in Utrecht. The hypothesis of a master in Utrecht, and first and foremost Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1661), could be supported by reasons unrelated to painting, as Bloemaert was a member of Johannes” future in-laws, and a Catholic like her. This could explain not only how Vermeer, from a middle-class Calvinist family, was able to meet and propose to Catharina Bolnes, from a very wealthy Catholic family, but also why he converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty, between his engagement and his marriage.
The fragility of each of these hypotheses, and above all the capacity for synthesis of Vermeer”s art, which seems to have rapidly assimilated the influences of other painters in order to find its own style, must therefore lead us to be extremely cautious about the question of his training.
When he died on October 12, 1652, Reynier Jansz. left a very precarious financial situation to his son, who took several years to pay off the debts he had incurred.
On April 5, 1653, Johannes had his intention to marry Catharina Bolnes, a well-to-do Catholic woman – through her mother, Maria Thins, from a wealthy family of brick merchants in Gouda – registered with a notary, and the couple became engaged the same day in the Delft Town Hall. However, whether for financial reasons, as Vermeer”s situation was more than precarious, or for religious reasons, as he had received a Calvinist Protestant education, the marriage was initially opposed by the future mother-in-law, which was only lifted after the intervention of the painter – a Catholic – and close friend of Vermeer, Leonard Bramer. On April 20, the marriage was concluded in Schipluiden, a village near Delft, and the couple settled for a time in the “Mechelen”, the inn inherited from their father. It is generally believed, but not proven, that Johannes had converted to Catholicism in the meantime, which explains why Maria Thins had overcome her reluctance.
Some scholars have questioned the sincerity of Vermeer”s conversion. However, he seems to have integrated quickly and deeply into the Catholic milieu of his in-laws, at a time when Catholicism was a marginalized minority in the United Provinces, tolerated since the Eighty Years” War. Religious services were held in clandestine churches called schuilkerken, and those who called themselves Catholics were forbidden from entering city or government positions. Two of his earliest works, painted around 1655, Christ at Martha and Mary”s, and Saint Praxedes (the attribution of which is still highly disputed), show a distinctly Catholic inspiration, as does one of his later paintings, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-1674), probably commissioned by a wealthy Catholic patron or a schuilkerk: the chalice on the table recalls the belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the serpent, a symbolic figure of heresy, violently crushed by a block of stone in the foreground, could not but shock Protestants.
In 1641, Maria Thins left her abusive husband and obtained a legal separation of body and property. She moved from Gouda with her daughter Catharina to Delft, where she bought a spacious house in the Oude Langendijk, in the “Papists” Corner” – the Catholic quarter of Delft.
Shortly after their marriage, Johannes and Catharina moved in with her and, thanks to her financial support, enjoyed a period of relative prosperity. The couple apparently had eleven children, four of whom died in infancy. The first name of one of them is not known. The other ten, three boys and seven girls, were probably baptized in the Catholic church in Delft, but the parish registers of this church have disappeared, so this is not entirely certain. Their first names appear in family wills: Maria, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina and Ignatius, the same first name as that of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. This number, quite exceptional in the Holland of the XVIIth century, must have been a considerable burden for the family, and perhaps explains the loan that he was obliged to ask in November 1657 to Pieter Claesz. van Ruyven.
Few works show such a radical departure from the artist”s biography, the world depicted in his paintings being so alien to the realities of his daily life that it has been considered an escape. While the house was cluttered with beds and cribs, his genre scenes never depict children: only La Ruelle shows two of them, from behind, playing in front of the house. And the peaceful and serene atmosphere of his interiors contrasts strikingly with an environment that one imagines to be noisy, disturbed moreover by violent incidents. For example, his only two paintings of a pregnant woman, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and Woman with Scales, are contemporaneous with the internment of Catharina”s brother, Willem Bolnes, as a result of “occasional acts of violence against the daughter of Johannes Vermeer”s wife Maria, mistreating her and beating her on various occasions with a stick, despite the fact that she was fully pregnant.
On December 29, 1653, about seven months after his marriage, Johannes Vermeer entered the guild of St. Luke in Delft. According to the guild”s archives, he was enrolled without immediately paying the customary admission fee (six guilders), probably because his financial situation at the time did not allow him to do so, which he did on July 24, 1656, as indicated in a note in the margin of the guild book. This nevertheless allowed him to practice his art freely on his own account, to continue his father”s trade in paintings, and to take on students – even though he seems to have had none during his career. However, he considers himself above all a painter, as evidenced by the profession he chooses to mention systematically on official documents.
As a sign of the recognition of his peers, he was elected head of the Saint-Luc guild in 1662, at the age of thirty – which made him the youngest syndic the guild had known since 1613 – and was re-elected the following year. He was reappointed the following year. He was reappointed a second time in 1672.
He also seems to have been appreciated as an expert. In May 1672 he was one of thirty-five painters, along with Hans Jordaens (en), another Delft painter, who were charged with authenticating the collection of twelve paintings, nine of which were attributed to Venetian masters, sold in The Hague by the art dealer Gerrit van Uylenburgh (en) to Frederick William, Grand Elector of Brandenburg. Vermeer concluded, against the advice of some of his colleagues, that they were inauthentic.
Vermeer worked slowly, producing, it seems, no more than three paintings a year, for a total estimated at between forty-five and sixty works over his entire career – neither his fame acquired in Delft, nor his financial worries, which began around 1670, having accelerated this pace.
It has been assumed that Vermeer painted more for private individuals than for the general public of the open art market. When the French diplomat and art lover Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663, he had no canvas to show him, and so he invited him to go to the local baker”s, probably Hendrick van Buyten. I saw the painter Vermeer, who had none of his works: but we saw one at a baker”s, which we paid six hundred pounds for, even though it had only one figure, which I thought I was paying too much for at six pistols. The price, if true, was far above those usually charged by painters of the time.
Two commissioners in particular stand out. In addition to the wealthy baker van Buyten, Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, a wealthy patrician tax collector from Delft, with whom Vermeer had ties that went beyond the simple relationship between painter and patron, notably by granting a loan of 200 florins to the artist and his wife in 1657. The latter was probably the actual first buyer of a good number of the twenty-one Vermeer paintings that were auctioned in Amsterdam in 1696, on the occasion of the estate of the printer Jacob Dissius – the latter having inherited the collection of his parents-in-law through his wife, the daughter van Ruijven.
The fact that van Ruijven, a provincial patron of the arts, acquired most of Vermeer”s output may explain why the artist”s reputation, although quite flattering in Delft, did not spread beyond his home town during his lifetime, or even after his death in 1675.
In 1672, the Rampjaar (“the disastrous year” in Dutch), the United Provinces were hit by a serious economic crisis, following the double attack of the country, by the French army of Louis XIV (Dutch War), and by the English fleet, allied to the principalities of Cologne and Münster (Third Anglo-Dutch War). In order to protect Amsterdam, the surrounding lands were flooded. Maria Thins lost the income from her farms and estates near Schoonhoven. The art market – for both painters and art dealers – naturally came to a sudden halt. In this disastrous context, and in order to be able to continue to feed his large family, Vermeer was forced to go to Amsterdam in July 1675 to borrow the sum of 1,000 florins.
This succession of financial setbacks, perhaps accentuated by the death of his patron van Ruijven in 1674, hastened his death. His wife later recounted: “Not only had he not been able to sell his art, but also, to his great detriment, the paintings of other masters with whom he had done business had been left on his hands. For this reason, and because of the great expenses incurred by the children, for which he no longer had any personal means, he became so distressed and weakened that he lost his health and died within a day or a day and a half. The funeral ceremony was held on December 15, 1675 in the Oudekerk (the “Old Church”) in Delft, leaving his wife and eleven children still in his care in debt.
Catharina Bolnes had to pawn two of her husband”s paintings, A Lady Writing a Letter and Her Maid and A Woman Playing the Guitar, to the baker van Buyten to secure a staggering debt of 726 florins, or between two and three years” worth of bread. She sold twenty-six other paintings – which were probably not by her husband – for about 500 florins to an art dealer, and The Art of Painting to her mother to repay a debt of 1000 florins to her.
These steps did not prevent Catharina from declaring bankruptcy in April 1676. After filing a petition with the High Court of Justice to extend her deadlines, she had the microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who happened to work for the city council, appointed as curator of her property on September 30, 1676. The house, which had eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs and beds. In the studio of the deceased painter were, among “a jumble which it was not worthwhile to make an inventory of”, two chairs, two easels, three pallets, ten canvases, a desk, an oak table and a small wooden cabinet with drawers. During the liquidation of the property, a merchant, Jannetje Stevens, received 26 paintings as a pledge for a debt of 500 florins. At her death, Catharina”s mother bequeathed an annuity to her daughter who died in 1687.
An oversight of 18th century art history, but not of collectors
Contrary to the idea that was widely propagated from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, Vermeer was not entirely the “unrecognized genius” that he was made out to be, and his works continued, after his death, to figure prominently in sales and private collections.
At the sale of the Dissius collection in Amsterdam on May 16, 1696, twenty-one Vermeers, most of them accompanied by glowing catalog comments, traded at relatively high sums for the time. In 1719, La Laitière was referred to as “the famous Delft Laitière by Vermeer”, and the English painter and critic, Sir Joshua Reynolds, mentioned the same painting in the “Cabinet de M. Le Brun”, on the occasion of a trip to Flanders and Holland in 1781. The transition from the 18th to the 19th century saw a clear craze, favored by the rarity of the master”s paintings, for Vermeer paintings that appeared on the art market. For example, the catalog of the sale where The Concert appears in 1804 specifies that “the productions have always been regarded as classical, and worthy of the ornament of the most beautiful Cabinets.” In 1822, it was the View of Delft, considered to be the “most important and most famous painting by this master whose works are rare”, which was acquired by the Mauritshuis in The Hague for the then colossal sum of 2,900 florins.
However, Vermeer was to suffer from a relative oblivion on the part of art historians, and occupy a minor place in their works, in the shadow of the other masters of the 17th century. This could be explained not only by his low output, but also by a reputation during his lifetime that, while firmly established in the city of Delft, had difficulty extending beyond it. The Dutch art theorist Gerard de Lairesse, in his Grand livre des peintres (Het Groot schilderboeck) published in 1707, mentions Vermeer, but only as a painter “in the taste of old Mieris. And Arnold Houbraken, in The Great Theater of Dutch Painters published in Amsterdam between 1718 and 1720, which was the reference work for art criticism on Dutch painters throughout the 18th century, simply mentions his name in connection with the city of Delft, without further comment. It was not until 1816 that he appeared in a separate entry in Roeland van den Eynden”s and Adriaan van der Willigen”s History of Dutch Painting, thanks to his reputation among collectors, none of whom “were prepared to pay very large sums to own one of his paintings. Vermeer”s reputation spread beyond the borders of Holland, as the English art dealer John Smith cited him in 1833 in his Catalogue Raisonné of works by the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French painters as a follower of Gabriel Metsu
Théophile Thoré-Burger and the rediscovery of the work and the painter
Vermeer”s work really came back into the limelight in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to a series of three articles that the journalist and art historian Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré, under the pseudonym William Bürger, devoted to him between October and December 1866 in the Gazette des beaux-arts.
His first encounter with Vermeer dates from 1842, when, visiting the museums of The Hague, he fell in wonder before the painting of a painter then totally unknown in France, “View of the city of Delft, on the side of the canal, by Jan van der Meer of Delft”. This wonderment was redoubled and amplified in 1848 when he was able to admire, in the collection of Mr. Six van Hillegom, La Laitière and La Ruelle. Forced into political exile by Napoleon III in 1848 because of his participation in an abortive socialist-inspired uprising, he found himself crisscrossing Europe and its museums, and began to track down the paintings of this forgotten painter, whom he nicknamed the “Sphinx of Delft” because of the mystery surrounding his life. This led him to draw up the first inventory of the master”s works, in particular by reattributing some that were previously considered to be by Pieter de Hooch, and to list no less than 72 paintings (nearly half of them erroneously), in a list that he believes is still largely open.
The reasons for the admiration of this radical democrat for the Dutch 17th century in general, and for Vermeer in particular, are primarily political. They are rooted in his rejection of the Church and the monarchy, which, according to him, phagocytized the History of painting through the historical, religious and mythological subjects they imposed: the Dutch genre scenes, on the contrary, focused on the daily life of simple people, and opened the way, from the 16th century onwards, to a “civil and intimate” painting. In this respect, he was a fierce defender of Realism and of his contemporaries Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet and the landscape painter Théodore Rousseau – like Champfleury to whom he dedicated his articles on Vermeer.
But he also praised the “quality of light” in Vermeer”s interiors, rendered as if “au naturel” (unlike the “arbitrary” effects of Rembrandt and Velázquez, whom he otherwise admired), and which is reflected in the remarkable harmony of his colors. However, he admired above all his landscapes, The Lane and the View of Delft.
Thoré-Bürger owned several of the master”s paintings, some wrongly attributed, others authentic, such as The Lady with the Pearl Necklace, A Lady Standing at the Virginal, Lady Playing the Virginal and The Concert.
At the end of the 19th century, there was a real hunt for Vermeer”s works, which were then almost all still in the Netherlands. The buyers of the rare paintings were mainly politicians and businessmen, which led Victor de Stuers to publish in 1873 in the periodical De Gids a pamphlet that has remained famous in the Netherlands, “Holland op zijn Smalst” (“Holland in all its meanness”), denouncing the lack of a national policy for the conservation of its artistic heritage. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, Holland also experienced a controversy over the sale of the Six Collection, which included The Milkmaid along with thirty-eight other Old Master paintings, with some pointing to the risk of these heritage masterpieces leaving the country for the United States, and others pointing to the exorbitant cost of the collection, which some even questioned as to its real quality and value. The issue was debated in the Second Chamber of the States General, and eventually the collection was purchased by the state, which brought La Laitière into the Rijksmuseum in 1908.
Subsequently, critics tried to refine and correct Thoré-Bürger”s first catalog: Henry Havard, in 1888, authenticated 56 paintings, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, in 1907, only 34.
The current celebrity, and the exhibitions-events
The twentieth century finally gave the Delft master the fame he deserved, even if it remained to correct the errors of attribution and those of hagiographers, and to unmask the forgers, attracted by this new fame.
Vermeer achieved fame in France during the “Dutch Exhibition: Paintings, Watercolors and Old and Modern Drawings” held at the Jeu de Paume Museum from April to May 1921. Although only three of his works were shown, they were truly his masterpieces: the View of Delft and The Girl with a Pearl on loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and The Dairy Girl on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. On this occasion, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer published a series of three articles in L”Opinion, between April 30 and May 14, entitled “Le Mystérieux Vermeer” (The Mysterious Vermeer), which Marcel Proust, who was busy writing his novel-cycle, In Search of Lost Time, particularly noticed.
In 1935, the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam devoted its first exhibition to Vermeer, grouping eight of his paintings under the title “Vermeer, origin and influence: Fabritius, De Hooch, De Witte”. The 1966 exhibition at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, then at the Musée de l”Orangerie in Paris, entitled “In the Light of Vermeer”, will present eleven of his paintings.
In 1995, a major retrospective was organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Mauritshuis in The Hague. While twenty of the thirty-five paintings listed were exhibited in Washington – and attracted 325,000 visitors – the Maurithuis exhibited two more, The Milkmaid and The Love Letter, which were loaned for the occasion by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
A Vermeer retrospective, “Vermeer and the Delft School,” was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from March 8 to May 27, 2001, and then at the National Gallery in London from June 20 to September 16, 2001, and presented thirteen works by the master, as well as the highly contested A Young Woman Seated with a Virginal.
An exhibition at the Louvre Museum, “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting,” presents, from February 22 to May 22, 2017, twelve paintings by the master with works by his contemporaries.
Vermeer is now placed in the pantheon of 17th century Dutch painters, alongside Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and The Girl with the Pearl, nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North,” and The Milkmaid are among the most famous paintings in the world.
History painting, allegories, landscapes
Vermeer began his career, after his admission to the guild of Saint Luke in 1653, with paintings of religious and mythological subjects, including Diana and her companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. This probably reflects the young painter”s ambition to make a name for himself in the guild, by practicing what was then considered a major genre, history painting, for which large formats (97.8 × 104.6 and 160 × 142 cm respectively) were reserved.
However, he quickly abandoned this vein to explore other genres. Two allegories in particular have come down to us, The Art of Painting and The Allegory of Faith. If the former is considered a kind of personal manifesto of his own conception of art, insofar as he probably painted it for himself alone, and kept it at home until his death, the latter was more likely painted for a Catholic patron, be it the Jesuit brotherhood that lived next door to the house of Maria Thins, his mother-in-law, a Catholic underground church, or a private individual – perhaps also living in the “Papists” Corner” of Delft. But both are remarkable for the synthesis – even the apparent contradiction – between the representation of a private, realistic space and the allegorical, symbolic meaning of the work.
His work also includes two landscapes, two exteriors taking his city as their subject, generally ranked as his masterpieces: La Ruelle, celebrated for example by Thoré-Burger, and the View of Delft, so admired by Marcel Proust, and after him, Bergotte, the novelist of À la recherche du temps perdu.
Interiors and genre scenes
But Vermeer remains best known for his small-scale genre scenes, which constitute the bulk of his output. They represent intimate, serene, “bourgeois” interiors, in which the characters, as if surprised by the painter, are busy with their everyday activities.
Two canvases painted around 1656-1657 ensure the transition between history painting and genre painting: the large format Entremetteuse (143 × 130 cm) and the Jeune fille assoupie. Both have an obvious moralizing dimension, one condemning prostitution, the other idleness. The meaning of the later paintings, however, will be much less clear, and more open.
The theme of love, in particular, is omnipresent in his interiors, whether they contain one, two or even three characters. But it appears under the ambivalent regime of allusion, whether with the recurrence of the motif of the letter, or that of music, or even wine – drunkenness being then often perceived as a dishonest means of seduction. Another moral theme, that of vanity, with the jewels, pearl necklaces, heavy earrings, etc., which can be found from one painting to another – without the meaning ever being completely clear.
Some paintings on the other hand seem to value domestic activities by presenting models of virtue, such as La Laitière or La Dentellière.
The Astronomer and The Geographer occupy a special place, in that they do not represent domestic, intimate or private activities, but a scientist at work. Moreover, these are the only two paintings in the artist”s oeuvre that depict a man without female company. Some have tried to identify the draper and naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a contemporary and friend of Vermeer”s, who would later settle his estate. However, this hypothesis has been dismissed by others, based on a comparison with a known portrait of the scholar and information about his character and way of working.
At least three works represent busts of single women, The Girl with the Pearl, Portrait of a Young Woman and The Girl with the Red Hat (excluding The Girl with the Flute, whose attribution is still disputed). With the exception of the Portrait of a Young Woman, which was painted between 1672 and 1675, and which may have been painted by a desperate Vermeer, forced by the need to practice a genre that was very lucrative at the time, the other representations of women are not strictly speaking portraits, insofar as their purpose is not so much to fix the identity of a real person on canvas, who would be the commissioner, but rather to focus on a “piece of painting”, an attitude on the spot – the glance over the shoulder, the half-open lips -, an exotic, if not improbable headdress – a red hat or turban, in the manner of the presumed self-portrait of Jan van Eyck (1433) -, heavy earrings catching the light.
Portraits of the artist
The catalog of the Dissius sale of 16 May 1696 mentions, at no. 4, a “portrait of Vermeer in a room, with various accessories, of a workmanship rarely so accomplished”. This self-portrait, however, is now lost. All that remains is a portrait of the painter, from behind, in The Art of Painting, although there is no evidence that Vermeer portrayed himself in this painting. However, the painter”s costume in The Art of Painting could be compared with that of the man on the left in The Matchmaker, making the latter a self-portrait of Vermeer. Other evidence – not entirely conclusive – has been put forward: the convention, well established in Flemish painting of the time, of slipping a self-portrait, generally in a beret and looking towards the viewer, into groups taking the “prodigal son” as their subject; the proximity of a self-portrait by Rembrandt from 1629; and the angle of the representation, suggesting an image taken in a mirror.
If his “illusionist” technique was inspired by that of Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt who lived in Delft between 1650 and 1654, and his color palette reminds us of that of Hendrick Ter Brugghen, Vermeer”s influences are more likely to be found in other Dutch masters who specialized in interior paintings, such as Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Ter Borch – although he cannot be counted among the Fijnschilders, since the restoration of two of his paintings at the Mauritshuis in 1996 was described. The most obvious connection is with Pieter de Hooch, who arrived in Delft around 1653. The two artists may have been in contact with each other, or at least emulated each other: together they contributed to the creation of a new style of genre painting by reproducing the realistic effects of light and texture.
Perspective, light effects and camera obscura
Vermeer is best known for his flawless perspectives, which are all the more surprising because no guiding lines under the layer of paint are visible, and no drawings or preparatory studies have come down to us. This may have justified the hypothesis, formulated as early as 1891 by Joseph Pennell, that he was using an optical device using lenses known as a camera obscura, and which has only been developed and confirmed thereafter.
Joseph Pennell notes the disproportion between the soldier”s back, in the foreground, and the young girl in the center of the space represented, in an almost photographic effect characteristic of Vermeer”s interiors.
Furthermore, the blurred effects, especially of the foreground, opposed to the sharp backgrounds, as in La Laitière, create depth of field effects characteristic of darkrooms, and made usual by the development of photography. This creates an impression of focus, concentrating the viewer”s gaze on an essential element of the canvas, such as the thread pulled by the Lacemaker, painted in all its sharpness and finesse, while the threads of the cushion in the foreground are blurred.
The rigor of the central perspective may also have lent credence to this thesis, although the presence of tiny pinholes at the exact location of the vanishing points has recently been noted, suggesting that Vermeer constructed his perspective geometrically, drawing his vanishing lines from these points with the aid of a string. The effects of daring foreshortenings – the right arm of The Milkmaid, the “bulbous” hand of the painter in The Art of Painting, etc. – would, however, tend to confirm the fact that Vermeer”s perspective was not a geometric one. – The bold foreshortening effects – the right arm in The Milkmaid, the “bulbous” hand of the painter in The Art of Painting, etc. – would, however, tend to confirm the fact that Vermeer copied the image reflected by an optical instrument without correcting its effects, even the most surprising of them. In particular, it has been pointed out that Vermeer, unlike his contemporaries, erased contour lines when they were struck by light and presented against a dark background, such as the right eye in The Girl with the Pearl and the wing of her nose, which blends into the color of her cheek.
Another characteristic effect of Vermeer”s is his “dotted” technique (not to be confused with the impressionist pointillism of Seurat), which consists of depicting, with small granular touches of paint, luminous halos, or “circles of confusion”, which has led to the idea that Vermeer was using an archaic, or impossible to adjust, camera obscura. However, the banal “realistic” character of these luminous effects has been disputed, insofar as these circles of confusion only exist on reflective, metallic or wet surfaces, not on absorbent surfaces such as the crust of a loaf of bread in The Dairy Queen. It has therefore been suggested that they are less the passive result of observation than a subjective effect of the painter, and characteristic of his style.
Finally, the modest format of the paintings, and their proportions close to the square (of barely pronounced rectangles), may lend credence to the idea of an image copied from the reflection of the camera obscura, eliminating the edges distorted by the circular lens.
The recurrence of slightly low-angle framing, chosen in twenty paintings, has also led to the idea that Vermeer”s darkroom was placed on a table, always at the same height and at the same distance from the scene to be represented.
The hypothesis of a Vermeer “painter of reality” has therefore led to reconstructions of Maria Thins” house, in an attempt to recreate the painter”s studio. However, it must be noted that these attempts at positive and rational explanations, even if they are proven, do not allow us to fully understand “the mysterious Vermeer”, nor to exhaust the meaning of his work which, despite the simple, modest and familiar aspect of his interiors, does not let us renew our look, by giving the spectator the “sensation of something miraculous” and fundamentally irreducible to interpretation.
With his agile brush, Vermeer worked with solid colors on large, thick surfaces. He carefully applied layers of pigments and varnish, which give his paintings their characteristic brightness and freshness.
No other 17th-century artist used natural ultramarine as much as he did, an extremely expensive pigment made from ground lapis lazuli, which he used not only to paint the elements of this color. For example, in La Jeune Fille au verre de vin, painted around 1659-1660, the undercoat corresponding to the shadows of the red satin dress is made of natural ultramarine: the mixture of red and vermilion applied on top of it acquires a slightly crimson, fresh and sharp aspect, of great strength. This way of working was probably inspired to Vermeer by Leonardo da Vinci who had observed that the surface of each object participates in the color of the object that is right next to it. This means that no object is seen entirely in its own color.
Strangely enough, even after Vermeer”s bankruptcy following the events of 1672, he continued to use this expensive pigment without restraint, notably for A Lady Seated at the Virginal (ca. 1670-1675). This may suggest that his colors and materials were supplied by a “regular” amateur, and supports John Michael Montias” theory that Pieter van Ruijven was Vermeer”s patron.
The painter also used natural umber and ochre for the warm light of a brightly lit interior, whose multiple colors are reflected on the walls. But he remains most famous for his pairing of blue and yellow, for example for the turban of The Girl with the Pearl, or the clothes of The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which had already struck van Gogh.
Interiors that are both familiar and mysterious
“You told me that you had seen some of Vermeer”s paintings, you realize well that they are fragments of the same world, that it is always, whatever genius with which they are recreated, the same table, the same carpet, the same woman, the same new and unique beauty, an enigma at this time when nothing resembles it nor explains it, if one does not seek to relate it by the subjects, but to release the particular impression that the color produces.”
– Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, 1925
Vermeer”s interior scenes are generally immediately recognizable, not only because of the painter”s manner, but also because of the elements that can be found from one painting to the next: people, objects treated as still lifes – more rarely fruit, never flowers or plants – furniture, maps and pictures hanging on the wall.
For example, the man in The Girl with the Wine Glass appears to be the same as in The Interrupted Music Lesson. The armchairs with lion heads are found in nine paintings (in The Drowsy Girl and The Reader at the Window, for example). The porcelain jug with its lid is also found – whether it is white, in The Music Lesson or The Girl with a Glass of Wine, or painted with blue motifs in the manner of the Delft manufactures, in The Interrupted Music Lesson. The gilt ewer in The Young Woman with a Ewer has also been identified on a will of Maria Thins in favor of her daughter, which would suggest that Vermeer reused elements from the family home in his compositions. Emblematically, a short yellow jacket with hermine borders is worn over a yellow dress in The Lady with the Pearl Necklace, The Woman with the Lute, The Woman with the Guitar, The Mistress and the Maid and The Love Letter. In The Concert and The Woman with the Scales, the satin fabric becomes grey-green or even deep blue, and the fur trim is now immaculate white.
The spaces depicted, which never open to the outside, even when the windows are depicted, also show many similarities. For example, the motif of the elegant black and white pavement is the same in The Concert, The Love Letter, Woman with Scales, Woman with Lute, A Lady Standing with Virginal, and The Art of Painting, but is reversed, as if in negative, in The Allegory of Faith. And the corner of the room pierced by windows with adjustable shutters on the left wall, which recurs from one painting to the next, may justify not only the fact that almost all of Vermeer”s paintings are lit from left to right – except for The Lacemaker, The Girl with the Red Hat and The Girl with the Flute – but also the variations in light intensity depending on whether the shutters are open or closed, as shown by the reflections on the crystal globe hanging in The Allegory of Faith.
In addition, in twenty-three of the twenty-six paintings, Vermeer materializes the separation between the space of the spectator and the space of the representation, by painting a foreground cluttered with objects – curtains, hangings, tables presenting still lifes, musical instruments – or even, in the case of The Love Letter, by showing the scene through the frame of a door. The effect of intimacy that emerges from these interiors is thus reinforced.
The interiors contain eighteen “paintings-within-a-picture” that are very different from Vermeer”s own compositions: six landscapes, including a seascape, four religious paintings (Moses saved from the waters twice, a Last Judgment and Christ on the Cross by Jacob Jordaens), three Eros Triumphant, The Entremetteuse by Dirck van Baburen (owned by Maria Thins), which is repeated twice, in The Concert and Young Woman Playing the Virginal, a Roman Charity, a portrait of a man, and a Still Life with Musical Instruments. Traditionally, these paintings-within-a-picture provided a clavus interpretandi, an “interpretive key” that clarified the meaning of the work. Thus, the presence of a Cupid hanging on the wall in The Interrupted Music Lesson gives the scene a romantic connotation, and suggests the nature of the letter, or that of the relationship between the music master and the young girl. But the link between the painting and the interior scene is not always explicit, and often leaves the viewer with the ambivalent feeling, on the one hand that there is a meaning to be discovered, on the other, that this meaning remains uncertain.
Another element adorning the back wall of the interiors are the geographical maps, copies of expensive maps that actually exist, which socially characterize the characters and their bourgeois milieu, at the same time as they signal the recent craze for this new scientific discipline – but which can also have a symbolic value.
These recurrences contribute to form a coherent and recognizable work. However, each painting offers the viewer a new scene, even a new enigma, insofar as Vermeer”s painting, more contemplative than narrative, is always bathed in silent discretion, encrypting access to the interiority of the characters.
Neither a chronological classification nor the establishment of a complete and precise catalog of Vermeer”s works is possible: too many uncertainties remain, whether it is a question of his early works, the problem of imitations, the absence of signatures and dates or, on the contrary, the presence of apocryphal signatures and dates.
Cataloguing: problems of attribution and dating
No drawings or prints are known of Vermeer. And of the approximately forty-five paintings that he probably executed during his career, which is already an extremely small production, only thirty-seven are currently preserved, with some specialists reducing this number even further, due to the dubious nature of certain attributions. For example, the fact that all the works are oil on canvas, with the exception of The Girl with the Red Hat and The Girl with the Flute, which were painted on panel, may have served as an argument to contest their authenticity.
Twenty-one works are signed, but some signatures may not be authentic. Indeed, it was possible to affix signatures imitating Vermeer”s later on, even on paintings by other masters such as Pieter De Hooch.
The Saint Praxedes, a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli, bearing the signature and date “Meer 1655″ (which would make it the first known work by the painter) continues to be debated, for example. Similarly, the attribution of The Girl with the Red Hat and The Girl with the Flute has been the subject of controversy. While the latter is now generally dismissed from the corpus of the painter”s works as the work of an 18th-century follower, the authenticity of the former has been accepted since the 1998 Vermeer exhibition used it as a poster, a sign of the National Gallery of Art in Washington”s unwavering determination to pass it off as such. However, it is known that the Washington museum agreed to lend its works to the Mauritshuis museum for the 1995 exhibition on condition that The Girl in the Red Hat be recognized as authentic, although most experts attribute it to Vermeer”s entourage. The last painting still largely subject to doubt is Young Woman with a Virginal.
Only four paintings have been dated: Saint Praxed (1655), but also The Entremetteuse (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669) – scientific analyses having removed the last doubts about the authenticity of the last two paintings in 1997. Although various criteria, more or less rigorous, have been proposed, such as the evolution of the costumes, or the age of the models returning from one painting to another, which André Malraux assumed to be from the artist”s family, the chronology of the works continues to be debated among specialists, such as Albert Blankert.
The uncertainties surrounding Vermeer”s work attracted a number of forgers, who tried to capitalize on his enormous popularity in the twentieth century. The most famous of these was undoubtedly Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter whose Christ and the Pilgrims at Emmaus was celebrated in 1937 as a jewel of the Delft master, and as such found a place of honor in an exhibition celebrating 450 Dutch masterpieces from 1400 to 1800, held in 1938 at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. His most famous forgery, however, among other paintings, is Christ and the Adulteress, which was acquired in 1943 by Hermann Göring, jealous of Hitler”s Art of Painting. This sale was the downfall of the forger: imprisoned in 1945 for having sold Dutch cultural treasures to the Nazis, van Meegeren revealed, in his defense, the deception. This admission shocked the art world, so much so that a wave of self-criticism swept through the museums to unmask a number of “old masters. It is now assumed that Theo van Wijngaarden, a friend of van Meegeren, was the author of the forgery, stored in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Young Girl Laughing.
Places of conservation
There are no Vermeers in Delft today, and his work is now dispersed in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria, Ireland, and the United States. Almost all of the paintings remain in museums, with the exception of St. Praxedes, from the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, Lady Playing the Virginal, acquired at auction by millionaire Steve Wynn on July 7, 2004, and sold in 2008 to a New York collector, and The Concert, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the night of March 18, 1990, which has still not been recovered.
In 2009, a request for restitution was filed with the Austrian Ministry of Culture by the heirs of Count Jaromir Czernin, concerning The Art of Painting kept in the Museum of Art History in Vienna. This painting had indeed been bought by Hitler in 1940, and the heirs considered, since the 1960”s, that this sale was made under duress, at a price completely below its value. The Austrian commission on the restitution of works of art looted by the Nazis finally proved them wrong in 2011.
List of all works known or attributed to Vermeer
The painters of the second half of the nineteenth century rediscovered and celebrated Vermeer in the wake of the critics. Renoir, for example, considered La Dentellière du Louvre to be one of the two most beautiful paintings in the world, while van Gogh remarked to Émile Bernard, in a letter of July 1888, “the palette of this strange painter”, and in particular “the lemon yellow, pale blue, pearl grey arrangement” of La Femme en bleu lisant une lettre, which was so “characteristic” to him. Camille Pissarro, for his part, considered the View of Delft to be one of those “masterpieces that come close to the Impressionists”.
The surrealist Salvador Dalí paid homage to Vermeer several times: in 1934, in The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft, which could be used as a table, in 1954 by giving his own version of The Lacemaker, and the following year in his Paranoid-Critical Study of the Lacemaker of Vermeer. The story of this last painting, painted in the zoo of Vincennes in the presence of a rhinoceros and a large-scale reproduction of the original of The Lacemaker, gave rise to a documentary, The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros, filmed in 1954 by Robert Descharnes. This surrealist experience was also to be prolonged by the realization of one of the rare sculptures of Dalí, Rhinocerontic Bust of the Lacemaker of Vermeer (1955).
In 1954, the precursor of Pop Art Robert Rauschenberg used, along with other chromos of masterpieces of art history, a reproduction of Vermeer for his combine painting entitled Charlene (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).
Czech poet and visual artist Jiří Kolář presents The Officer and the Girl Laughing in the background of one of his collages, and The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter in another (Birds (Vermeer), 1970).
The Vermeer Painter in his Studio (1968), directly inspired by The Art of Painting, is also one of the major works by contemporary American painter Malcolm Morley.
Since its rediscovery at the end of the 19th century, Vermeer”s work has not ceased to inspire writers.
Marcel Proust was a great admirer of Vermeer, especially the View of Delft, which he discovered in The Hague, and which he saw again, along with two other paintings by the master, in Paris in 1921, during an exhibition devoted to the Dutch masters held at the Jeu de Paume museum. In his famous novel-cycle, À la recherche du temps perdu, Vermeer”s work plays an important role. The character of Swann, for example, devotes a study to him in Un amour de Swann, and the writer Bergotte, in La Prisonnière, is the victim, in front of The View of Delft “lent by the museum of The Hague for a Dutch exhibition” in Paris, of a stroke that precipitates his death:
“At last he was in front of the Ver Meer, which he remembered as being brighter, more different from anything he knew, but where, thanks to the critic”s article, he noticed for the first time that there were little figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and finally the precious material of the tiny yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he attached his gaze, like a child to a yellow butterfly he wants to catch, to the precious little piece of wall. “This is how I should have written,” he said. My last books are too dry, I should have gone through several layers of color, made my sentence in itself precious, like that little yellow patch of wall.” “
A Vermeer painting is the motive for the crime in Agatha Christie”s novel Hercule Poirot”s Indiscretions (1953).
In his essay The Doors of Perception (1954), Aldous Huxley cites Vermeer as an example of a painter who was able to capture the subtleties of textures to some extent, as can be perceived through the use of mescaline (or other similar drugs).
In 1998, American Tracy Chevalier published the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is about the creation of the painting of the same title. Although it is a fictional account, the book is based on accurate facts about Vermeer and his time.
A Vermeer painting also plays a central role in Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), a novel by another American, Susan Vreeland. Through eight episodes, she follows the trail of a fictional painting through time, a process that was previously developed by Annie Proulx in The Crimes of the Accordion (1996), from which the film The Red Violin (1998) is derived. An important difference, however, is that Vreeland”s novel follows a reversed chronological order: it begins in the twentieth century, with the son of a Nazi who inherits his father”s painting, and ends in the seventeenth century, when it was conceived – imaginary. The novel was adapted for television, Brush with Fate, directed by Brent Shields, and broadcast in 2003 on CBS.
In 1993, the novelist Sylvie Germain published Patience et songe de lumière: Vermeer, a poetic journey through the painter”s paintings.
A children”s novel, Chasing Vermeer, written by Blue Balliett and published in its original version in 2003, imagines the theft of the painting Young Woman Writing a Letter and has as its central theme the authenticity of Vermeer”s paintings. The book had a sequel: The Wright 3.
In her collection of meditations entitled Yonder, Siri Hustvedt offers her interpretation of The Lady with the String of Pearls as a kind of metaphor for the Annunciation.
In Leçons de ténèbres (Éditions de la Différence, 2002), translated from the Italian, Lezioni di tenebre (2000), Patrizia Runfola imagines a scene of rediscovery of a painting by Vermeer, in the short story La vie allègre.
The short film Light in the Window: The Art of Vermeer won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Short Fiction.
Tracy Chevalier”s novel was adapted into a film in 2003 by Peter Webber: The Girl with the Pearl with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in the main roles, and was a major success in theaters.
In Peter Greenaway”s film A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), an orthopedic surgeon by the name of van Meegeren stages live paintings of Vermeer in order to make copies.
All the Vermeers in New York is a 1990 film directed by Jon Jost.
The film A Stolen Life (called Young Woman Interrupted in Quebec), directed by James Mangold and released in 1999, as well as the book by Susanna Kaysen of which it is the adaptation, owe their original title Girl, Interrupted to the painting La Leçon de musique interrompue.
The Quebec film Les Aimants directed by Yves P. Pelletier uses several works by Vermeer as a backdrop, including The Girl with the Pearl and The Girl in the Red Hat.
The third episode of the first season of Sherlock has as subject the discovery of an unknown painting of the painter.
The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen was inspired by the life of the painter for his opera Writing to Vermeer (1997-98, libretto by Peter Greenaway).
The French singer Pierre Bachelet alludes to the painter in his 1980 hit Elle est d”ailleurs.
Jan Vermeer is the title of a song on The Beginner, a solo album by Bob Walkenhorst, the guitarist and main lyricist of The Rainmakers.
No One Was Like Vermeer is the title of a song by Jonathan Richman on an album released in 2008: Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild.
In 2012, Joe Hisaishi released an album entitled Vermeer and Escher, featuring compositions inspired by paintings by Johannes Vermeer and Maurits Cornelis Escher.
Vermeer is the title of a German PC game of economic simulation and strategy developed by Ralf Glau, whose first version, in 1987, was published by C64 and SchneiderAmstrad CPC and distributed by Ariolasoft. The goal of the game was, after earning money by trading, to then go to art auctions around the world and acquire as many pieces as possible from a collection of paintings dispersed during the First World War. The centerpiece of the collection was a Vermeer; the player who managed to acquire it usually won the game. This economic simulation game was one of the most complex games of the 8-bit personal computer era.
Reuse for commercial and advertising purposes
The La Laitière painting is used since 1973 by a brand of dairy products.
Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur was inspired by and named after Vermeer. The bottle is embossed with the painter”s signature, and on the label is a reproduction of The Girl with a Pearl.