Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) : Vermeer was one of the great Dutch masters. He did not live a long life, and so there are only 35 of his works in the world today. He was a genre painter, generally painting women indoors, doing domestic work - the subject matter was not interesting. What was interesting was his use of color to depict light and shadow - subtle and brilliant, you could say that Vermeer was the first Impressionist in that regard.


Not much is known of the personal life of Johannes Vermeer, the famous and highly influential painter from Delft, The Netherlands. Vermeer was born in Delft on October 31, 1632 as the second child and only son of Reynier Jansz and Digna Baltens. Vermeer's father was a silk-weaver, though he had several other professions including inn keeping, and art dealing. The latter profession may have been an early influence for Vermeer's artistic career.

On December 29, 1653, Vermeer was inducted as a Master into the Artists' guild of Saint Luke. The statutes of the guild required an apprenticeship of six years prior to induction, but it is unknown who taught Vermeer the art of painting. Leonaert Bramer (1594-1674) may have been his master, but the artistic differences between the two are large. A more plausible candidate is Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who studied under Rembrandt van Rijn. Already in the 17th century, sources name Vermeer as the "Masterly" successor of Fabritius.

Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes on April 20, 1653. The marriage initially met a lot of resistance from Catharina's family, since she was a Catholic from a wealthy family, whereas Vermeer was a Calvinist from a relatively poor family. It is suggested that Vermeer at one point converted to Catholicism, although there is no direct evidence for this. In any case, Vermeer's relationship with Catharina's mother, the widow Maria Thins eventually improved and she even moved into "Mechelen"; the inn owned by Vermeer. Several of Thins' possessions, including important paintings, expensive dresses and garments often served as decoration for Vermeer's paintings.

Like his father, Vermeer had several professions. He earned most of his money with his art dealership, although officially he remained listed as a painter of Saint Luke's guild. He painted mostly for rich patrons, Maecenases and wealthy merchants, but not primarily for advancing the Arts. Vermeer was known as a very skillful, but expensive painter. This may be why he has painted only a limited number of works.

In 1672, France occupied large parts of the Netherlands, and the resulting war proved disastrous for Vermeer's financial situation. His family no longer retrieves any income from the estate, owned by his mother in law. The war also resulted in a limited interest in the arts in Holland, and both Vermeer's art dealership as well as his painting career suffered from this. Meanwhile, Vermeer had to support eleven under age children. In 1675, Vermeer died as a weakened and dreary person. The famous scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek acted as his curator, and his grave was placed in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Delft.

Style and Works

A frequently reoccurring characteristic of Vermeer's paintings is his striking use of light, shading and subtle reflections. Many of his portraits show his subjects close to an open, ornamented window as the single source of light. Objects appear as arranged for a still life, and often symbolize biblical themes. This is also frequently the case for paintings that appear as background decoration in his paintings. His (female) subjects frequently look down, or appear occupied with daily tasks (e.g.Pouring milk, embroidering, playing a musical instrument.) Vermeer was fond of cartography; a relatively new science back then. Many of his paintings show globes or maps of the Netherlands. These are thought to be references to the struggle for independence of the Dutch provinces, or as a tribute to the Dutch style of painting; a reaction to the classical Italian School.

Thematically, many of Vermeer's early works are historical paintings (e.g. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Diana and Her Companions, Allegory of the Faith). These are works describing biblical scenes, or scenes from classical history. Later, Vermeer switches over to genre paintings such as The Procuress and A Maid Asleep. These paintings have lewd themes such as prostitution, dipsomania and adultery. Male subjects are shown enticing women to drink wine and/or accept his romantic advances.

In several works, women reading or writing love letters occur, symbolizing the temptation of love and secret desires. Oftentimes the paintings show a silent but strong interaction between the male and female subject. In a few cases, the female subject looks forward towards the observer of the painting, so that the observer becomes a voyeuristic, moral judge of the depicted actions.

Only two landscapes by Vermeer are known to exist: The Little Street ("Het Straatje"), and the panoramic A view of Delft. The Little Street appears to be inspired by work of contemporary artist Pieter de Hooch; a fellow painter of the "Delft School" of painting. It is assumed that A view of Delft was painted with the aid of a camera obscura. Several painters, including Carel Fabritius often used the camera obscura for panoramas.

Later genre paintings depict women playing musical instruments (e.g. The Guitar Player and Woman with a Lute). In sharp contrast to the genre paintings depicting lewd female characters, Vermeer also painted several works highlighting his subjects as examples of virtue "exemplum virtutis" such as The Milk Maid and The Lacemaker. Another theme is the depiction of scientists (e.g. The Geographer and The Astronomer). However, Vermeer's most important work is generally considered to be The Art of Painting (around 1666-1668). This painting was never sold, but remained in his studio. This work most likely served as an example of Vermeer's skills to potential customers. The work is a breathtaking display of Vermeer's eye for detail, and masterly his play with light and contrast.

Diana and Her Companions (ca. 1653-1654), Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (ca. 1655), The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
A Maid Asleep (ca. 1656-1657), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Procuress (1656), Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden
Cavalier and Young Woman (ca. 1657), Frick Collection, New York
The Letter Reader (Young Woman Reading a Letter) (ca. 1657), Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden
The Milkmaid (ca. 1657-1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Glass of Wine (ca. 1658-1659), Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The Little Street (Het Straatje) (ca. 1658-1660), [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Young Woman Interrupted at Music (ca. 1659-1660), Frick Collection, New York
Young Woman with a Wineglass (ca. 1659-1660), Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick
A View of Delft (ca. 1660-1661), Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague
The Music Lesson (A Woman at the Virginal with a Gentleman) (ca. 1662-1663), Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London
Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662-1663), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (ca. 1663-1664), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Woman with a Balance (ca. 1663-1664), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (ca. 1663-1664), [Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The Concert (ca. 1665-1667), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665-1667), Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague
Girl with a Red Hat (ca. 1665-1667), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
A Lady Writing (ca. 1665-1667), National Galery of Art, Washington D.C.
Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-1667), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Art of Painting (ca. 1666-1668), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Mistress and Maid (ca. 1666-1667), Frick Collection, New York
The Astronomer (1668), Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Geographer (1669), Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main
The Lacemaker (ca. 1669-1670), Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Love Letter (ca. 1669-1670), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Allegory of the Faith (ca. 1670-1672), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Lady writing a Letter with Her Maid (ca. 1670), National Galery of Ireland, Dublin
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (ca. 1670-1672), The National Gallery, London
Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (ca. 1670-1672), The National Gallery, London
The Guitar Player (ca. 1672), Kenwood, London
The Holy Women at the Sepulchre (lost)

factual sources:
Vermeer and the Delft School, Catalog of an exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Mar. 8- May 27, 2001 and at the National Galery, London, June 20-Sept. 16, 2001.
Norbert Schneider, Vermeer 1632-1675 (1994), Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Cologne

(/me enjoyed living in Delft for 6 years.)

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