The best way to understand Johannes Vermeer as a painter is by looking closely at his paintings. His artworks often capture scenes of everyday life, allude to the trends of the time, and are rich in symbolism. With the help of Google Art & Culture’s Art Camera, it’s now possible to view some of these detailed paintings in ultra-high resolution. Below are some of Vermeer’s most fascinating works looked at through a digital magnifying glass to uncover the clues Vermeer hid within the canvas and the meaning behind them.
View of Delft (c. 1660 - 1661) by Vermeer, JohannesMauritshuis
1. Diana and her Nymphs by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Mauritshuis)
This is one of Vermeer’s earliest works completed in the mid-1650s and also one of the few large, mythological paintings by the artist. The painting is solemn, unusual for a scene depicting Diana, the goddess of hunting and the night. Her role and importance are emphasized by the hound that sits at her feet.
In the image she is resting, while her ethereal nymphs tend to her. The nymph washing Diana’s feet has brought about much speculation over the years from critics and historians, mainly for her contemporary clothing, which you can see more closely if you zoom in. The theme of a woman in a private, reflective moment would grow stronger in Vermeer's paintings as his career progressed.
Diana and her Nymphs Diana and her Nymphs (c. 1653 - 1654) by Johanes VermeerMauritshuis
2. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Scottish National Gallery)
This is one of the largest and earliest surviving paintings by Vermeer. It is also one of the only one of his works that has a biblical leaning. The painting depicts the story of St Luke’s Gospel telling of Christ’s visit to the house of sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany. Supposedly Christ praised Mary’s willingness to sit and listen to his teachings, unlike Martha who was preoccupied with housekeeping.
The use of light and shadow here really highlights Vermeer’s skill as a painter. If you zoom in, you can see each object has been considered despite the large scale of the painting, even Martha’s shirt sleeve and a humble loaf of bread have depth and clarity. This broad handling of paint is thought to have been inspired by the work of artists from Utrecht, who in turn were influenced by Caravaggio’s art.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654 — 1656) by Johannes VermeerScottish National Gallery
3. Girl with a Wineglass by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 3Landesmuseen Braunschweig)
Vermeer documented many domestic scenes in his time and this particular scene captures the life of the upper bourgeoisie. In this image, a young lady is smiling at the viewer while holding a wine glass by the base, seemingly ignoring the male figure leaning over her and guiding the glass to her mouth.
It’s an unsettling scene and if you zoom in to the unfazed expression of their companion sitting in the corner, it only adds to the ambiguity. With the young woman looking straight at the viewer, Vermeer invites them directly into the painting and they’re left to try and work out whether the smile is akin to a child-like innocence or a strained plea for help. The high-resolution of this painting allows you to see Vermeer’s use of pointillé (not to be confused with pointillism), a decorative approach in which patterns are formed on the surface by a means of punched dots, which Vermeer became known for.
Girl with a Wineglass (1658/1659) by Johannes Vermeer van DelftHerzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 3Landesmuseen Braunschweig
4. View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Mauritshuis)
This painting of Vermeer’s hometown Delft is one of his most popular, and is one of three known paintings of Delft by Vermeer. The work is unusual for the time because cityscapes were uncommon. Experts have been able to roughly determine the year this painting was created. If you zoom into the Protestant Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), you’ll see there’s an absence of bells in the church tower. These weren’t replaced until 1662, which places this painting at around 1660–1661.
From this zoomed-in position, you’ll also see that Vermeer has again used the pointillé technique. Additionally from this position you’ll notice the incredible detail the artist managed to achieve, and it’s suspected he was able to do this by using a camera obscura or a telescope to capture the detail from his faraway position.
View of Delft (c. 1660 - 1661) by Vermeer, JohannesMauritshuis
5. The Glass of Wine by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
In this Vermeer painting, a young man is watching a woman finish a glass of wine with his hand on a jug, seemingly waiting to refill the glass. The artist gives no indication of the relationship between this pair – ambiguity is a common theme of the image and many of Vermeer’s other works.
However the artist does provide several visual hints, such as the chitarrone on the chair, an instrument that frequently appears in his works and symbolizes harmony and frivolity. The window pane with the coat of arms that shows a woman holding a bridle, which you can see in more detail below, alludes to moderation and restraint. Again this painting is another example of Vermeer as a master of light, especially with the interplay between the light coming through the window and the objects it catches.
The Glass of Wine (around 1661) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
6. Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
In this portrait of a young Dutch woman, it’s fair to say she is most likely of upper-class descent as she is her dressing herself with two yellow ribbons, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. This scene is quite typical of Vermeer’s work, as he often depicted women in similar circumstances within domestic scenes.
Though little is given away by the woman’s body language and facial expression, once again Vermeer uses symbols to suggest more about her character. For instance, the mirror is there as a symbol of pride and the pearls are an expensive item, most associated with vanity in this case. If you zoom into the image, you can see the ways in which Vermeer has been able to create the pearlescent sheen from the jewellery by using different shades of creams and whites.
Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (around 1662) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
7. The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of Städel Museum)
The significance of the sciences increased in leaps and bounds in the 17th century, particularly in Holland, and Vermeer acknowledges this progress in The Geographer. The young academic is dressed in a Japanese-style robe, which was popular among scholars at the time, and is surrounded by various papers and utensils.
Vermeer has his subject facing the light in this image and his expression suggests he may have just solved the problem that lies on the pages below. This painting is one of only three artworks Vermeer signed and dated, and if you zoom into it you can see not only the artist’s brushstrokes but also his original signature, “J VMeer”.
The Geographer (1669) by Johanes VermeerStädel Museum