Part of tradition
Nowadays, Johannes Vermeer is praised and adulated all around the world. You could almost forget that he stood on the shoulders of the painters who preceded him. While we’re not certain who Vermeer’s tutor was, we do know that he was influenced by his contemporaries.
A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London
Vermeer is mainly known for his genre paintings: works showing everyday domestic scenes. Genre painting flourished in the third quarter of the 17th century.
Woman Writing a Letter (c. 1655) by Borch, Gerard terMauritshuis
The figures and the interiors became more elegant and intimate, and the portrayal of fabric in the paintings is truly unparalleled. Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), from Zwolle, and Gerard Dou (1628-1674), from Leiden, were part of the group of painters that seems to have laid the path for Vermeer.
A Woman playing a Clavichord (c.1665) by Gerrit DouDulwich Picture Gallery
They introduced new subjects and compositions into their genre paintings. There is no documentary evidence that Vermeer was directly influenced by their work, but the analogous subjects that they chose shortly after one another illustrate how he continued their painting tradition.
Vermeer’s potential sources of inspiration can also be found within the Delft city walls. From the 1650s onwards, alongside genre painting, architecture painting developed rapidly. Delft painters such as Gerard Houckgeest (1600-1661) focused on church interiors, using complicated perspective constructions to achieve convincing three-dimensional effects.
Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Vermeer applied their systematic approach to constructing perspective in his paintings. He pushed a pin into the canvas at the central vanishing point and attached a length of string to it that was rubbed with chalk. By pulling the string taut and allowing it to touch the canvas, he was able to ‘print’ straight lines leading to the vanishing point. This formed the framework of the perspective. Pinholes like this can be found in many of Vermeer’s canvases, including in A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman.
Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) was another well-known artist from Vermeer’s home town of Delft. Unfortunately, few works by this painter remain: in 1654, he died at a young age in a catastrophic explosion at a gunpowder store in Delft, which also destroyed lots of his works. In 1667, the poet Arnold Bon named Vermeer as Fabritius’ successor in Dirck van Bleyswijck’s the Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft, a book describing the city of Delft. This led some people to believe that Fabritius must have been Vermeer’s tutor, but we cannot be certain of this.
The milkmaid (Around 1660) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
However, Bon’s praise of Vermeer as Fabritius’ successor is not unfounded: a comparison of their work reveals a shared focus on light, colour handling and serenity. In what may appear to be the least important parts of their paintings, a subtle colour palette and an abundance of details are awaiting discovery: compare the plastered wall of The Goldfinch to the wall behind The Milkmaid.
An artistic kindred spirit
The works of Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) most closely resemble those of Vermeer. De Hooch moved to Delft in 1654. Innumerable parallels can be found between the works that the two colleagues produced between 1655 and 1660. The difference in atmosphere is striking: serenity and modesty dominate in Vermeer’s works, while De Hooch’s scenes are more artificial and alert.
The Little Street (Around 1658) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
Vermeer rarely dated his works, so it is difficult to determine who first introduced new ideas for compositions and motifs, and who followed suit. In any case, the artists must have been involved in a fruitful artistic exchange.
Not in the ‘books’
It was impossible to escape the fashion for refined scenes of domestic tableaus featuring well-to-do citizens. We can make countless comparisons between the work of Vermeer and the many other remarkable genre painters working in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. You just have to look at the paintings of Gabriël Metsu (1629-1667) and Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) from Leiden, for example.
Lady at the Virginal (1658/1658) by Frans van Mieris the ElderGallery of Old and New Masters, Staatliches Museum Schwerin / Ludwigslust / Güstrow
Nowhere in the archives has information been found about the painters with whom Vermeer was in direct contact, but various talented painters strived to master creating these genre paintings while adding their own, personal twist.