9 Facts About Vermeer

From obscure beginnings he rose to wealth and fame, before it was all lost in an instant

By Google Arts & Culture

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665 (digitized by Madpixel)) by Johannes VermeerMauritshuis

1. The Sphnix of Delft

Jan Vermeer van Delft only left a handful of paintings to history, and even these tell us little about the man. The scant facts of his existence prompted the 19th-century French critic Theophile Thore to dub him the 'Sphinx of Delft'.

2. He was an innkeeper

Vermeer was born in the old city of Delft, in the Dutch Republic. His father had started an art dealing business as well as owning two inns, and Vermeer inherited these in 1652. It's not known when Vermeer started painting, but by 1853 he was a member of a painters' guild.

3. Mixed blessings

In April 1653, Vermeer married a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolenes. These were religiously unstable times, and Vermeer took the risk of converting to Catholicism. The blessing took place in the quiet nearby village of Schipluiden.

4. He remained in one house for life

Vermeer and his wife moved into his mother-in-law's house in the rich street of Oude Langendijk, and stayed there his entire life. Vermeer had his studio in the front room of the first floor, which offered him plenty of light.

The milkmaid (Around 1660) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

5. Almost all of his paintings are done in the same room

Almost every single one of Vermeer's interior scenes appears to have been made in the same room, with a tiled floor and a window high to the left of the scene. Many of his subjects are clearly modelled by the same person…

Woman Holding a Balance (1664 - c. 1664) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

… the same room …

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (around 1662) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

… and again …

Why this composition is so consistent across Vermeer's paintings is still up for debate…

Officer and Laughing Girl Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

… and again …

One popular, but unproven, theory says that he was using a camera obscura. A darkened room with a pinhole opening, that would project the scene from the brightly lit room - the same principle as in a modern mechanical camera.

Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

… and again …

The camera obscura theory also explains how Vermeer managed to paint such realistic scenes without any artistic training or, apparently, any sketches. But it also explains strange details, such as a slight curvature of what ought to be straight lines and unusual colouration.

A Lady Writing (c. 1665) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

… et cetera

The principle of the camera obscura was known at the time, and the Dutch Republic was a centre of research into optics and of lens making, however not all historians are convinced.

Het springen van de kruittoren in Delft, 12 oktober 1654 (1654 - 1660) by Poel, Egbert Lievensz. van derRijksmuseum

6. He was almost lost to history

On the 12 of October, 1654, disaster struck Delft. A gunpowder store was accidentally ignited, and the resulting explosion devastated the city. Vermeer survived, but the artist Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was killed. Egbert van der Poel painted the destruction.

The Little Street (Around 1658) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

7. Mapping the master

One of the few street scenes by Vermeer depicts the so-called Little Street. For centuries, historians had debated whether this was a real or imagined address. In 2015, researchers checked the detailed tax maps of the city and narrowed down 40-42 Vlamingstraat.

This is the address today. The researchers also found that Vermeer's auntie owned the house on the right, and Vermeer's mother and sister lived on the same street. Some still question whether the painting is a realistic depiction, but for many more, the evidence is compelling.

View of Delft (c. 1660 - 1661) by Vermeer, JohannesMauritshuis

8. Market crash

Disaster struck again in 1672. French armies invaded the Dutch Republic, and war broke out with England. The Republic was surrounded, and the economy collapsed. Vermeer's art market crashed, and he died after a short illness. His large family had to sell everything to survive.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665 (digitized by Madpixel)) by Johannes VermeerMauritshuis

Now discover all 36 of Vermeer's paintings exhibited together in Augmented Reality with our Pocket Gallery, Meet Vermeer.

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