Johannes Vermeer, Life and work


The Art of Painting (1666/1668) by Jan VermeerKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

painter in a Golden Age

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is often considered to be one of the ‘pearls’ amongst 17th-century Dutch painters. He was born in Delft, a city in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The period was characterised by great economic prosperity, which is why it is also known as the Golden Age. Painting flourished under these favourable conditions. Vermeer’s The Allegory of Painting is one of the most significant works in his oeuvre. As part of this ode to his profession, he included a map of the prosperous Republic.

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

The young Johannes
On 31 October 1632, Reynier Jansz (c. 1591-1652) and Digna Baltens (c. 1595-1670) had their newborn son christened with the name ‘Joannis’ in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. The name of the little boy was set to echo through the ages, as he grew into a painting virtuoso: the ‘Master of Light’. Slightly less than 30 years after his christening, Johannes depicted the Nieuwe Kerk in his now world-famous work View of Delft.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

Johannes and Delft
Delft was a hub for trade with Asia and America, and had thriving textile and earthenware industries. Inspired by the Chinese porcelain that merchants brought back from Asia, factories in Delft produced white glazed earthenware decorated with blue paint: Delft Blue. Vermeer depicted Delftware tiles in many of his interior scenes, such as here in the room of A Young Woman standing at a Virginal.

The Little Street (Around 1658) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

A small but exquisite

Vermeer left a surprisingly small oeuvre: there are currently only 36 known paintings by the artist. He had a low rate of production, and he used the most expensive painting materials for his works. This suggests that he served the higher segment of the art market. Throughout his life, he sold many of his works to Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-1674), a wealthy art collector. In an auction of paintings owned by his son-in-law Jacob Dissius (1653-1695), 21 works were sold. These included the renowned The Little Street, Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lacemaker, but also several paintings that nowadays are nowhere to be found, such as a second The Little Street.

Son of a jack of all trades
Johannes’ father, Reynier Jansz, was a versatile man. He earned his living as a silk satin (caffa) weaver, but was also an innkeeper and registered as an art dealer at the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft, the trade association for painters. He traded from an inn called De Vliegende Vos (The Flying Fox) on the Voldersgracht in Delft, close to the building that housed the painters’ guild. In 1641, he and his family moved to Huis Mechelen further down the canal. In this new house, he once again ran an inn and art dealership.

View of the Market (c. 1720) by J. RademakerMauritshuis

In his father’s footsteps
Following his father’s death in 1652, the 20-year-old Johannes took over the art dealership and the inn. A year later, he registered himself as a ‘Master painter’ at the Guild of Saint Luke. It is possible that his father’s history with the guild inspired Johannes to become a painter. However, we cannot be certain when and from whom Vermeer learned the profession.

The Mechelen Inn, detail from J. Rademaker's View of the Market, c. 1720. Delft, City Archives

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

A desirable match
On 20 April 1653, Johannes married a Catholic woman called Catharina Bolnes (c. 1631-1688). Catharina was the youngest daughter of Maria Thins (c. 1593-1680) and Reynier Bolnes (died in 1674), a wealthy couple. The Protestant Johannes converted to Catholicism before the marriage, an uncommon move at the time. Johannes and Catharina had at least 14 children together, 11 of which outlived their father.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654 — 1656) by Johannes VermeerScottish National Gallery

An ambitious young professional

Early in his career, Vermeer produced history paintings. These works depict Biblical or mythological tales, or stories from literature. At the time, history paintings were regarded as the highest attainable form of painting. After all, you needed to be literate in order to understand and paint these subjects. Recently, a possible new early work by Vermeer was discovered: Saint Praxedis – a history painting. However, leading Vermeer experts disagree on whether the painting is actually by Vermeer. Saint Praxedis is therefore currently not included in Vermeer’s oeuvre in this project. 

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

The mother-in-law’s paintings
Vermeer’s early paintings are characterised by their large format and strong contrasts between light and dark. He drew inspiration from the Utrecht painters, who in turn, were influenced by Italian masters such as Caravaggio. Three of these paintings are mentioned amongst the belongings of Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria. Towards the end of his career, Vermeer included one of these works, The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen, in the background of his Lady Seated at a Virginal. Although he no longer applied the Utrecht painting style at this time, his former source of inspiration is literally visible in this painting.

The milkmaid (Around 1660) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

Scenes of daily life
From 1656 onwards, Vermeer switched to painting smaller-scale interior scenes. These so-called genre paintings were popular, as these scenes of daily life were coveted home decorations at the time. In this period, Vermeer applied his paint in thick layers and added little flecks to the painted surface to suggest the reflection of light.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An established name
In the subsequent years, Vermeer worked his way up from being a fledgling painter to a prominent master. In 1662, he was even appointed head of the Guild of Saint Luke. Over the years, his painting style developed. He applied his paint in thinner layers and introduced a softened incidence of light and gentler contours to his works.

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

In addition to cityscapes, history paintings, allegories and genre paintings, Vermeer also painted several tronies (character heads). These paintings were not intended as portraits of specific people, but were studies of certain ‘types’ of people. Vermeer’s most famous tronie is Girl with a Pearl Earring. The girl in the painting is wearing exotic clothing, an Oriental turban and an improbably large pearl earring.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

Vermeer’s later works
The paintings that Vermeer created later in his career are characterised by flatter brushstrokes, more stylised compositions and sharper contours. It became increasingly difficult to sell paintings in this period. The economic prosperity had come to an end after France, England, Munster and Cologne all simultaneously declared war on the Republic in what came to be known as the rampjaar (‘disaster year’) of 1672. Vermeer’s art dealership failed to weather the storm.

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

The end of the beginning
In 1675, at the age of just 43, Johannes Vermeer died of unknown causes. A little more than a decade earlier, he had depicted the Nieuwe Kerk – where he was christened – in his View of Delft. In fact, the painting also shows Vermeer’s final resting place – the Oude Kerk, where he was buried in 1675. We don’t know for certain whether Johannes Vermeer ever painted a self-portrait. This cityscape, that unites his work and his life, might be the closest we can get to Vermeer as a person.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Girl with a Pearl Earring gigapixel image has been digitized by Madpixel and is part of the Second Canvas Mauritshuis app

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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