Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, the city where he also worked, started a family, and died. But we actually know relatively little about Vermeer, which is why he is sometimes called the ‘Sphinx of Delft’. That being said, the Delft archives do offer some insight into his life. Bas van der Wulp, Public Archivist at the Delft City Archives, delves into the documents to relay Vermeer’s story.
Born and raised in Delft?
Vermeer appears to have lived in Delft his entire life. His father Reinier Jansz worked as a silk (caffa) weaver at an inn called De Vliegende Vos (The Flying Fox) on the Voldersgracht. In addition to weaving, he kept the inn and also traded prints and paintings. It was into this uncomplicated world, populated by inn guests and artists, that Johannes was born. The baptism register at the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft notes that the christening of ‘Joannis, father Reynier Janssoon, mother Dingnum Balthasars, witnesses P(iete)r Brammer, Jan Heijndricxzoon and Maertge Jans’ was held on 31 October 1632, 12 years after the christening of his sister Geertruyt. On the same page of the register (on 4 November), we find the christening of another famous Delft resident, Thonis Philipszoon, the man who would later achieve worldwide fame as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, ‘the father of microbiology’.
An eventful marriage
If Vermeer had to leave the city to train as a painter, he was in any case back in Delft by the time he had turned 20. At this time, he was in love with Catharina Bolnes, and she returned his affection. However, marriage was certainly not a matter of course: Johannes was of a Reformed upbringing and Catharina was Catholic. In the 17th century, this would have been an enormous obstacle to their love. To make things even more difficult, there was also a large social gap between Johannes and Catharina. The young painter was of humble origin, while his intended wife was from a wealthy family from Gouda. It was therefore hardly surprising that Maria Thins, Catharina’s mother, initially did not consent to the marriage. However, on the evening of 4 April 1653, after a visit from a notary called Johannes Ranck and two of Vermeer’s acquaintances, Maria Thins was talked around, although she still refused to sign an act of consent.
Prosperity and status
Vermeer earned his money by painting, but also by trading art, thereby following in his father’s footsteps. Although Johannes’ marriage did not make large sums of capital directly available to him, it did offer him easier access to money. On 14 December 1655, these funds enabled him and his wife to stand surety for the repayment of a debt held by his father (who died three years earlier) with Johan van Santen, a Captain in the Dutch militia. Johannes is named as ‘seigneur’, a clear indication of his social status.
On 30 November 1657, the Vermeer-Bolnes couple borrow 200 guilders from Pieter van Ruyven, a wealthy Catholic brewer. Catharina is actively involved in these dealings, suggesting that her marriage to Johannes was subject to a nuptial agreement.
Following the death of his mother, Vermeer inherits the house called Mechelen, the inn in Delft in which he lived from the age of nine. He decides to lease the inn to a chemist called Johannes van der Meer for 180 guilders a year. The contract was signed on 14 January 1672.
From affluence to poverty
1672 turned out to be a disastrous year, and it was this year that heralded Vermeer’s downfall. He lived with his family in his mother-in-law’s house on the Oude Langendijk, close to the Molenpoort. Despite having a large number of children, the family enjoyed relative wealth. Yet this all changed when the Dutch Republic was unexpectedly attacked by its neighbouring countries. The economy crashed, which ultimately proved fatal to Johannes Vermeer. While hardly any money trickled in, his expenses were undiminished. The debts began to pile up.
Bankrupt at death
In the second week of December 1675, Johannes Vermeer became ill and died less than two days later. He still had 8 children living at home. His burial is recorded on 15 December in the Oude Kerk burial register. His mother-in-law had her own crypt in the church, in which several of Vermeer’s predeceased children were already buried.
The extent of the monetary problems became clear soon after Vermeer’s death. Seeing no way of alleviating the debts and with bankruptcy looming, Catharina Bolnes drew up an inventory of the house, noting the contents of every room. Luxury items are absent from the list, which has led many scholars to suggest that the more expensive items had been passed on to Maria Thins. A yellow satin jacket with white fur trim is noted at the bottom of folio 2, the same jacket that is depicted in several of Vermeer’s works. It’s possible that the inventory also lists other clothing that makes an appearance in his paintings. Folio 7 records the contents of the parlour, which includes Vermeer’s painting equipment. Vermeer’s studio might have been located here.
With the creditors becoming increasingly impatient, action needed to be taken. On 30 September 1676, the city council appointed a curator for Vermeer’s estate, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. And this is how the names of two world-famous Delft residents, a painter and a microbiologist, converge at the start of their lives and again with the death of the painter.
A forgotten painter rediscovered
Vermeer and his work faded into oblivion in the 18th century, even in his home city. Delft, the city where he lived, worked, and lays buried, does not own any of his paintings. Thankfully, works by his hand can be found at the Mauritshuis in the neighbouring city of The Hague. Delft itself finds solace in the authentic archival documents relating to Vermeer and his signature on several notarial deeds held in the City Archives.