Art historian Jonathan Janson offers insight into the mysterious artist
While we might not know the life of Vermeer like we do with other masters on his level, over the decades we’ve been able to build a richer picture of the artist. If you still feel like you’re lacking in trivia, take a look at artist and art historian Jonathan Janson’s magnificent list of things you might not have known about Vermeer below.
How much did Vermeer paint?
Although 36 oil paintings by Vermeer have survived, he probably depicted no more than 60 in total, a paltry number by 17th-century standards. For comparison, his great contemporary Rembrandt produced hundreds of paintings and countless engravings and drawings.
Moreover, most of Vermeer's paintings are very small. Grouped together they almost fit into the perimeters of Rembrandt's Night Watch (3.63 x 4.37 meters), which Rembrandt would have painted in a matter of months.
Where did he get his inspiration?
Vermeer's father, Renyier Jansz., was a hard-working man. He dealt in a fine fabric called caffa and managed a large inn a stone's throw from Delft's bustling marketplace. Renyier's family lived upstairs. Inns were an essential part of Dutch city life; a comfortable place where citizens could keep company, drink beer, gossip, and haggle over business deals. Like many innkeepers, Renyier hung paintings on the walls of his locale to sell. It’s thought the adolescent Vermeer was inspired by these pictures and mingled with the artists who came there to talk shop.
Vermeer's unusual marriage
At the age of 21, Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, who had moved to Delft from nearby Gouda with her mother Maria Thins. Maria was a well-to-do, deeply devoted Catholic, who evidently thought that the young painter was an acceptable match for her daughter – provided he converted to Catholicism. Conversion to Catholicism in Protestant Netherlands was tolerated but not encouraged, so for Vermeer to do this he was taking a risk.
Vermeer and Catharina moved into Maria's spacious home in Delft's Catholic quarters, where he painted in a luminous, upper floor studio. Catharina gave birth to 15 children (four of whom were buried before being baptized) and some of Vermeer's children were given Catholic names.
Vermeer the globetrotter
Following Vermeer's rediscovery in the 1800s, more than 250 special exhibitions dedicated to his paintings have been staged all over the globe. His pictures have traveled over a million kilometers, A Lady Writing alone has tallied 250,000 kilometers, about five times the circumference of the earth or half the distance to the moon. Vermeer's own life was different. From what we know he remained quietly in Delft and made just a single trip to Amsterdam, about a 109km bus ride today.
The king of colors
Unlike most Dutch painters Vermeer made lavish use of the coloring substance called natural ultramarine, the most brilliant and revered blue available to painters. Ultramarine paint was made by crushing the semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli to a fine powder and mixing it with walnut oil to form a sticky paste. Raw lapis lazuli was mined in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was the most costly coloring substance of all, and more expensive than gold.
A painter of women
It is often said that Vermeer was a painter of women. He painted 42 women compared to 13 men, which was about four times the average proportion of women to men in European painting of the same era. Not a single one of Vermeer's women have names attached to them. He depicted one particularly handsome women four times and critics believe she may have been his wife, Catharina, as she appears to be pregnant in two paintings.
He had an interest in science
Vermeer was likely attentive to developments in science and technology. He painted two scientists at work and used various technical instruments to help him paint, such as a compass for drawing the circumference of a wine jug and globes. The most important instrument was a simple optical device called the camera obscura. The camera is a box fitted with a lens that projects the image of what the painter intends to paint onto a transparent screen, a sheet of paper, or a canvas. It may help a painter study the most elusive effects of color, light, and shadow. A skilled artist can also use it to trace his subjects, which some art specialists controversially believe Vermeer did.
Pieter van Ruijven was a patron
Unlike the overwhelming number of Dutch painters who toiled ceaselessly to make ends meet amidst the competitive art market, Vermeer was an exception. At the beginning of his career he seems to have engaged in a sort of economic alliance with the well-to-do Delft resident, Pieter van Ruijven. Van Ruijven eventually purchased 20 of his finest pictures, a sizable part of the artist's output. This agreement guaranteed Vermeer a certain economic security and the opportunity to paint however he pleased for a number of years.
Girl with a Pearl Earring was sold for barely anything
Vermeer's most iconic painting was purchased in 1881 for next to nothing. In that year it was offered for sale at an auction house in The Hague as a part of the art collection of a certain Mr. Braams. Victor de Stuers, an important art historian, recognized the exceptional quality of the painting and urged his friend Arnold des Tombe to buy it. In order to not arouse suspicion, De Steurs and De Tombe agreed not to bid against each other. Des Tombe acquired the painting for a mere two guilders, plus the buyer's premium of thirty cents.
A bitter end
Vermeer's fortunes abandoned him in the final years of his life. In a plea to her creditors, Vermeer's widow testified that owing to “the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.” Catharina tried desperately to keep her husband's most ambitious painting The Art of Painting from her creditors but without success.
The world in a Dutch room
Despite the air of absolute privacy that epitomizes Vermeer's interior scenes, they reveal the artist's links with the world outside and the birth of globalization. He depicted costly carpets imported from Turkey, high-quality earthenware from Germany, and precious porcelain from Italy and China. The stringed instruments represented in four pictures were fabricated in Antwerp. The stiff felt hats worn by some of his male sitters were made from high-quality beaver pelts, thanks to North American trappers. A barely visible pouch of tobacco in one picture brings to mind the same continent again.
The forgotten painter
In an age when there were no photographs, glossy art magazines, or chic art galleries, a painter's fame in Vermeer's time depended on producing a large number of artworks and selling them to influential art collectors based in cultured metropolises. Vermeer had no followers or apprentices to spread his style, and worse, he painted slowly and sold many works to a single collector in the small-town of Delft. So soon after he died, his name was forgotten by all but a few Dutch art experts. Later, some of his finest works were signed with the names of other Dutch painters in order to increase their monetary value.
After nearly two centuries of neglect, Vermeer was rediscovered by the adventurous French art critic and left-wing politician Thoré-Bürger. Thoré was so moved by Vermeer's View of Delft that he spent the rest of his life combing through European art collections, art catalogues, and exploring Dutch archives in the hopes of recovering the artist's lost works and setting straight his biography. Today, all but two paintings by Vermeer have found their way into the world's most prestigious public art collections.