Profile of Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer (October 1632 – December 1675), in original Dutch Jan Vermeer van Delft, was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life. During his lifetime, he was a moderately successful provincial genre painter, recognized in Delft and The Hague.
Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
"Almost all his paintings," Hans Koningsberger wrote, "are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women."
His modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him, although only 34 paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
Like some major Dutch Golden Age artists such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt, Vermeer never went abroad. However, like Rembrandt, he was an avid art collector and dealer.
Biography of Johannes Vermeer
Relatively little was known about Vermeer's life until recently. He seems to have been devoted exclusively to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft. Until the 19th century, the only sources of information were some registers, a few official documents, and comments by other artists; for this reason, Thoré-Bürger named him "The Sphinx of Delft".
Johannes Vermeer was baptized within the Reformed Church on 31 October 1632. His father, named Reijnier Janszoon, was a middle-class worker of silk or caffa (a mixture of silk and cotton or wool). Around 1625, Reijnier began dealing in paintings. When Reijnier died in October 1652, Vermeer took over the operation of the family's art business.
In April 1653, Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer married a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes).
Vermeer's new mother-in-law Maria Thins was significantly wealthier than he, and it was probably she who insisted that Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage on 5 April.
At some point, the couple moved in with Catharina's mother, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk, almost next to a hidden Jesuit church. Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor.
His wife gave birth to 15 children, four of whom were buried before being baptized, but were registered as "child of Johan Vermeer".
It is unclear where and with whom Vermeer apprenticed as a painter. Vermeer's style is similar to that of some of the Utrecht Caravaggists, whose works are depicted as paintings-within-paintings in the backgrounds of several of his compositions.
On 29 December 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make clear that Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee. It was a year of plague, war, and economic crisis; Vermeer was not alone in experiencing difficult financial circumstances.
In 1662, Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he was considered an established craftsman among his peers. Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year on order.
In 1672, a severe economic downturn (the "Year of Disaster") struck the Netherlands, after Louis XIV and a French army invaded the Dutch Republic from the south (known as the Franco-Dutch War).
In 1674, Vermeer was listed as a member of the civic guards. In the summer of 1675, Vermeer borrowed 1,000 guilders in Amsterdam from Jacob Romboutsz, an Amsterdam silk trader, using his mother-in-law's property as a surety.
In December 1675, Vermeer died after a short illness. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15 December 1675. In a petition to her creditors, his wife later described his death as follows:
"...during 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 Bolnes attributed her husband's death to the stress of financial pressures. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer's business as both a painter and an art dealer. She had to raise 11 children and therefore asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer's creditors.
Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee.The house had eight rooms on the first floor, the contents of which were listed in an inventory taken a few months after Vermeer's death. In his studio, there were two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, 10 canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers, and "rummage not worthy being itemized".Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten to pay off a substantial debt.
Vermeer had been a respected artist in Delft, but he was almost unknown outside his hometown. A local patron named Pieter van Ruijven had purchased much of his output, which reduced the possibility of his fame spreading.Several factors contributed to his limited body of work. Vermeer never had any pupils; Additionally, his family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time, as would acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses. His time spent serving as head of the guild and his extraordinary precision as a painter may have also limited his output.
In Vermeer's oeuvre, only about 20 pigments have been detected. Of these 20 pigments, seven principal pigments which Vermeer commonly employed include lead white, yellow ochre, vermilion, madder lake, green earth, raw umber, and ivory or bone black.
Vermeer may have first executed his paintings tonally like most painters of his time, using either monochrome shades of grey ("grisaille") or a limited palette of browns and greys ("dead coloring"), over which he would apply more saturated colors (reds, yellows and blues) in the form of transparent glazes. No drawings have been positively attributed to Vermeer, and his paintings offer few clues to preparatory methods.
There is no other 17th-century artist who employed the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) either so lavishly or so early in his career. Vermeer used this in not just elements that are naturally of this colour; the earth colours umber and ochre should be understood as warm light within a painting's strongly lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall. In this way, he created a world more perfect than any he had witnessed. This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer's understanding of Leonardo's observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object.This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour.
A comparable but even more remarkable, yet effectual, use of natural ultramarine is in The Girl with the Wine Glass. The shadows of the red satin dress are underpainted in natural ultramarine, and, owing to this underlying blue paint layer, the red lake and vermilion mixture applied over it acquires a slightly purple, cool and crisp appearance that is most powerful.
Even after Vermeer's supposed financial breakdown following the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672, he continued to employ natural ultramarine generously, such as in Lady Seated at a Virginal.
Vermeer's works are largely genre pieces and portraits, with the exception of two cityscapes and two allegories. His subjects offer a cross-section of seventeenth-century Dutch society, ranging from the portrayal of a simple milkmaid at work, to the luxury and splendour of rich notables and merchantmen in their roomy houses. Besides these subjects, religious, poetical, musical, and scientific comments can also be found in his work.
Vermeer's reputation and works have been featured in both literature and in films such as Girl with a Pearl Earring. Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), and the 2003 film of the same name, present a fictional account of Vermeer's creation of the famous painting and his relationship with the equally fictional model.