Title page

VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

Biograph

Dutch painter. Among the great Dutch artists of the 17th century, he is now second in renown only to Rembrandt, but he made little mark during his lifetime and then long languished in obscurity. Almost all of the contemporary references to him are in colourless official documents and his career is in many ways enigmatic. Apart from a visit to The Hague in 1672 (to act as an expert witness concerning a group of Italian paintings of disputed authenticity), he is never known to have left his native Delft. He entered the painters' guild there in 1653 and was twice elected 'hooftman' (headman), but his teacher is not known. His name is often linked with that of Carel Fabritius, but it is doubtful if he can have formally taught Vermeer, and this distinction may belong to Leonaert Bramer, although there is no similarity between their work.

Only about thirty-five to forty paintings by Vermeer are known, and although some early works may have been destroyed in the disastrous Delft magazine explosion of 1654, it is unlikely that the figure was ever much larger; this is because most of the Vermeers mentioned in early sources can be identified with surviving pictures, whilst only a few pictures now attributed to him are not mentioned in these sources - thus there are few loose ends. This small output may be at least partially explained by the fact that he almost certainly earned most of his living by means other than painting. His father kept an inn and was a picture-dealer and Vermeer very likely inherited both businesses. In spite of this he had grave financial troubles (he had a large family to support his wife bore him fifteen children, and she was declared insolvent in the year after his death).

Only three of Vermeer's paintings are dated - The Procuress (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, 1656), The Astronomer (Louvre, Paris, 1668), and its companion The Geographer (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, 1669). (Another signed and dated work, St Praxedis mopping up the Blood of the Martyrs of 1655, appeared in the 1970s, but it is of doubtful authenticity. It is in a private collection.) It is difficult to fit his other paintings into a convincing chronology, but his work nevertheless divides into three fairly clear phases.

The first is represented by only two works - Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and Diana and her Companions (Mauritshuis, The Hague} - both probably dating from a year or two before The Procuress. They are so different from Vermeer's other works - in their comparatively large scale, their subject matter, and their handling - that Diana and her Companions was long attributed to the obscure Jan Vermeer of Utrecht (c. 1630-after 1692), in spite of a genuine signature. The Procuress marks the transition to the middle phase of Vermeer's career, for although it is fairly large and warm in tonality - like the two history paintings - it is a contemporary life scene, as were virtually all Vermeer's pictures from now on.

In the central part of his career (into which most of his work falls) Vermeer painted those serene and harmonious images of domestic life that for their beauty of composition, handling, and treatment of light raise him into a different class from any other Dutch genre painter. The majority show one or two figures in a room lit from the onlooker's left, engaged in domestic or recreational tasks. The predominant colours are yellow, blue, and grey, and the compositions have an abstract simplicity which confers on them an impact out of relation to their small size. In reproduction they can look quite smooth and detailed, but Vermeer often applies the paint broadly, with variations in texture suggesting the play of light with exquisite vibrancy - the critic Jan Veth aptly described his paint surface as looking like 'crushed pearls melted together'. From this period of Vermeer's greatest achievement also date his only landscape - the incomparable View of Delft (Mauritshuis), in which he surpassed even the greatest of his specialist contemporaries in lucidity and truth of atmosphere - and his much-loved Little Street (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Another painting of this period is somewhat larger in scale and unusual in subject for him - The Artist's Studio (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), in which Vermeer shows a back view of a painter, perhaps a suitably enigmatic self portrait.

In the third and final phase of his career Vermeer's work lost part of its magic as it became somewhat harder. There are still marvellous passages of paint in all his late works, but the utter naturalness of his finest works is gone. The only one of his paintings that might be considered a failure, the Allegory of Faith (Metropolitan Museum, New York), belongs to this period. His wife was a Catholic and he may well have been converted to her religion, but his rather lumbering figure shows he was not at ease with the trappings of Baroque allegory. There are symbolic references in other of his paintings, but they all - except for this one - make sense on a straightforward naturalistic level.

No drawings by Vermeer are known and little is known of his working method. It is virtually certain, however, that he made use of a camera obscura; the exaggerated perspective in some of his pictures (in which foreground figures or objects loom unexpectedly large) and the way in which sparkling highlights sometimes appear slightly out of focus are effects duplicated by unsophisticated lenses. The scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), celebrated for his work with microscopes, became the executor of Vermeer's estate and it may well have been an interest in optics that brought them together.



© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.