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Artists Johannes Vermeer Biography and Legacy
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Johannes Vermeer

Dutch Painter

Movements and Styles: The Baroque, Dutch Golden Age

Born: October 1632 - Delft, The Dutch Republic

Died: December 1675 - Delft, The Dutch Republic

Johannes Vermeer Timeline

Quotes

"Vermeer does not just make a leaf and place it in the design, he relates space and leaf"
Arshile Gorky
"Vermeer was an authentic artistic genius - even if he did cheat"
Simon Jenkins, Journalist
"Johannes Vermeer paints in thin layers - there is no waste effort - and those small dots - no, they are not like Seurat's, though they contain all the light the pointillist may have wished for, concentrated, hovering before the object, but not obliterating it.. ..Vermeer is not a sun painter, but rather a moon-painter - like Uccello - that's good, it is the pure, final stage of art, the moment when it becomes more real than reality"
Arshile Gorky
"Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished"
Marcel Proust, Novelist

"The art of a Vermeer...seeks not to amaze and appal but to invite the observer to come closer, to close with the painting, peer into it, become intimate with it. Such art reinforces human dignity"

Germaine Greer

Biography

Childhood

Johannes Vermeer was born the in the mercantile Dutch town of Delft in October 1632 to a lower-middle-class family. His father Reijnier Jansz was a hardworking cloth weaver turned innkeeper, and then art dealer. His mother Digna Baltus is thought to have been an illiterate housewife due to her ability to sign only an "x" in place of her name on her marriage certificate.

Despite the painter's popularity during his life, criminality seems to have run in Vermeer's veins. In 1625, before the painter's birth, his father was convicted and acquitted of the manslaughter of a soldier following a brawl at an inn. It has been suggested that the acquittal was granted owing to the familiarity between the assailant and the master painter of the Guild of St Luke. The painter's maternal grandfather was also arrested and imprisoned for counterfeiting. It is of little surprise that drama and dalliances with the law were to plague Vermeer throughout his adult life.

Education and Early Training

It is thought that in the mid 1640s, the teenage Vermeer was enrolled as an apprentice painter of his father who was willing to pay the expensive fees to ensure a promising future for his son. Due to lack of empirical evidence, it is impossible to name whom Vermeer was apprenticed to, but a number of historians suggest that Rembrandt's star pupil Carel Fabritius provided his early training. Others think that his teacher was the Delft-born and Guild of St Luke-bred painter Pieter van Groenwegen.

Detail of<i> The Procuress</i> by Johannes Vermeer, (c.1656). Purported to be the only self-portrait of the artist.
Detail of The Procuress by Johannes Vermeer, (c.1656). Purported to be the only self-portrait of the artist.

In 1653, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes, the daughter of a well-to-do Catholic family in Delft. Despite both sets of parents being resistant to the marriage due to opposing Christian beliefs, the wedding went ahead after Vermeer's conversion to Catholicism. Perhaps in efforts to prove his devotion to his new found religion and in-laws, Vermeer painted Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654-55), his only known depiction of a Biblical narrative. His marriage to Catherina allowed Vermeer to climb the social scale significantly, and it is thought that afterwards he even limited the contact he had with his family while living in the house of his formidable mother-in-law.

In the same year as his marriage, Vermeer followed in his father's footsteps and enrolled as a master painter in the Guild of St Luke, which allowed him a wealth of opportunities, patrons, and connections to advance his career. His early work shows the influence of masters like Rembrandt, the Italian Caravaggio, as well as the Utrecht Caravaggisti painters like Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburnen.

Mature Period

In 1662, Vermeer became the head of the Guild of St Luke, which meant that he would have been in close contact with numerous Delft patrons, artists, and collectors. The new position established him as a well-respected painter in his own right, although the few paintings that exist have led many scholars to calculate that the artist only produced three or so paintings per year.

The most frequent model, that is thought to be Vermeer's wife, is seen here in <i>Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window</i> (c. 1657-59). This young woman is pictured with her high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes, and she also appears to be pregnant in two of the pictures.
The most frequent model, that is thought to be Vermeer's wife, is seen here in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c. 1657-59). This young woman is pictured with her high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes, and she also appears to be pregnant in two of the pictures.

One day in 1663, while Vermeer was away from the house, his wife's absent and aggressive brother Willem returned and physically attacked the heavily pregnant Catherina, threatening to stab her with a pointed metal stick. The mother and unborn child were saved from the attack when the Vermeers' maidservant put herself between the siblings. According to court records, Willem was heard to shout "she-devil" and "old popish swine" at Catherina and her mother Maria, before being taken away and incarcerated until the end of his life. Interestingly, the traumatic, violent episode didn't make its way into Vermeer's art. On the contrary, the calm idyll that Vermeer was known to capture in paint reflects a world that he, himself, perhaps wished to inhabit.

The wealth of his wife's family allowed Vermeer to paint for his own pleasure, rather than to support his family as was the case for most other painters, and he never took on pupils or apprentices. The painter was also known to have used expensive pigments like lapis lazuli for the skirt of The Milkmaid and deep carmine for the dress of The Girl with a Wineglass. While some have suggested that Vermeer's long-term patron Pieter van Ruijven would have bought and supplied the artist with these exclusive ingredients, it is perhaps unsurprising that it was around this time that the painter began his own downward slide into debt.

Late Period and Death

Tombstone from 1975. When Vermeer died, he left so much debt that his family was unable to pay for a grave marker for him
Tombstone from 1975. When Vermeer died, he left so much debt that his family was unable to pay for a grave marker for him

In Dutch history, the year 1672 was termed "The Year of Disaster," owing to the invasion of the Dutch Republic by the French, German, and British armies. This led to a dramatic economic crash for the once prosperous, middle-class country. The art market plummeted, and Vermeer could barely afford to keep himself, his wife, her mother, and his eleven children. He took on increasing amounts of debt, borrowing thousands of guilders, and was even caught pocketing his mother-in-law's money.

Vermeer died on December 16, 1675, having fallen into a fit of madness and depression. In the court records, his wife stated that, "...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."

Legacy

Due to the very localized fame during his lifetime, Vermeer seemed to disappear from the art world until the 19th century when French artists in the manner of Édouard Manet; started to turn their eyes toward the real and unpretentious. Since Vermeer had been so adept at capturing moments of ordinary beauty, he became a major influence on these artists, who revived an awareness of the master's work. Despite the fact that only 34 (3 more are disputed Vermeers) of his pieces have survived, Vermeer is considered today to be one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age.

In the twentieth-century, the Surrealist Salvador Dali became entranced by Vermeer's work and produced his own variations including The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft which can be used as a Table in 1934, as well as The Lacemaker (After Vermeer) in 1955.

Banksy, <i>Girl with a Pierced Eardrum</i> (2014). Bristol, UK
Banksy, Girl with a Pierced Eardrum (2014). Bristol, UK

Other artists like the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi adapted Vermeer's calm domestic interiors for their own nineteenth and twentieth century subjects. Hammershøi has modernized Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by reversing the image and subduing the color palette so that it almost feels the audience is looking at an early photograph of a domestic, Danish interior.

Among many of his exalted paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring is considered the "Mona Lisa of the North." Its staggering realism and emotional ambiguity has inspired artists, novelists, and filmmakers for decades. Most recently, the anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy reinterpreted and reproduced the painting on a building in Bristol, UK, using a burglar alarm in place of the iconic pearl earring.

Most Important Art

Johannes Vermeer Famous Art

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c.1654-56)

In this painting, Christ sits in the house of his close friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. While Martha is busy cleaning, cooking for, and serving the son of God, Mary sits calmly and contentedly at his feet and listens to him preach. Martha rebukes Christ for not encouraging the other sister to get up and help with the chores but Christ explains that while Martha is "worried and upset by many things," Mary needs "only one," that being the word of God. Martha was seen to be a personification of the active Catholic path where good deeds and humility led to salvation, but Mary is thought to be a symbol for the quiet, contemplative life of Protestantism, which required only the word of God for redemption.

In his own way, Vermeer was conveying the theological struggle between Protestants and Catholics that raged not only within his own country, but also within himself. As a recent convert to Catholicism, after his marriage to Catherina Bolnes in 1653, it is unsurprising that one of his first works would depict this Biblical scene. Interestingly, some art historians have suggested that owing to the canvas size, which is the largest of all Vermeer's surviving works, it seems likely that this was a commission for a hidden Catholic church. People who followed the Pope's religion were persecuted in much of Northern Europe and forced to hide their spiritual convictions and services in secret basements or disguised lofts.

One of the rare Biblical depictions by Vermeer, the painting radically depicted an intimate scene with Christ as if it were an ordinary, everyday scene. The artist Diego Velazquez would go on to recreate his own version of this iconic scene.
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Ellie Birch

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ellie Birch
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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