the Story of Johannes Vermeer
by Caleb Slinkard
Early information on Johannes Vermeer is hard to find. The painter wasn't really acknowledged as a master until hundreds of years after his death, so the fact that we have little knowledge of his early years is not surprising. He was born in 1632 in Delft, Holland, the second child of Reynier Janz Vos and Dinga Baltens, the former changing his last name to Vermeer sometime after Johannes' birth. Reynier was an innkeeper, art dealer, and possibly a silk worker, the later vocation perhaps giving rise to Johannes's use of silk in his paintings. Johannes was baptized on October 31, 1632, and was therefore probably raised a Protestant, although there is some evidence that he later became a Catholic. The Vermeers were lower-middle class citizens. However, through Reynier's hard work and smart investments, they slowly grew in economic and social status. Johannes was sent to the Guild of St. Luke where he was taught the art of painting as an apprentice. He was an apprentice for 6 years before being allowed to paint and sell his own works. He was 23 years old at the time. Some have speculated that he actually received his training somewhere other than Delft since his entrance fee was twice that of normal apprentices, although there is no other evidence of this. In 1653 he married Catharina Bolnes, a strange match for him since she was Catholic and came from a wealthier family than his own. The couple went on to have 11 children and live what appears to have been a happy life (although their joy was certainly diminished in his latter years when he underwent financial disaster). The fact that he named all of his children after Catholic saints lends evidence to the suspicion that he converted to Catholicism, but he could have simply done so to please his wife. Following his death, his wife went to great lengths to protect his paintings from debt collectors. Vermeer's early work was doubtlessly influenced by the school of Utrecht, his mother-in-law being a modest collector of Utrecht works. After creating a few paintings in the classic genre and religious styles, his paintings took a drastic turn as he began to paint upper-middle class life. It was through these paintings that his artistry was fully seen. Vermeer's ability to express the dignity and purpose of civilian life through his paintings lent them a timeless quality, a quality still seen and valued today. The reason for his change to civilian scenes is unknown, although it is possible that it was a wise financial decision at the time. Perhaps Vermeer simply enjoyed that genre of painting more than any other he'd experienced. Vermeer was never considered a master during his lifetime, despite the quality of his paintings. This is largely due to the fact that his art made its way into the hands of only a few art collectors, mainly
Pieter van Ruijan. In his hometown of Delft, however, he was well known. He became the headman of St. Luke's Guild in 1671, and he slowly built a reputation as an esteemed artist. Unfortunately for Vermeer and other Delft artists, the Netherlands was undergoing large economic stress. The French Invasion of 1672 left the country in a fragile state, and Vermeer soon fell into debt. Records show that he borrowed large amounts of money from his mother-in-law, and he soon began to feel the great burden of having 12 mouths to feed. Three years following the invasion, he died at the age of 43. He left behind a widow and 11 children. Though they managed to relieve their financial stress through the efforts of his wife, his children fell into obscurity. Vemeer's name was still revered among experienced art collectors, however, and some of his paintings continued to fetch high prices. Vermeer remained virtually forgotten by the rest of the world until 1866, when the art critic Thoré Bürger attributed 66 paintings to him in an essay (only 35 are thought to be truly his work). Since then, his reputation has steadily grown, and he is now considered one of the Old Masters, along with such artists as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Vermeer was a master of light and color. His paintings contained a bright color palette while his contemporaries used grays, browns, and greens. Unfortunately for us, only about 35 paintings remain. This could be due to the fact that some were destroyed, but it is also possible that he painted only a few paintings during his 43 years. Those works that do remain are great examples of Vermeer's unique combination of bright colors and excellent balance. His balanced compositions of rectangular shapes yielded a sense of stability and peacefulness to his works. Many experts believe he reached this mark of excellence through the 'camera obscura' technique, the camera obscura being a primitive projector. He painted in a unique way, often using pricks of the paintbrush to raise the surface of the paint so that it reflected more light, lending a brilliance to his colors and texture to his works.. When the piece was done, however, the paint appeared smooth and detailed. His most famous works include Girl With a Pearl Earing (considered the Mona Lisa of the North), The Kitchenmaid, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, and the Little Street. Here are a few of them that I believe demonstrate Vermeer's master technique. Girl Reading A Letter by an Open Window is an excellent example of Vermeer's use of natural lighting and his tendency to paint scenes in the corners of rooms and inns. All of the noticeable pieces in the painting are significant, from the richly designed Turkish rug on the bed to the girl's reflection in the window, and many of them reflect his influences. On the wall was originally painted a picture of Cupid, probably indicating the nature of the letter, but the picture was painted out by Vermeer. The green cloth hanging on the right side of the painting resembles those often used in art shows to cover paintings for protection or to block out unseemly nudes.
The Kitchenmaid, also known as the Milkmaid, demonstrates Vermeer's wonderful use of bright colors and excellent balance. He even painted stains and a nail on the blank wall to avoid leaving the picture unbalanced. This painting again displays his use of natural light, which is picked up wonderfully by the milk and bright yellow clothing. The scene itself is not exciting, but the maid's intensity towards her task lends her a sense of gracefulness. This fact was not lost on one critic, who said “No Dutch painter ever honored woman as [Vermeer] did.” The Girl With a Pearl Earing remains a masterpiece of European easel painting. Where Vermeer derived his inspiration for the girl's turban remains a mystery because it is so unique. The startling blue of the turban was an extremely costly pigment, but one that Vermeer continued to use even in his later years of financial distress. The heavy brown and yellow clothing the girl is wearing was painted with large, undefined brush strokes, suggesting a rough and loose-fitting garment. The pearl is similar to ones popular at the time, although its unusually large size was probably the product of the painter's imagination.
Vermeer is a mystery. If we know little about his life, we know much less about his character. His legacy has been passed down to us in the form of 35 paintings that demonstrate his skill, passion, and mastery of light and color.