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Who was Johannes Vermeer?

Johannes Vermeer was a somewhat unknown figure during his time because of a small creative output and economic troubles in the Netherlands. He was a stunning realist painter with expert skills with chiaroscuro and camera obscura work.  Nevertheless, he ushered in a series of work that firmly solidified his position in the Baroque canon. With his ability to utilize various scientific techniques to embolden and heighten the detail of his work, he created stunning works. While there was little-saved information about his personal life, he was an avid devotee to his work and created masterpieces that remain to this day.

Johannes Vermeer Biography

Born around October 31, 1632, in Delft, Johannes Vermeer to this day remains a somewhat mysterious figure as much of his personal information has not been discovered. Owing to this legacy, Thoré-Bürger named him “The Sphinx of Delft.”

Nevertheless, we do have some details of his life. His father was a middle-class fabric worker named Reijnier Janszoon. He lived as an apprentice in Amsterdam in the upscale Sint Antoniesbreestraat, a somewhat famous local art community. By 1615, he would marry Vermeer’s mother, Digna Baltus and the couple moved to Delft where they would raise their family. Around 1625, Reijnier would begin to deal in paintings, presumably spurring the interest of his son.

Vermeer’s early life and childhood are well within the mysterious shroud of obscurity. However, we know that in 1653 Vermeer married a Catholic girl named Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes) in a village near to Delft called Schipuliden. Johannes Vermeer converted to Catholicism which would inform some of his future artwork, such as “The Allegory of Faith.” This painting focuses heavily on Vermeer’s religious nature and serves to shed some light on the faith of the creator.

During this timeframe, between 1670 and 1672, Vermeer’s oeuvre would similarly focus on subjects of a religious nature. Once again, being uncertain of his motivating forces, he possibly had a devout patron at this time who worked within a “hidden church.” It is at his mother in law’s house, who lived next to this church, where Vermeer would live for the rest of his life. It is astounding that, for a man who lived in one town we would not have more information on him. This simply shows us how much of an effective recluse Vermeer was, and how utterly devoted he was to his work.

Johannes Vermeer passed away in December of 1675 after fighting with a relatively short illness. Vermeer’s wife Catharina would later attribute her husband’s death to the stress of financial pressures.

Johannes Vermeer Career Highlights

It is likely that Vermeer served as an apprentice to a master painter, but it is unclear who this may have been. Speculation abounds, and the name of Carel Fabritius comes to scholar’s minds. Ultimately it is not likely we will ever know for certain although other scholars believe that he was self-taught. Whatever the case may be, Vermeer’s works show the hand of a true master at work. However he learned, he was an excellent student.

In 1653, Johannes Vermeer joined the Guild of Saint Luke, which was a trade association for Dutch painters. With heavy economic burdens on the entire country due to plague and war, both Vermeer and the Guild itself were hard pressed for wealth of any kind. Vermeer most likely sold his talents to patrons around the city, until his death, simply to make ends meet. This, however, didn’t save his family from massive economic troubles after his death, for his paintings were never widely seen.

Vermeer was a man of domestic dispositions. His work mostly tends around domestic scenes, including paintings such as “The Milkmaid.” This early piece shows two of his iconic idiosyncrasies: namely, his realistic renderings of people and items and a preoccupation with light and lighting, similar to Rembrandt.  His paintings tend to focus on these themes, and can also be seen in his timeless, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Vermeer would continue to sell paintings to a select audience and even ran the Delft guild for a time. His paintings would remain somewhat unknown for approximately two centuries before gaining true appreciation.

Fun Facts

  • He left an incredible debt to his family after he passed away
  • His wife Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of which however dying before even being baptized (who were, nevertheless, registered as “child of Johan Vermeer”)
  • He had a unique technique to paint pearls, as per his famous painting: he first painted them in gray, then added a thick brushstroke on top to give to effect of them shining in the light
  • Han Van Meegeren continually forged his paintings, which would obfuscate the genuine editions
  • To properly study light and composition, Johannes Vermeer dabbled with camera obscura work – a simple photo recording device.

Concluding Thoughts

While Johannes Vermeer’s fame was not widespread in his time, due to a relatively small creative output, his work nevertheless remains a remarkable achievement in the history of western art. His contributions to the Baroque era of art is remarkable, and masterpieces like his “Girl with a Pearl Earring” are indelibly stamped onto the face of art history.

Musart is more than pleased to host the art of the Dutch master and fully recognizes his importance to the art community as a whole.