Vermeer, Jan (or Johannes, 1632–1675)
VERMEER, JAN (or Johannes, 1632–1675)
VERMEER, JAN (or Johannes, 1632–1675), Dutch painter. In 1653, Vermeer entered the Delft Guild of St. Luke as a painter, joining his father, who had registered with the guild as a picture dealer in 1631. It is not known with whom Vermeer learned his craft, but scholars have speculated that he studied either with Leonard Bramer (1596–1674) in Delft or with one of the Dutch followers of the Italian master Caravaggio who were active in Utrecht.
Only months before joining the guild, Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes (c. 1631–1688), a Roman Catholic from a distinguished family in Gouda. Vermeer, who was born to Protestant parents, probably converted to Catholicism at this time. Allegory of Faith of c. 1672–1674 is Vermeer's only painting with a specifically Catholic message. Here, the personification of faith takes communion before a painted crucifixion. An apple (signifying original sin) and a snake crushed by a stone (emblematic of the victory of Christ, the cornerstone of the church, over Satan) lie at her feet. As this work was likely tailored to adhere to the taste of the Catholic patron who commissioned the work, it is unwise to ascribe the meaning of the image to Vermeer's personal beliefs. It is not clear what, if any, impact Vermeer's religious orientation had upon his work.
The classical subject and large format of Vermeer's early Diana and Her Companions of c. 1655 suggest that Vermeer initially aspired to become a history painter, but by the late 1650s he shifted his focus to the genre interiors that would dominate his mature works. Vermeer first calmed the boisterous tavern scenes and curtailed the overtly sexual overtures of musical companies pictured by earlier Dutch genre painters. The girl in Officer and Laughing Girl (Frick Collection, New York), for example, sits calmly cupping her beverage in both hands; only her broad smile, and the soldier's bravura body language, indicate any attraction in this encounter. Similarly, Vermeer dispensed with melodramatic lighting in favor of more subtle plays of light. Many of Vermeer's early genre paintings are heavily dependent on the work of Pieter de Hooch (1629–after 1684), who was active in Delft until c. 1661. Vermeer followed de Hooch's innovative and illusionistic spatial recessions and surface effects sculpted from natural light before developing a personal aesthetic in the late 1660s based upon abstracted light and coolly crafted distances between viewer and subject. These later works, such as Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (National Gallery of Art, Dublin) that focus on women in domestic interiors seemingly provide entrée via the empty foreground but pen the figures behind middle ground obstructions. The light that pours in from the window fails to warm as it illuminates opaque, porcelain features and cool gray-green fabrics that hang straight in crystalline folds while it dissolves the table carpet into pools of unmodulated color. In this way, Vermeer gradually traversed the gulf between illusion and artifice.
Responses to Vermeer's paintings have focused most frequently on moralizing interpretations. Suspended from a larger narrative context, Vermeer's figures have been seen as behavioral models. Vermeer's women who entertain men away from Dutch society's watchful eye, like those in The Concert (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) may have been examples of unacceptable behavior, while his solitary, domestic women like The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) may have been viewed as what Wayne Franits termed "paragons of virtue." Readings of this kind gain credence when positioned in relation to Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance of c. 1662–1664, in which the subject's ordinary activity takes on moral implications: her action is overshadowed by the representation of the biblical weighing of souls pictured immediately behind her.
Modern scholars have been as interested in how Vermeer painted as they have been in what he painted. Vermeer's spatial compressions and blurred perimeters suggest the influence of the camera obscura, a device that translated, but could not record, three-dimensional vignettes into two-dimensional reflections. Scholars concur that Vermeer was familiar with the device's optical effects, but a debate has arisen around the extent of Vermeer's use of the instrument. Some argue that Vermeer reproduced the camera's image in paint, while others have stressed a less dependent relationship. Delft was a center of optical experimentation due in part to the presence of the scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), but as seventeenth-century Dutch art theory encouraged verisimilitude to be combined with artfulness, it seems unlikely that an artist of Vermeer's stature merely replicated what was before him. In either case, Vermeer's canvases exhibit a meticulous buildup of forms and tones executed with a highly controlled brush.
Vermeer may have been able to practice such a labor-intensive method because he benefited from patronage, a rarity for Dutch painters of the period. John Michael Montias posited that as the Delft citizen Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624–1674) owned twenty of the approximately thirty-five known paintings by Vermeer, van Ruijven must have functioned as at least a de facto patron. He might, for example, have paid Vermeer for the right of first refusal on the artist's paintings. Such economic support would have freed Vermeer from the demands of the open market by enabling him to labor over each painting, confident that he would be adequately compensated for his efforts. Vermeer may have supplemented whatever income he generated from his painting by operating as an art dealer. These reasonably reliable sources of income would also explain Vermeer's extremely limited output, as he must not have felt pressure to produce his paintings in volume for the market.
The benefits of patronage apparently were not able to see Vermeer through the recession that followed the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1672. In 1676, a year after his death, his widow testified to her husband's creditors that Vermeer had amassed considerable debt in the 1670s because he had been unable to sell either his own paintings or those by other painters. She also stated that supporting their eleven children, all still minors, had exacerbated the family's financial situation. Like his fellow painters Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Vermeer apparently died in the throes of financial turmoil.
See also Camera Obscura ; Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van ; Netherlands, Art in the .
Franits, Wayne E., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.
Montias, John Michael. Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History. Princeton, 1989.
Vermeer and the Delft School. Edited by Walter Liedtke. Exh. cat. New York and London, 2001.
Wheelock, Arthur K. Vermeer and the Art of Painting. New Haven, 1995.
Christopher D. M. Atkins
The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) of Delft transformed traditional Dutch themes into images of superlative poise and serenity, rich with emblematic meaning.
Rarely has such a small body of work supported such a l!rge reputation as that of Jan (Johannes) Vermeer. Most experts would agree O. 35 authentic works, with a few more on which opinions differ. For the most part his paintings are of Mode 3t size, and their subject matter appears to be commonplace.
The documented facts about Vermeer's life are scanty. He was born in Delft. His father was an art dealer and silk weaver who also kept a tavern, and Vermeer probably took over the business after his father's death in 1655. In 1653 Vermeer married a well-to-do Catholic girl from Gouda; they had 11 children. In the year of his marriage he became a master in the Delft painters' guild, of which he was an officer in 1662-1663 and 1669-1670. He seems to have painted very little and to have sold only a fraction of his limited production, for the majority of his extant paintings were still in the hands of his family when he died. His dealings in works by other artists seem to have supported his family reasonably well until the French invasion of 1672 ruined his business. He died in 1675 and was buried on December 15. The following year his wife was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Nothing is known about Vermeer's education and training as a painter. In part because verses written following the death of Carel Fabritius in 1654 mention Vermeer as his successor as Delft's leading artist, it has been suggested that Fabritius was Vermeer's teacher. Certainly Fabritius anticipated Vermeer's interest in perspective experiments and his use of a light-flooded wall as a background for figures. But Fabritius lived in Delft only after 1650, by which time Vermeer would have been well on his way toward the completion of his training.
Sixteen of Vermeer's paintings are signed, but only two are dated: The Procuress (1656) and The Astronomer (1668). A chronology of his works, based on their stylistic relationships with these two landmarks and on other considerations, has found general acceptance, though some points continue to be argued.
The warm colors and emphatic chiaroscuro of The Procuress relate it to paintings of the Rembrandt school of the 1650s, but its subject matter and composition reflect an acquaintance with paintings of the 1620s by the Utrecht Caravaggists. Considered to be earlier than The Procuress are two pictures that resemble it because of the color scheme, dominated by reds and yellows, and because they are larger in size and scale than Vermeer's later works. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is reminiscent of compositions by Hendrick Terbrugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst, who disseminated the Caravaggesque style in Holland. Diana and Her Companions, Vermeer's only mythological subject, is also redolent of Italy. It is his only painting of figures in a landscape setting.
After these three diverse experiments, which may have owed something to Vermeer's familiarity with works in his father's stock of art, he painted the Girl Asleep at a Table, in which he retained the warm palette of his other early pictures but in terms of subject matter and composition plunged into the mainstream of current Delft painting. The room with an open door, through which the adjoining brightly lighted room is visible and which is typical of Vermeer's Delft contemporary Pieter de Hooch, went back to early Netherlandish tradition. For Vermeer it was the first attempt to place a figure in the defined space of a room, a problem that preoccupied him throughout the rest of his career. The effect of sharp recession also was a prominent feature of Vermeer's compositional mode from then on. The quality of self absorption seen in this painting contributed to his most characteristic emotional effects. Subtle allusions to meanings beyond the obvious one, which have made this picture the subject of much discussion, were also found in Vermeer's later works.
All these tendencies were brought under full control for the first time in the Soldier and Laughing Girl. This painting also marked the transition between Vermeer's early and mature works in that pointillé (gleaming highlights of thick impasto), which brightens the paint surface, appeared for the first time.
Vermeer's two town views, the Little Street and View of Delft, have been called "the first plein-air pictures of modern painting." The View of Delft has been in the 20th century one of the most admired of all paintings. Marcel Proust's appreciation of it enhanced its charms for many observers.
Vermeer's style just before 1660 is also well represented by The Cook. The rich paint surface with its extraordinary tactile quality, the monumental figure perfectly balanced in space and engrossed in a humble task performed with the dignity due a solemn rite, and the intense color scheme dominated by yellow and blue all show Vermeer at the height of his powers. Before long his paintings tended to become more delicate and detached, with more diffused light and a smoother surface, as in the Lady Weighing Gold, which is an allegory of God's judgment of man.
Following these great works, which are assumed to have preceded and immediately followed 1660, come the "pearl pictures." The Concert of about 1662 and the Woman with a Water Jug of perhaps a year later display the dulcet charms of this period.
More complicated compositions and especially more elaborate space representations mark the major works of the last decade of Vermeer's life. The Allegory of the Art of Painting (ca. 1670) is large and complex in both composition and meaning. On the whole it is untainted by the hardness and dryness that marred his later works, such as the Allegory of the Catholic Faith.
Characteristics of Vermeer's Art
Vermeer was criticized for exaggerating the perspective of his interior settings until eyes accustomed to reality as seen through the camera lens recognized that his perspective was in fact accurate. When the painter is very close to the nearest object in his composition, for example, only 2 feet from it, an object of equal size that is 4 feet from his eye will be depicted, correctly, as half the size of the first. Vermeer arranged his objects to achieve such contrasts. The effect of this practice is to make the voids in a sense tangible. The space is built up along with the objects in a construction of cubic solidity.
It has been suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscure in composing his pictures and that this accounts for both his striking compositions and his peculiarities in handling colors and values. Delft in his time was a center of optical experimentation and lens making, and it would not be surprising if artists there availed themselves of optical devices in their work. The unique qualities of Vermeer's paintings must, however, be attributed to his artistic personality, whether he did or did not make use of mirrors or lenses in attaining them.
The figures and objects Vermeer painted belong to their environment in a special way that heightens the impression that what he is depicting is a block of space with all that it contains rather than solids separated by voids. He renounced the contours that in most paintings distinguished between figures and their setting. Instead, the outlines of his objects are insubstantial; they unite the elements of his paintings rather than separate them.
Vermeer's manner of modeling, too, was exceptional. He built his figures with planes of contrasted values, omitting the graduations of tone that most painters use to model the form. In his mature works he punctuated his subtle patterns of light and shadow with pointillé.
The figures of Vermeer, fixed in their enveloping space as a fly is fixed in amber, deny any possibility of the disruption of their perfect poise. They exist in a realm of abstract beauty. The quietness, serenity, order, and immutability of the world of Vermeer's art provide, for those with a taste for such virtues, intimations of immortality. Perhaps that is why this painter, whose works appear to be as forthright and clear as the light of day, has always been felt to be mysterious.
A thorough study of Vermeer's life and work is Pieter T. A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft (1949; trans. 1950). It is especially valuable for information about the historical background, including all relevant documents, and for technical analyses of the paintings and Vermeer's system of perspective. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (1953), is a sensitive examination of Vermeer's stylistic development and provides much comparative material that clarifies the place of his works in relation to contemporary painting. Ludwig Goldscheider, ed., Johannes Vermeer: The Paintings (1958; 2d ed. 1967), is noteworthy for its fine plates, including original-size details in color and in black and white. □
Born: October 30, 1632
Died: December 15, 1675
The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer of Delft transformed traditional Dutch themes into images of fantastic poise and peace, rich with symbolic meaning.
The documented facts about Jan Vermeer's life are few. He was born on October 30 or 31, 1632, in Delft, Netherlands, the second of two children to Digna Baltens and Reynier Jansz. His father was an art dealer and silk weaver who also kept a tavern, and Vermeer probably took over the business after his father's death in 1655. It is presumed that his father, who was actively involved with the local artists and collectors, was an early influence on the young child. Vermeer supposedly began his training as an artist around the mid-1640s.
In 1653 Vermeer married a well-to-do Catholic girl from Gouda; they had eleven children. In the year of his marriage he became a master in the Delft painters' guild (an association), of which he was an officer from 1662 to 1663, and again, from 1669 to 1670. He seems to have painted very little and to have sold only a fraction of his limited production, for the majority of his paintings were still in the hands of his family when he died. His dealings in works by other artists seem to have supported his family reasonably well until he was financially ruined following the French invasion of 1672, when France invaded the Spanish Netherlands. He died in 1675 and was buried on December 15. The following year his wife was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Nothing is known about where Vermeer was educated and trained as a painter. In part because verses written following the death of Carel Fabritius (1622–1654) in 1654 mention Vermeer as his successor as Delft's leading artist, it has been suggested that Fabritius was Vermeer's teacher. Certainly Fabritius helped develop Vermeer's interest in perspective experiments (experiments with depth) and his use of a light-flooded wall as a background for figures. But Fabritius lived in Delft only after 1650, by which time Vermeer would have been well on his way toward the completion of his training.
The warm colors of The Procuress relate it to paintings of the Rembrandt school (styled after the painter Rembrandt [1606–1669]) of the 1650s, but its subject matter and composition reflect influence by paintings of the 1620s by the Utrecht Caravaggists, a group of painters in Utrecht, Netherlands, who stressed a new, international style. Considered to be earlier than The Procuress are two pictures that resemble it because of the color scheme, dominated by reds and yellows, and because they are larger in size and scale than Vermeer's later works. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is similar to compositions by Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588–1629) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1590–1656), who spread the Caravaggesque (having to do with the painting style of Italian painter Caravaggio [c. 1571–1610]) style in Holland. Diana and Her Companions, Vermeer's only mythological subject, is also suggestive of Italy. It is his only painting of figures in a landscape setting.
After these three diverse experiments, which may have owed something to Vermeer's familiarity with works in his father's stock of art, he painted the Girl Asleep at a Table, in which he used the warm range of colors of his other early pictures but in terms of subject matter and composition plunged into the mainstream of current Delft painting.
The Soldier and Laughing Girl, marked the shift between Vermeer's early and mature works in that pointillé (gleaming highlights of thick layers of paint, which brightens the surface) appeared for the first time.
Vermeer's style just before 1660 is also well represented by The Cook. The rich paint surface with its extraordinary quality, the monumental figure perfectly balanced in space and involved in a humble task, and the intense colors dominated by yellow and blue all show Vermeer at the height of his powers.
Following these works, which are assumed to have immediately followed 1660, come the "pearl pictures." The Concert of about 1662 and the Woman with a Water Jug of perhaps a year later display the pleasing charms of this period.
More complicated compositions and especially larger space representations mark the major works of the last decade of Vermeer's life. The Allegory of the Art of Painting (c.1670) is large and complex in both composition and meaning. On the whole it is not influenced by the hardness and dryness that weakened his later works, such as the Allegory of the Catholic Faith.
The quietness, peacefulness, order, and unchanging world of Vermeer's art provide hints of immortality, or the idea that one cannot be affected by death. Perhaps that is why this painter, whose works appear to be as clear as the light of day, has always been thought to be mysterious.
For More Information
Gowing, Lawrence. Vermeer. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Larsen, Erik. Jan Vermeer. New York: Smithmark, 1998.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Jan Vermeer. New York: Abrams, 1981.
http://www.nga.gov; http://www.rijksmuseum.nl; http://www.mauritshuis.nl