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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Jan Vermeer, who was also known as Johan and Johannes was a famous Dutch painter who specialised in the portrayal of the interior of homes of the middle classes, on canvas.

Born in 1632, Vermeer made this style of painting a successful and popular genre. Although he only painted a few paintings, and did not become wealthy as a result of using expensive tools and pigments, he is much admired for his artistry today, and most notably his use of natural light.

Very little is known about Jan Vermeer's early years. He became an apprentice and lived in the affluent area of Sint Antoniesbreestraat which coincidentally housed many other prestigious artists. It is not clear who his mentor was, although it is thought that Carel Fabritius was probably the man who coached and inspired him.

Leonaert Bramer, who was a local artist, also befriended Vermeer, although he did not gain influence from him as their artistic styles are completely different.

Many art historians also believe that although he did have a mentor, he did infect teach himself to paint. What we do know is that he sacrificed his life for his love of art and his children.

It was during 1653, at the age of 21, that he married his long term girlfriend, Catharina Bolenes, who was a catholic. The ceremony was a quiet affair in the quaint village of Schipluiden.

His new mother-in-law had stipulated that before the marriage cold take place, that he had to convert to Catholicism, which he did. Many historians believe he chose this path because his wife's family were far richer than his own.

However, it is widely believed that Vermeer chose the Catholic faith because of his own beliefs and convictions, which were portrayed in his 1672 painting, The Allegory of Faith.

This painting focuses much less upon the interior of a room, but rather on the symbolism placed upon the Eucharist and the sacrifice that is made.

He remained in Delft for all of his life, and this is where he produced all of his paintings, in the dedicated second floor of their family home, and in the front room. They became a family of fifteen children, although four died before they were baptized.

A varied career

It was in the year of 1653, that Vermeer joined the prestigious Guild of Saint Luke. This was an association for painters. As the year was one of plague and economic disasters, Vermeer did not have to pay the usual joining fee, but he was not the only artist to be suffering financial difficulties. The following year, the Delft Thunderclap a terrible storm, enveloped Delft and wreaked devastation, causing huge amounts of damage. During this period, Vermeer did struggle for money, but it is thought that local patron and art historian, Pieter van Ruijven, loaned him money.

The year of 1672 was the year of disaster in the Netherlands, the year of economic disasters. This was following the invasion of the French army into the Dutch Republic. During this period, shops, schools and the theatres closed, and it took a whole five years for the situation to improve. During 1674, Vermeer had to join the civic guards, making his economic situation that much worse. This was one of the reasons why in 1675, he had to borrow 1,000 guilders from the silk trader, Jacob Romboutsz, located in Amsterdam. Sadly, it was later on in the same year that he died following a short illness.

During the years of war and economic destruction, Vermeer was a well respected artist within the Delft area. However, outside of the area very little was known about his work. The local art dealer at the time, Pieter van Ruijven, bought most of his work, and helped to restrict his artistic presence within the wider community.

Artistic style

When Vermeer first began to paint, like many other painters he chose to use grey tones, and mainly browns and darker colours. To these base colours he would then add highlighted colours of reds, yellows and blue hues. This would be applied as a glaze. Although not much is known about the early preparation of his art work, what is known is that he was one of the very few artists who used elaborate and highly expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli and ultramarine. What was even more unusual was that he used these pigments, not only to accent and highlight natural objects, but those objects that were not naturally made of these colours. He used such tones to highlight the interior walls and to create a soft and warming glow to the painting. Doing so helped to create a world so unlike our own, and one which he perceived to be perfect.

One painting in which he used ultramarine as a pigment choice, is that of the The Girl with a Wineglass. In this painting we see the girl's red dress, that has undertones of ultramarine painted within the fabric. What this addition of this pigment allows, is for the dress to take on an almost purplish hue, creating a softer and more feminine feel to the dress. In essence, the painting takes on a most powerful and strong image of a girl wearing a red dress.

What is most surprising, is that even after the year of economic disaster during 1672, he still painted with the ultramarine pigment. This is clearly shown in the painting, Lady Seated at a Virginal. It is widely accepted that the reason for this was that Vermeer was given a steady supply of such pigments by Pieter van Ruijven, who had an added interest in his artistic creations.

Most famous works

Only three of Vermeer's paintings were dated. They include The Procuress painted in 1656 and The Geographer painted in 1669 while staying in Frankfurt. Although Vermeer was most well known for his striking interiors and cityscapes, he did paint a few portraits. One of which was of Maria Thins, his mother-in-law. He mainly painted contemporary settings and subjects, and he predominantly used brown, red, yellow and hues of blue in his works. His pallet was comprised of cool tones and featured rooms inside a home, with perhaps a solitary figure standing by a window, which helped to cast light onto the scene. What Vermeer managed to achieve with his domestic portrayals of life, is a sense of balance and almost one of another worldly presence. This technique is clearly observed in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and View of Delft. His later works did take on a slightly different feel, with a harsher edge to the painting. These include the paintings, The Love Letter of 1670 and The Allegory of Faith that was painted the same year and is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in New York.

Following the two centuries after his death, the art community and art historians overlooked the importance of his work. It really wasn't until 1860, that his work began to gain recognition when the esteemed director of the German Museum, Gustav Waagen, viewed The Art of Painting when in Vienna, in the Czernin gallery. He instantly recognised the work to be that of Vermeer, even though the gallery had attributed the work to that of the artist, Pieter de Hooch. It was six years later that the research conducted by Théophile Thoré-Bürger ended with the publication of a concise catalogue of all of Vermeer's artistic works. It was because of this catalogue that Vermeer gained international recognition for his work.

Artistic influences

What was most surprising and indeed enjoyable, was that on the discovery of Vermeer's work, many Dutch artists drew inspiration from him and echoed their artistic skills on his techniques. Such influential and prominent Dutch artists included those of Simon Duiker and Wilhelm Hammershoi, International artists who were influenced by his art where those of the American artist, Thomas Wilmer Dewing. During the twentieth century Salvador Dalí, was also inspired to paint his very own version of Vermeer's The Lacemaker. This was via a commission from Robert Lehman, an art collector. The famous twentieth century Dutch painter, Han van Meegeren, dramatically and successfully forged many of Vermeer's works until he was finally apprehended.