GREAT ART - Vermeer

Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life.
Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime.

Lady Standing at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer

'Lady Standing at a Virginal' is a genre painting created in about 1670-1672 and now in the National Gallery, London. The oil painting depicts a richly dressed woman playing a virginal in a home with a tiled floor, paintings on the wall and some of the locally manufactured Delftware blue and white tiles of a type that appear in other Vermeer works. The identities of the paintings on the wall are not certain, according to the National Gallery, but the landscape on the left may be by either Jan Wijnants or Allart van Everdingen. The second painting, showing Cupid holding a card, is attributed to Caesar van Everdingen, Allart's brother. This motif originated in a contemporary emblem and may either represent the idea of faithfulness to a single lover or perhaps, reflecting the presence of the virginal, the traditional association of music and love.

 below - a contemporary take on Vermeer's style - but not his subject

(in the style of Johannes Vermeer van Delft)
Peter Crawford
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014

He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings
For a long time, relatively little was known about Vermeer's life.
He seems to have been devoted exclusively to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft. 
Until the 19th century, the only sources of information were some registers, a few official documents and comments by other artists; it was for this reason that Thoré Bürger named him "The Sphinx of Delft". 
John Michael Montias added a lot of details on the family from the city archives of Delft, in his 'Artists and Artisans in Delft: A Socio-Economic Study of the Seventeenth Century' (1982).

The Astronomer - 1668
Johannes Vermeer

'The Astronomer' is a painting finished about 1668. It is oil on canvas, 51 cm x 45 cm (20 x 18 in), and is on display at the Louvre, Paris. Portrayals of scientists were a favourite topic in 17th century Dutch painting and Vermeer's oeuvre includes both this astronomer and the slightly later 'The Geographer'. Both are believed to portray the same man, possibly Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. The astronomer's profession is shown by the celestial globe (version by Jodocus Hondius) and the book on the table, Metius's 'Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae'). Symbolically, the volume is open to Book III, a section advising the astronomer to seek "inspiration from God" and the painting on the wall shows the finding of Moses - Moses may represent knowledge and science ("learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians").

Het Meisje met de Parel - Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer

This is one of only three paintings Vermeer signed and dated (the other two are 'The Astronomer' and 'The Procuress'). The geographer, dressed in a Japanese-style robe then popular among scholars, is shown to be "someone excited by intellectual inquiry", with his active stance, the presence of maps, charts, a globe and books, as well as the dividers he holds in his right hand. The energy in this painting is conveyed most notably through the figure's pose, the massing of objects on the left side of the composition, and the sequence of diagonal shadows on the wall to the right. Vermeer made several changes in the painting that enhance the feeling of energy in the picture: the man's head was originally in a different position to the left of where the viewer now sees it, indicating the man perhaps was looking down, rather than peering out the window; the dividers he holds in his hand were originally vertical, not horizontal; a sheet of paper was originally on the small stool at the lower right, and removing it probably made that area darker. Details of the man's face are slightly blurred, suggesting movement. His eyes are narrowed, perhaps squinting in the sunlight or an indication of intense thinking. The drawn curtain on the left and the position of the oriental carpet on the table - pushed back - are both symbols of revelation. 

Johannes Vermeer - Brief Biography

Johannes Vermeer was born to Reijnier Janszoon and Digna Baltens, middle-class innkeepers and prominent silk weavers in the city of Delft. Vermeer's father was a member of the St. Luke's Guild, where he traded and sold various paintings.
It was from this profession that Johannes would learn all about art.
Johannes Vermeer later became part of the Guild of St. Luke.
It is believed that Vermeer apprenticed under Leonart Bramer or Carel Fabritius, but no evidence can really verify this.
Some scholars believe that Vermeer was taught by the Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert.

Het Meisje met de Parel - Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer

The painting 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' is one of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's master-works and, as the name implies, uses a pearl earring for a focal point. It has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague since 1902. The painting is signed "IVMeer" but not dated. The image is a tronie, the Dutch 17th-century description of a ‘head’ that was not meant to be a portrait. After the most recent restoration of the painting in 1994, the subtle color scheme and the intimacy of the girl’s gaze toward the viewer have been greatly enhanced. During the restoration, it was discovered that the dark background, today somewhat mottled, was initially intended by the painter to be a deep enamel-like green. This effect was produced by applying a thin transparent layer of paint, called a glaze, over the present-day black background. However, the two organic pigments of the green glaze, indigo and weld, have faded. 

In April 1653, Vermeer married Catharine Bolnes, a wealthy Catholic woman and they had fifteen children together but sadly, four died at birth.
Catherine modeled for many of her husband's great works including 'Woman Holding a Balance' and 'Woman Reading a Letter'.

Woman Holding a Balance
Johannes Vermeer

'Woman Holding a Balance', also called 'Woman Testing a Balance' was completed 1662-1663, and was known as 'Woman Weighing Gold', but closer evaluation has determined that the balance in her hand is empty. In the painting, Vermeer has depicted a young woman holding an empty balance before a table on which stands an open jewellery box, the pearls and gold within spilling over. A blue cloth rests in the left foreground, beneath a mirror, and a window to the left - unseen save its golden curtain - provides light. Behind the woman is a painting of the Last Judgment featuring Christ with raised, outstretched hands. The woman may have been modeled on Vermeer's wife, Catharina Vermeer. The image has been variously interpreted as a 'vanitas' painting, as a representation of divine truth or justice, as a religious meditative aid, and as an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life. Some have imagined the woman is weighing her valuables, while others compare her actions to Christ's, reading parable into the pearls. Some art critics have seen the woman as a figure of Mary. To some critics who perceive her as measuring her valuables, the juxtaposition with the final judgment suggests that the woman should be focusing on the treasures of Heaven rather than those of Earth. In this perspective, the mirror on the wall may reinforce the vanity of her pursuits.

He also included various images of his children in his paintings, such as' The Little Street' (see below).
The couple are believed to have lived a happy married life until Vermeer's untimely death in 1675 from what is assumed to be a stroke.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
Johannes Vermeer

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam since 1885, it was the first Vermeer acquired by the museum. The central element of the painting is a woman in blue standing in front of a window (not depicted) reading a letter. The woman appears to be pregnant, but this is not determined; although not universally accepted, many have argued that she appears so only because of the fashion of the day. While the contents of the letter are not depicted, the composition of the painting has been mined for clues. The map of the Netherlands on the wall behind the woman has been interpreted as suggesting that the letter she reads was written by a traveling husband. Alternatively, the box of pearls barely visible on the table before the woman might suggest a lover as pearls are a sometime symbol of vanity. The painting is unique among Vermeer's interiors in that no fragment of corner, wall or ceiling can be seen.

During his lifetime, it's thought that Vermeer completed a total of thirty-five paintings, though many others that are thought to be his remain unattributed.
Much can be said of Vermeer's personality traits within his works such as his affinity for the domesticity of home life, and the values instilled within Christian life in the Netherlands.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith
Johannes Vermeer

'The Allegory of Faith', also known as 'Allegory of the Catholic Faith', was painted in about 1670-1672. The painting is currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and has been since 1931.This and Vermeer's only other, earlier, allegory, 'Art of Painting' are his only works that fall under history painting in the contemporary hierarchy of genres, though they still have his typical composition of one or two figures in a domestic interior. Both share several features: the perspective is almost the same, and at the left of each painting is a multicolour tapestry pulled to the left to disclose the scene. 'The Art of Painting' also used symbolism from Cesare Ripa (of Clio, muse of history). Vermeer's 'Love Letter' uses the same or a similar gilt panel. 'The Allegory' and 'The Art of Painting' - two paintings differ markedly in style and purpose from Vermeer's other works. Both works show complex meaning, but this one reveals that the artist's usual focus on naturalistic effects was a stylistic option, to be set aside when the subject called for another approach. 'The Art of Painting' still reads as a naturalistic depiction of an artist and his model, and the pose, if not the costume, of the model is a simple one, whereas the pose of the figure in the 'The Allegory of Faith' is Baroquely dramatic.

Johannes Vermeer - Style and Technique

Most of the dates given to Vermeer's paintings have been estimates by art historians as there is so little information about the artist himself.
Vermeer's love of the Italian Baroque style and subject matter can be seen in his earliest works to date.
His painting technique and style was also shaped by his time at the Guild of St. Luke in Delft which was strongly influenced by the Art School of Antwerp.
This Art School greatly admired the works of Caravaggio and other great masters.

The Milkmaid
Johannes Vermeer

 Vermeer most likely used the pigment Lapis Laozi to make his works distinctive. Very expensive material, Lapis Lazuli was used in tiny amounts to create distinctive pigment for most of his works. Additionally, Vermeer used a cadre of special features in his domestic works. Those include lighting from the left side of the painting, Domestic tools, The pigment yellow and blue, Women, Expressive faces, Framed windows, mirrors, of walls, and Large draped curtain or table cloths.


The majority of Vermeer's masterpieces were created during this period and some took up to three years to complete.
Vermeer's paintings became more intense during this time due to the financial difficulties he was facing.
Vermeer created new ways of viewing paintings with his profound and complex compositional techniques that took the viewing process to new levels.
He created various optical illusions to make three dimensional objects and space.
The artist's use of the 'camera obscura' is most noted in this period.
A realist painter, Vermeer focused a great deal on chiaroscuro and became a master in using this technique.
He delighted in the technicalities of the camera obscura that had emerged in Dutch markets at this time and was an avid fan of using various lens and glass contraptions to discover new forms of capturing light in various contexts.

The Allegory of Painting - The Painter in his Studio
Johannes Vermeer

'The Art of Painting', also known as 'The Allegory of Painting', and or 'Painter in his Studio', is a famous 17th-century oil on canvas painting. Many art historians believe that it is an allegory of painting, hence the alternative title of the painting. After Vermeer's The Procuress it is the largest work by the master. Its composition and iconography also make it the most complex Vermeer work of all. It offers a realistic presentation of an artist's workplace, and is notable for its depiction of light as it illuminates the interior. Experts attribute symbolism to various aspects of the painting. The subject is the Muse of History, Clio. This is evidenced by her wearing a laurel wreath, holding a trumpet (depicting fame), possibly carrying a book by Thucydides. The double headed eagle, symbol of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, former rulers of Holland, which adorns the central golden chandelier, may have represented the Catholic faith. Salvador Dalí refers to "The Art of Painting" in his own surrealistic painting 'The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table' (1934). On Dalí's painting we can see the image of Vermeer viewed from his back re-created as a strange kind of table.

'The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table' - (1934)
Salvador Dalí

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table is a small Surrealist oil painting by Salvador Dalí. Its full title is 'The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table (Phenomenologic Theory of Furniture-Nutrition)'. It makes reference to 'The Art of Painting' by Johannes Vermeer, (see above) a famous seventeenth-century work in which a painter, thought to be a self-portrait of Vermeer, is depicted with his back to us, in distinctive costume. It is one of a number of paintings expressive of Dalí's enormous admiration for Vermeer.


Vermeer's life wass cut short during this decade as he died suddenly of what is believed to be a stroke on 15 December 1675.
The last five years of his career showed him continuing to create astounding art works as he strived to find new methods in recreating light and shadow to define space. Vermeer also made the influences of the old masters style adaptable to his own choice of subject matter.

The Lacemaker
Johannes Vermeer

The Lacemaker is a painting completed around 1669–1670 and held in the Louvre, Paris. The work shows a young woman dressed in a yellow shawl, holding up a pair of bobbins in her left hand as she carefully places a pin in the pillow on which she is making her bobbin lace. At 24.5 cm x 21 cm (9.6 in x 8.3 in), the work is the smallest of Vermeer's paintings, but in many ways one of his most abstract and unusual. The girl is set against a blank wall, probably because the artist sought to eliminate any external distractions from the central image. As with his 'The Astronomer' (see above) (1668) and 'The Geographer' (1669), it is obvious that the artist undertook careful study before he executed the work; the art of lace-making is portrayed closely and accurately. Vermeer probably used a camera obscura while composing the work: many optical effects typical of photography can be seen, in particular the blurring of the foreground. By rendering areas of the canvas as out-of-focus, Vermeer is able to suggest depth of field in a manner unusual of Dutch Baroque painting of the era.

Johannes Vermeer - Influences

Delft was a southern province under Spanish rule and this greatly impacted on the art market. Many artists born in Delft went unknown and wealthier patrons all fled to northern Holland.
Thus, artistic content in Delft centred on images of the city, domesticity and local surroundings and most paintings were created in the contexts of Christian morals and values.
Being raised Protestant, Vermeer painted everyday images and his surroundings due to the fact that Protestant Dutch society held the natural aspects of life in high esteem. Vermeer strived to depict the beauty in the most mundane aspects of daily life.
He was also a realist and in many of his paintings he depicted black and white tiled floors in houses which was a popular style at the time.
In general, the Dutch preferred dark backgrounds with a focused subject in the foreground. Vermeer liked this tradition and played with various light sources as it competed with dark spaces through natural and non-natural lighting.
Dutch society also relished in scenes of domesticity that instilled a form of homogeny.
Many Delft inhabitants prided themselves on their high standards of education and refinement and had developed a taste for art that reflected such attributes.

The Little Street
Johannes Vermeer

The Little Street (Het Straatje) is a painting executed c. 1657-1658. It is housed in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, and signed left below the window with the writing "I V MEER". The exact location of the scene Vermeer painted is not known. However, recent study by the Delft professor F.H. Kreuger found the Voldersgracht as the location of 'The Little Street'.

The Guild of St. Luke:

The Guild of St. Luke was largely influenced by Classicism and this shows in Vermeer's works and how he portrays his subject matter, as demonstrated in works such as 'Diana and Her Companions'.
Furthermore, the way Vermeer presents his subjects in an idealistic manner from an objective perspective also reinforces the influence of Classicism.

'Diana and Her Companions'
Johannes Vermeer

Diana and Her Companions is a painting completed in the early to mid-1650s, now at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. Although the exact year is unknown, the work may be the earliest painting of the artist still extant, with some art historians placing it before 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', some after. The painting's solemn mood is unusual for a scene depicting the goddess Diana, and the nymph washing the central figure's feet has captured the attention of critics and historians, both for her activity and contemporary clothing. Rather than directly illustrating one of the dramatic moments in well-known episodes from myths about Diana, the scene shows a woman and her attendants quietly at her toilette. 

Theories of Mechanical Aid

Vermeer's painting techniques have long been a source of debate, given their almost photo-realistic attention to detail, despite Vermeer having had no formal training, and despite only limited evidence that Vermeer had created any preparatory sketches or traces for his paintings.
In 2001, British artist David Hockney published the book 'Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters', in which he argued that Vermeer - among other Renaissance artists including Hans Holbein and Diego Velázquez - used optics, and specifically some combination of curved mirrors, 'camera obscura' and 'camera lucida', to achieve precise positioning in their compositions.

Camera Obscure
The camera obscura (Latin; camera for "vaulted chamber/room", obscura for "dark", together "darkened chamber/room"; plural: camera obscuras or camerae obscurae) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. It is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography and the camera. The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside, where it is reproduced, rotated 180 degrees (thus upside-down), but with color and perspective preserved. The image can be projected onto paper, and can then be traced to produce a highly accurate representation.

Camera Lucida
A camera lucida is an optical device used as a drawing aid by artists.
The camera lucida performs an optical superimposition of the subject being viewed upon the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both scene and drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure. This allows the artist to duplicate key points of the scene on the
drawing surface, thus aiding in the accurate rendering of perspective.

This became known as the 'Hockney–Falco' thesis, named after Hockney and Charles M. Falco, another proponent of the theory.
Working independently, in 2001, British architecture professor, Philip Steadman, published the book 'Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces', which specifically claimed that Vermeer had used a 'camera obscura' to create his paintings.
Noting that many of Vermeer's paintings had been painted in the same room, Steadman found six of his paintings that are precisely the right size if they had been painted from inside a 'camera obscura' in the room's back wall.
Supporters of these theories have pointed to evidence in some of Vermeer's paintings, such as the often-discussed sparkling pearly highlights in Vermeer's paintings, which they argue are the result of the primitive lens of a' camera obscura' producing halation - (the spreading of light beyond its proper boundaries to form a fog round the edges of a bright image.)

A lady at the virginals with a gentleman -The Music Lesson

Johannes Vermeer

The 'Music Lesson' or 'Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman' is a painting of young female pupil receiving the titular music lesson. It has been estimated to have been painted between 1662 and 1665. The medium of the work is oil on canvas. It measures 74.6 cm by 64.1 cm.
The 2013 documentary film Tim's Vermeer documents inventor and entrepreneur Tim Jenison's attempt to recreate The Music Lesson in order to test his theory that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices.

It was also suggested that a 'camera obscura' was the mechanical cause of the "exaggerated" perspective seen in 'Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman' (one of Vermeer's least successful works).
In 2008, American entrepreneur and inventor Tim Jenison developed the theory that Vermeer had used a 'camera obscura' along with a "comparator mirror", which is similar in concept to a 'camera lucida', but much simpler, and allows for easily matching colour values.

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Pearl Necklace was painted in 1664, on canvas - 21 5/8 X 17 ¾ inch. Vermeer portrayed a young Dutch woman, most likely of upper-class-descent, dressing herself with two yellow ribbons, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. As a very popular artist of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer depicted many women in similar circumstances within interior, domestic scenes. The same woman also appears in 'The Love Letter' and 'A Lady Writing a Letter'.

He later modified the theory to simply involve a concave mirror and a comparator mirror.
He spent the next five years testing his theory by attempting to re-create 'The Music Lesson'.
This theory remains disputed.
Interestingly, aside from the accurately observed mirror reflection above the lady at the virginals, there is no historical evidence regarding Vermeer's interest in optics.
The detailed inventory of the artist's belongings drawn up after his death does not include a 'camera obscura', or any similar device.

Rediscovery and Legacy

For two centuries after Vermeer's death, his works were appreciated by a number of connoisseurs in the Netherlands - although attributed in many cases to better-known artists such as Metsu or Mieris - but were largely overlooked by art historians.
The Delft master's modern rediscovery began about 1860, when the German museum director Gustav Waagen saw 'The Art of Painting' in the Czernin gallery in Vienna, and recognized as a Vermeer the work which was at that time attributed to Pieter de Hooch.
Research by Théophile Thoré-Bürger culminated in the publication in 1866 of his catalogue raisonné of Vermeer's works in the 'Gazette des Beaux-Arts'.
Thoré-Bürger's catalogue, which drew international attention to Vermeer, listed more than seventy works by Vermeer, including many he regarded as uncertain.
The accepted number of Vermeer's paintings today is thirty-four.
Upon the rediscovery of Vermeer's work, several prominent Dutch artists, including Simon Duiker, modelled their style on his work.
Other artists who were inspired by Vermeer include the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi and the American Thomas Wilmer Dewing.

Paranoiac-critical Study of Vermeer's Lacemaker - 1955
Salvador Dalí 

In the 20th century, Vermeer's admirers included Salvador Dalí, who painted his own version of The 'Lacemaker', and pitted large copies of the original against a rhinoceros in some now-famous surrealist experiments.
Dali also immortalized the Dutch Master in 'The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table', 1934.

The Lacemaker (after Vermeer) - 1955
Salvador Dalí 

Han van Meegeren was a 20th-century Dutch painter who worked in the classical tradition. 
Motivated by a blend of aesthetic and financial reasons, van Meegeren became a master forger, creating and selling many new 'Vermeers' before being caught and tried.

Woman with a Water Jug
Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Water Jug, also known as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, is a painting finished between 1660–1662 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in the Baroque style. It is oil on canvas, 45.7cm x 40.6 cm, and is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 
This painting is one of a closely related group painted in the early to mid-1660s where the artist appears to be moving away from an emphasis on linear perspective and geometric order. He seems to be moving to a simpler form using only one figure and emphasizing the use of light.

There are only thirty-four paintings that are firmly attributed to Jan Vermeer.
Probably because of this fact many consider that any painting by Vermeer is automatically a 'superb masterpiece'.
This, unfortunately, is not the case, and Vermeer produced a number of paintings that are far from successful.
This is the fate of all artists.
This review of Vermeer's works has therefore been limited to paintings which truly deserve the appellation - 'Great Art'.

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