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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To fix and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click the "dismiss" buttton and continue exploring.

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A self portrait?

The Procuress (detail), Johannes Vermeer

This grinning figure, who holds a cittern in his right hand and cheers to the viewer with a beer glass in his left, is a stock figure in the Caravaggesque brothel scenes of the Utrecht Caravaggists. This semi-comical figure serves as a kind of third-person "fictional narrator," partially removed from the scene that unfolds.

He wears a fanciful black doublet with broad slashes on the sleeves and so-called shoulder-wings. Such a garment was out of fashion by the time Vermeer was born. However, these garments continue to appear in various other Dutch interior paintings well into the 1660s. The intricately scalloped Flemish collar, made of fine white linen and edged with skillfully crafted bobbin lace, became popular around 1630, gradually replacing the elaborate and stiff ruffles from the Spanish court fashion. The beret was originally painted much smaller so that the figure's face would have been more illuminated. By enlarging the beret and adding a broad-brimmed gray hat to the suitor, and, crucially, reworked the downcast eyes, which now focus on the coin, as do the young woman's, the attention is shifted to the financial transaction, making it the heart of the scene.

The concept of a "third-person fictional narrator" is more commonly associated with literature than with painting. However, the idea can be extended to visual arts in the form of a character or element within a painting that guides the viewer's interpretation without directly participating in the main action. Essentially, this figure serves as a sort of "narrator" that provides context, much like a third-person narrator in literature. In European art history, one could argue that this concept can be traced back to religious painting traditions, particularly in medieval and Renaissance art. Hieratic scales, where figures are sized not according to their spatial relation in a "real world" but according to their spiritual or thematic importance, could be considered an early form of narrative guidance. However, these are generally not individual figures serving as narrators but rather a compositional choice by the artist.

An unusual portrayal of the procuress

The Procuress, Dirck van Baburen

The Procuress
Dirck van Baburen
Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 107.6 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Contrary to conventional portrayals of brothel scenes, Vermeer's androgynous koppelaarster (procuress) does not play an active role here and can be identified only through her uniformly dark dress and her sharp, shifty gaze. Rather than the despicable aspect usually given to the procuress, her finely drawn face presents no wrinkles. It appears like a mask of someone who knows all about the seductive power of both love and money.

Radiographs have revealed a light-toned form near the hand of the suitor, which was probably the outstretched right hand of the procuress, later overpainted by Vermeer with the black of her dress. This indicates that in the earlier stage, the procuress was actively involved in the transaction, although in a far more subtle manner than in Van Baburen's painting of the same theme. Thus, the viewer's attention is directed to the concrete act of payment as well as to the amorous relationship of the handsome young couple.

The Procuress (detail). Johannes Vermeer

The operation of brothels was primarily a female-dominated affair, constituting illegal forms of typical women's work like petty trading. In 17th-century Dutch society, the role of procuresses in prostitution was complex. In day-to-day reality, they generally held their prostitutes imprisoned in a sort of permanent debt, primarily contracted for expensive clothing, from which they could rarely free themselves. Age-wise, not all procureses were old; many were around 35, and some were even as young as their prostitutes. They often entered the profession through routes other than prostitution and had more social and financial capital than the prostitutes. The procuress was often an ex-prostitute who had set aside enough money to enter the entrepreneurial side of the trade.They generally managed one or two girls at a time and made money through various means, including a share of the prostitutes' earnings, and selling overpriced food, drinks and clothing.

Only about one in five of those arrested for brothel-keeping were men, who were usually the husbands or partners of the procuresses. Sailors of the East India Company were among the main clients.

A glass of Dutch beer

Dutch beerglass

This glass is not a simple water glass. It is likely filled with strong, dark bock beer, as indicated by a stripe of light greenish-gray on the surface of the brownish liquid, which is probably the froth of the beer. The glass has been identified as à la façon de Venise ("Venetian fashion"). The prestige of Venetian glass was so significant in the 16th and 17th centuries that glassmakers from France, Germany, Bohemia, Spain and England created their versions of the Venetian style, some of which are so similar as to be difficult to distinguish from authentic Venetian glass. The importance of à la façon de Veniseglass for major European glasshouses was substantial. The glass à la façon de Venise was eventually made in the Netherlands, the Rhineland and by Giacomo Verzelini in England. Wine, by contrast, would have been served in wine glasses with stems, such as the earlier German Berkemeyers or the later 17th-century Roemers.

Drinking alcoholic beverages played a crucial role in the business of prostitution. Prostitutes were expected to persuade their clients to consume as much as possible of notably low-quality liquor before proceeding to sexual activities. At times, the "wine" was merely adulterated candy syrup. If the client became too inebriated to engage in sexual activity, he was relieved of his purse, compensating for the loss of the prostitute's services. The most successful prostitutes were skilled pickpockets who used sex as a distraction, focusing their clients' attention away from their secondary line of business.

The fancy suitor

The Procuress (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Together with the charming sex-worker, the fashionable young suitor forms the core of the painting, although the true focal point is the exchange of the coin, which is about to drop into the fleshy palm of the young prostitute's open hand. As he flips a coin into the courtesan's hand, his other hand lies flat across her breast, foretasting the merchandise for which he will have paid.

A recent restoration of the picture has revealed that the suitor originally wore no hat and was illuminated in a manner similar to the girl. He also looked directly at her face, or gazed out of the picture, instead of focusing on the coin. Although the addition of the broad hat obscures the man's features, it unifies the two figures and provides a sort of shelter for the young woman.

A "buttoned-up" courtesan

The Procuress, Gerrit van Honthorst

The Procuress (detail)
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 71 x 104 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Vermeer's Procuress cleanly breaks the traditional mold of the bordeeltje (little brothel scene) in more than one way; bordeeltje girls were always represented with attractive facial features, decked out in luxurious satin clothes that allowed them to bear their breasts to clients, one of the necessities of the trade. The chance to render the textural effects of such costumes may have been one of the reasons so many talented painters were drawn to the subject. Vermeer, however, interpreted the motif according to his own taste.

Although there can be no mistake about the young girl's intentions, her lowered eyes and warm smile have little in common with the conventional renderings of his contemporaries, such as The Procuress by Gerrit van Honthorst. With her colorful clothing, cleavage and the feathers in her hair, Van Honthorst's girl is easy to distinguish from the average citizen. The feathers were a reference to her wanton character, while the lute she holds by the neck had a clear sexual connotation in the 17th century. Vermeer's young girl, instead, is fully clad in an spotless white cap bordered with fine bobbin lace, unusual for her profession. Her peaceful self-containment anticipates something of the sublime female characterizations in his later works of art.

The head of the young girl is largely painted "alla prima" (in one go). The facial expression is modeled with horizontally applied brush strokes, which are never seen again in Vermeer's portraits of female heads. Some parts of the head are revised. The hooftdoek (head scarf) is pushed back a bit to enlarge the view of the forehead, opening up both the collar and the bodice.

After the removal of the thick yellow varnish, the face of the young woman differs significantly from the head of the girl in the New York painting A Maid Asleep, with which it is often compared. The complexion of the sleeping maid is rendered with thin gray paint on a translucent reddish-brown primer and is less elevated; the Procuress's head has light tints of white and agreeable pinks.

A superbly painted Roemer glass

17th-century Roemer glass

A Roemer is a drinking glass with a round bowl and a wide, hollow stem studded with prunts, primarily designed in the form of a raspberry motif, although sometimes they were drawn out to form points. These decorative motifs were intended to serve a practical purpose as well: to prevent the glass from slipping through greasy fingers. The word "Roemer" appears to stem from the German word for Roman: "Römer." Roemer glasses were produced in large numbers in the 16th and 17th centuries in Holland and Germany. The style developed out of late medieval glass forms and continued into the 19th century.

Roemers were distinct from Berkemeyers (a Berkemeyer is featured in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl), which had a flared bowl and much thinner walls. The hollow base of the Roemer was built up by coiling strands of molten glass around a conical core.

A Roemer glass begins with a glassblower gathering molten glass at the end of a blowing pipe. This initial lump of glass is carefully pre-shaped, either freehand or with the aid of a mold. Once the initial shape is achieved, air is blown into the molten glass to form a bowl. A separate gather of molten glass is manipulated to form a hollow, tubular stem, which is then attached to the bowl to bring the main elements of the Roemer together. The small prunts are added by applying molten glass in small blobs along the stem, usually shaping them to resemble raspberries or sometimes drawing them out to pointed ends. These prunts serve a dual purpose: they are decorative and also functional, preventing the glass from slipping through greasy fingers.

After the bowl and stem are fused together at high temperatures, the glass goes through an annealing process. This involves slow cooling in a controlled environment to relieve any internal stresses in the glass. This ensures the Roemer is both beautiful and durable.

Roemers were often engraved by sophisticated women belonging to the upper and middle classes, often with poetic mottoes, elaborate floral patterns or even little pictures. Vermeer depicted a Roemer with a flat bowl. The delicate greenish mass of the glass, sparkling in the light, provides an attractive chromatic transition from the red and yellow of the couple's clothes to the bright blue of the wine jug. The highlights are applied with bold flecks of thick, opaque impasto paint that make them appear to dance like globules of daylight.

A tiny masterpiece of painting technique

Westerwald ceramic jug

The elaborately decorated wine jug is a small treasure in Vermeer's oeuvre. In no other painting—not even in The Milkmaid—do we find another object painted with such precision and care. To achieve the extraordinary accuracy of the jug's structure and decorative pattern, Vermeer employed a compass. Both the piercing point and the scratches used to define the contours and stripes are still visible in the paint layers. The use of a mechanical aid for painting testifies to the artist's openness to any technical means that might improve the quality of an image. Compass point can be detected in the globes of both The Astronomer and the Allegory of Faith.

The light gray ground and the typical curling blue flourishes suggest it was imported from the Westerwald, a forested area near Cologne on the Rhine in Germany. This area contains abundant supplies of the essentials for pottery production; clay and wood. Westerwald stoneware has been produced from the 15th century to the present day. Made of salt-glazed clay, it is molded, stamped with dies and sometimes incised or adorned with cobalt blue painted designs. The salt glaze is produced by combining sodium with the quartz in clay at extremely high temperatures to produce an unusually strong finish. The Westerwald area supplied far-reaching markets in Germany, France, England and the Netherlands, and from there, in large quantities to countries of the East Indies.

The black coat

Radiographs have proven that the dark fur coat with the row of five shimmering decorative buttons was added by Vermeer in a later stage of the painting process. In the original composition, the carpet covered the entire balustrade. At one point there were questions about whether the coat had been added by another hand, but the results of several analyses have disproved this supposition. Vermeer probably added it to achieve greater tranquility within the composition, mitigating the colorful-patterned carpet's unstable undulating effect.

An imported Turkish carpet

Medallion Eshak (fragment)
Western Anatolia
c./before 1600
Private collection, Austria

With the rapid expansion of the foreign trade of the Netherlands, colorful oriental carpets gained great popularity in the 16th and particularly the 17th century as decorative objects, placed on tables or chests.

In nine of Vermeer's paintings, we find such precious rugs, presumably painted from existing models. Identified by Onno Ydema, who claims to have discovered 28 depictions of this kind of carpet in Dutch paintings, the so-called Medallion-Ushak carpet of The Procuress features a design that originated in the West-Turkish town of Ushak. Two groups of this particular pattern display a structure of complete star-like primary medallions on the vertical axis and secondary medallions on the sides. Characteristic tendrils, flowers and leaves decorate the dark blue ground in yellow ochre or white, and the red ground in various blue hues. In theory, the design repeats infinitely in all directions, although "cut" by the border.

The carpet seen on Vermeer's Music Lesson, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and The Concert hardly show any differences in the details of the design or the weaving structure indicate that all three pictures might trace back to one single carpet Vermeer might have had at his studio.

Ydema found that the part of the carpet visible in The Procuress displays the pattern of a secondary medallion with a red border. It is placed horizontally; the upper or lower end with the star-shaped corner medallion can be seen. Under the woman's hand which holds the glass, a part of a typical Ushak medallion can be seen. The lightly woven edges with the red fringes, visible on the right side, are not unusual for Ushaks. The date of the production of this specific subgroup in the first half of the 17th century is consistent with the date of the painting. The ornaments of the medallion are rendered by Vermeer with sufficient precision.

Unfortunately, the blue parts of the carpet appear gray-blue or gray-green. A special analysis revealed that Vermeer had used a rare pigment, likely vivianite. Vivianite is sensitive to light exposure and prone to color changes over time, darkening under the influence of light, which makes it a somewhat unstable pigment. These qualities would make it a less than advisable, although its use may be taken as an indication of Vermeer's delight in experimenting. The blue color in the carpet must have originally appeared as a clear, lucid blue with different levels of saturation and lightness.

Not a lute...a cittern

Although the body of the instrument cannot be seen, the characteristic shape of its neck leaves no doubt that it is a cittern. The cittern was one of the most popular musical instruments of the mid-17th century and was also the instrument most frequently depicted by Vermeer (see the detail of the late Love Letter above). Its shape recalls the more familiar lute, but the cittern has a very different history and, above all, produces a very different sound.

Cittern strings are made of metal, while the lute's are made of natural animal gut. Played with a plectrum due to its brass strings, the cittern contrasts with the lute, which is plucked with bare fingers. The latter produces a much softer, nostalgic tone, whereas the cittern's cheerful tone is comparable to that of the modern banjo, although a well-made cittern sounds somewhat like the virginal. Like the lute, the cittern frequently appears in pictures with erotic content but is also used to symbolize harmony in love and family. The comparatively large number of depictions attests to the widespread popularity of this instrument.

In the Elizabethan Era, citterns could be found in every self-respecting barber's shop for the convenience of waiting customers. This was most likely also the case in Dutch muziekherbergen (music taverns), where guests could make use of various musical instruments, including citterns, to entertain themselves.

The background

The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer

The anonymous gray background rarely receives critical attention from art historians. At first glance, it appears to represent a broad expanse of uneventful wall that sits uncomfortably close to the figures. However, upon closer inspection, it can be seen that, to the center-left, the form of a column exists, whose left-hand profile is located between the male figure to the left and the black headdress of the procuress. To the left of the column appears to be an open space, accentuated with a few rough touches of light yellow and orange paint, that perhaps are meant to suggest a sunset, which might imply a particular time of day or a specific architectural setting. Such elements could be crucial in interpreting the emotional or thematic undercurrents of the painting.

Critical assessment

The richly satisfying nature of the relationship between the man and the woman on the right eventually begins to assert itself and draw us deep within it, on its own terms. One is struck by how miraculously uncontaminated it remains, either by its setting or by the dark figures who gather around it, and how much this counts in the way of value. Within the experience the couple share they seem invulnerable (and oblivious) to both the voyeuristic and the moralistic gaze. And the important thing is that the painting achieves uninhibited, intuitively convincing access to this experience.

Edward A. Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979

The signature

Facsimile of the signature of Johannes Vermeer's Procuress
The Procuress (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

Signed and dated lower right 1656

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

Learning how to paint

The Procuress was restored in 2002– after intensive conservational examinations.

Signed at the lower right corner, in dark brown color: i v Meer. 1656 (ivM in ligature). The support is a hand-woven linen with a thread count of 14x12 per cm² (warp/weft), with a piece attached in the lower quarter. The original edges of the paint and ground layers are preserved and prove that Vermeer had stretched the canvas onto a strainer. At all sites, the original strainers may be reconstructed and refer to the original straining in somewhat irregular distances of c. 60 to 120 mm.

The double ground consists of a first layer with lead white and chalk and a second in a light reddish tone like that of bricks. Chalk, lead white, a yellow ocher, as well as a red ferric-oxide have been proved. A linseed varnish with portions of protein serves as the medium of the ground layers. The paint layer itself is—due to the protein—in a relatively solid condition. On the radiograph, there are arched traces of scraping visible in the background left above. They refer to the application of the ground with a palette knife.

The palette of colors employed in The Procuress encloses the usual pigments and organic colors known in 17th-century Dutch painting which are also verified in other paintings by Vermeer: one warm and one cold red tone (vermilion, a crimson lake [cochineal], several yellow tones (lead-tin yellow type I, yellow ochre, a yellow-brown organic dyestuff on a lead white substrate), four blue tones (ultramarine, smalt, indigo and a rarely used iron phosphate, probably vivianite), brown and black tones (brown ochre, brown organic dyes and lakes, possibly Cassel brown; bone black, vine/plant black and possibly traces of soot) as well as lead white and chalk.

The paint layers appear lively and strongly colored. The paint application is largely covering and performed alla prima, with rather broad brushes. The various structures of the paint surface can be explained by a speedy working process with several corrections of the composition. Single light, thick hairs of brushes, probably pig's bristles, are embedded on large parts of the picture, mainly in the black area, which evidences a strong work on the surface.

Traces of the use of a pair of compasses are visible in the paint layers of the wine jug (the piercing point and traces of scratching, to define the exact contours and the decoration).

Vermeer made several changes in the course of the painting process which have altered its final effect significantly: shadowing of both the men's faces with larger headgear to concentrate the light on the young woman and the still life in front of her; the view of the suitor (previously fixed on the young woman; now concentrating on the payment); the attitude of the young woman's hand, now rather unnaturally bent and empty. The radiograph revealed a further coin visible in the hand of the woman. Furthermore, a light form appeared near the hand with the cittern, probably the outstretched right hand of the procuress involved in the payment. It had been overpainted with her black garment.

from: Johannes Vermeer. Bei der Kupplerin. Eds. Uta Neidhardt, Marlies Giebe, Dresden 2004.

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Procuress with frame


  • before 1737 Waldstein collection castle Dux (Duchcov) near Teplitz (Teplice, Czech Republic);
  • acquired 1741 for the Elector of Saxony, August III;
    1945–1955 in the Soviet Union (requisition of war);
  • 1955 restituted to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (inv. 1335).


  • Berlin April–June, 1980
    Restaurierte Kunstwerke in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republic
    Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
    no. 21
  • New York March 8–May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 66.
  • London June 20–September 16, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    National Gallery
    no. 66.
  • Jackson (MS) March 1–September 6, 2004
    The Glory of Baroque
    Mississippi Arts Pavilion
    no catalogue
  • Dresden December 3, 2004–February 27, 2005
    Das restaurierte meisterwerk: "Die Kupplerin" von Vermeer (The Restored Masterpiece: "The Procuress
    by Vermeer)
    Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen
  • The Hague May 12–August 22, 2010
    The Young Vermeer
    36–47, no. 3 and ill.
  • Dresden September 3–December 28, 2010
    Der frühe Vermeer
    Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
  • Edinburgh December 8, 2010–February, 2011
    The Young Vermeer
    36–47, no.3 and ill.
  • Dresden June, 4–September 12, 2021
    Vermeer: On Reflection
    Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
  • Tokyo October 5, 2018 –February 3, 2019
    Making the Difference : Vermeer and Dutch Art
    Ueno Royal Museum
  • Amsterdam February 10– June 4, 2023
    no. 19 and ill.

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Procuress in scale
Vermeer's life

In December Vermeer pays the remaining sum (1.5 guilders) of the master's fee in the Guild of Saint Luke that he was unable to pay in 1653.

Vermeer signs one of his first known paintings, The Procuress. The young artist seems to be dependent on well established pictorial models and has not yet adverted the influence of the newer, sopphisticated interior genre scenes of his contemporaries. This type of Caravaggesque scene was to be found in the collections of local connoisseurs.

By 1656 Maria Thin, Vermeer's mother-in-law, has already advanced 300 guilders, a considerable sum, to Catharina and Johannes.

Dutch painting

Rembrandt declares bankruptcy. His possessions are put up for sale.

The immensely popular landscape painter Jan van Goyen (b. 1596), dies.

Gerrit van Honthorst (b. in Utrecht 1590) dies.

European painting & architecture

Academy of Painting in Rome founded.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini designs Piazza of Saint Peter's, Rome.

Diego Velázquez paints Las Meninas, family of Philip IV.

Music Opening of first London opera house.
Science & philosophy

On October 29 Edmund Halley, astronomer (Halley's Comet), is born. [see Nov 8]

On December 14 artificial pearls are first manufactured by M. Jacquin in Paris. They were made of gypsum pellets covered with fish scales.

Dutch mathematician Johan van Waveren Hudde, 28, anticipates the power-series for ln (1 + x) and the following year will do pioneering work on the use of space coordinates. Hudde promotes Cartesian geometry and philosophy in Holland. His discoveries (later called Hudde's rules) will presage the use of algorithms to solve problems of calculus.


On January 8 the oldest surviving commercial newspaper begins in Haarlem, Netherlands.

Dutch forces take the Sinhalese port of Colombo from the Portuguese.

Dutch East India Company shares plummet on the Amsterdam Exchange and many investors are ruined. Among them is painter Rembrandt van Rijn, now 50, who is declared bankrupt and whose possessions are put up for sale.

The Dutch in Ceylon make cinnamon a state monopoly but will not have complete control of the island's cinnamon until 1658. When prices fall too low, the Dutch will burn great quantities of the bark, and they destroy groves of clove and nutmeg trees in the Moluccas, creating artificial scarcities that will force prices up, enriching the Dutch East India Company.

Learning how to paint

Based on the historical and religious subjects of Vermeer's first known works of art, it is assumed that he received training in the studio of a classically oriented master. Therefore, it would be logical that he spent his first years as an apprentice making numerous figure drawings, although none have survived.

Apprenticeship generally entailed hardships and even hard labor that would not be tolerated by young art students today. Apprentices were required to completely master the intricacies of drawing in their first years of training before moving on to color and painting. These drawings were made from plaster casts of classical sculpture.

Despite the overall impression of correctness in drawing the human figure, it cannot be said that he possessed more than a working knowledge of anatomy. This is not uncommon among Dutch painters. Gerrit Dou, who was the most highly paid painter in the Netherlands, failed to fully grasp human anatomy. There are occasional missteps in the later works of Frans van Mieris as well, especially in the modeling of the figures. Some of his late nudes appear to be made out of rubber. Pieter de Hooch's works are noted—and even treasured—for their doll-like figures, which lend his scenes an endearing naiveté. Even Rembrandt, one of the greatest Western draftsmen, has been criticized by art writers for the stumpy proportions of his figures.

We know of no written indication with whom Vermeer apprenticed, or of the eventual presence of a student or assistant in his workspace. The appealing idea that he was assisted as a painter by one or more of his daughters has yet to be substantiated by any facts. The young Vermeer may have first learned to read and write at a nearby school and then attended the small academy run by Cornelis Daemen Rietwijck, a Catholic portraitist and his former neighbor on the Voldersgracht. Rietwijck's drawing school was just a few houses away from De Vliegende Vos, where Vermeer grew up. Youngsters were not only taught the first principles of painting, including drawing after prints and plaster models, but also received basic education in mathematics, among other subjects.

Vermeer may have taken painting lessons as a young teenager from Evert van Aelst, the still-life painter who was in debt to Johannes's father in 1643 and trained several young colleagues, including his nephew Willem van Aelst. In addition, Reynier Jansz and Digna Baltens may have apprenticed their son to Leonaert Bramer, the city's leading history painter, with whom the family maintained friendly ties.

It may come as a surprise to learn that not even a single drawing by Vermeer of any kind has survived. This seems especially odd when considering the complexities of the scenes he painted and the extreme accuracy of contour, scale and perspective in his compositions. It is far more practical to work out composition and execute preliminary studies on paper that can be easily corrected or redone entirely, rather than apply them directly to the canvas. On the other hand, only a handful of drawings by interior painters have survived.

The artist's first steps in a new genre

The Painter's Studio, Jacob van Oost the Elder

The Painter's Studio
Jacob van Oost the Elder
Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 150.5 cm.
Stedelijke Musea, Bruges

Vermeer's initial ambition was to establish a career as a history painter, evidenced by early works such as Diana and her Companions, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Saint Praxedis. After creating these pieces—two missing history paintings have not survived— he promptly shifted his focus. Although the low-brow Procuress was not a genre interior for which he is best known, it served as a pivotal experience that likely gave him the confidence to recalibrate his artistic objectives. Subsequent to The Procuress, Vermeer not only changed his subjects but also reduced the dimensions of his works, focusing on crafting near-perfect worlds inspired by both his personal experiences and the flourishing genre of domestic interior idiom.

Vermeer was not alone in changing his artistic emphasis; many of his contemporaries, such as Nicolaes Berchem, Aelbert Cuyp, Paulus Potter and Gabriel Metsu, also moved from history painting to other genres. For Vermeer, this transition around 1656 corresponded with the development of relationships with significant collectors and potential patrons like Pieter Claesz van Ruijven and his wife, Maria de Knuijt (recent research seems to indicate that De Knuijt may have known Vermeer since his adolescence and was known as a connoisseur of painting).

Simultaneously, artists like Gerrit ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch were increasingly specializing in domestic scenes. These offered greater artistic and financial possibilities compared to grand history paintings. As many critics have noted, this transition from historical themes rooted in antiquity to modern domestic interiors seemed to align well with Vermeer's artistic strengths, especially his unmatched ability to grasp and portray the subtleties of daylight and shadow.

A change of style

It is not known why the young Vermeer abruptly changed artistic direction, abandoning his initial history subjects (derived from the Bible and classical mythology) for a low-life brothel scene. He may have wished to align himself with the times after expected commissions from the nearby artistically conservative court of The Hague failed to materialize. Whatever the reason, the grand scale and brilliant coloring of The Procuress bear evidence of an ambitious agenda. Immediately following this work, the young painter turned, if with some measure of uncertainty, to the interiors for which he is now so famous.

Low-life paintings in the Netherlands

The Procuress, Gerrit van Honthorst

The Procuress
Jan van Bijlert
c. 1625-1630
Oil on canvas, 103.5 x 154.5 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon

It has long been recognized that Vermeer was inspired by brothel scenes painted in the 1620s by Utrecht Caravaggists, such as Van Baburen and Jan van Bijlert, as well as by their Delft follower Van Couwenbergh. However, Vermeer's boisterous Procuress breaks the traditional mold of the bordeeltje (little brothel scene) in more than one way. In Dutch paintings, girls in bordeeltjes were always represented with attractive facial features, decked out in luxurious satin clothes that allowed them to bare their breasts to clients, one of the trade's necessities. The opportunity to render the textural effects of such costumes might have been one of the reasons why so many talented painters were drawn to this subject. Vermeer, however, interpreted the motif according to his own sensibilities.

The Procuress, Gerrit van Honthorst

The Procuress (detail)
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 71 x 104 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Although there can be no mistake about the young girl's intentions in Vermeer's composition, her lowered eyes and warm smile have little in common with the conventional renderings by his contemporaries, such as The Procuress by Gerrit van Honthorst. In Van Honthorst's composition, the girl is easily distinguished from an average citizen by her colorful clothing, exposed cleavage and the feathers in her hair. The feathers alluded to her wanton character, while the lute she holds by the neck carried a clear sexual connotation in the 17th century. In contrast, Vermeer's young girl is fully clad, wearing an elegant white cap bordered with fine bobbin lace, unusual for someone in her profession. Her peaceful self-containment anticipates the sublime female characterizations seen in his later works.

Jan van Bijlert, At the Procuress

At the Procuress
Jan van Bijlertt
Second quarter of 17th century
Oil on canvas, 115 x 160 cm.
National Museum, Warsaw

Various artistic sources, as well as a hypothetical period of training in Utrecht or Amsterdam, have been cited in connection with the conception of Vermeer's Procuress. Such low-life genre scenes had been popular in Delft and nearby cities since the mid-1620s.

One of Vermeer's most likely influences was the successful painter Gerrit van Honthorst, who worked at the Dutch court in The Hague, a mere hour's walk from Delft. Van Honthorst's reputation, based on supreme technique, a colorful palette and a masterful interpretation of gestures, must have impressed the budding Vermeer, just as it did other artists in Delft. Vermeer was likely also familiar with the works of Gerritsz van Bronchorst, who worked in Amsterdam in the 1650s, and Dirck van Baburen, who frequently depicted bordello scenes.

Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned either Van Baburen's Procuress of 1622, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or a version of it. In any case, the popularity of low-life subject matter in painting reflects a predilection for risqué literature and theater in the Dutch Republic during that period.

The balustrade

Musical Group on a Balcony, Gerrit van Honthorst

Musical Group on a Balcony
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 309 x 114 cm.
G. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Vermeer's decision to place his figures on a narrow balcony or bay, closed in by a balustrade covered with a carpet and fur coat, has always been a subject of discussion among Vermeer scholars. The motif of the balcony is frequently found in pictures of "Merry Companies" by Jan Gerritsz. van Bronchorst and Christiaen van Couwenbergh. This arrangement derives from Italian mural decorations. The earliest and most celebrated example in the Netherlands of this pictorial device, however, was Gerrit van Honthorst's Musical Group on a Balcony, painted in 1622, two years after his return from Italy. For the artist's contemporaries, the placement of the figures on a balcony would have added an unexpected psychological dimension. The depicted location would be, in some way, separate yet simultaneously connected to the location occupied by the viewer.

The American writer Anthony Bailey provides a pithy account of the unusual composition of The Procuress, which is worth quoting in full. "Vermeer's works would lead us to suppose that he wasn't the brothel-visiting type, but who is to say that as a young bachelor he didn't, like many, have his first sexual experience with a woman in a music house? Yet in The Procuress, there is a suggestion of theatre rather than reality. Or is it that for the first time Vermeer presents us with a dream vision rather than a waking one? There is the curious lineup of the cast in line-abreast; the strange barrier between the cast and audience created by the coat and carpet thrown over what appears to be a balustrade; and the one section of balustrade that is visible below the young woman, painted in bizarre perspective. And what is the wine jug doing in that precarious place on the very edge of the table? If the carpet is even lightly tugged, the jug will fall off, spilling its contents. And what does that suggest to iconographers about the duration of earthly pleasures? Much like Rembrandt's Polish Rider, The Procuress has a superficial purpose and a surface meaning which, the longer one looks at its overlapping, almost life-sized, stage-lit figures, dissolves into mystery."


The Procuress
Jan Gerritsz van Bronkhorst
c. 1636–1638
Oil on canvas, 90 x 119 cm.
Bruckenthal Museum, Sibiu

Vermeer's Procuress would have been immediately recognized by his contemporaries as a bordeeltjes scene. These seductive pictures display a myriad of ambiguous figures, from drunken soldiers to finely dressed ruffians and bare-chested Dutch beauties. Bordeeltjes comprised a valuable sub-category in Dutch genre painting and were eagerly acquired by art collectors from all social classes. Brothel scenes primarily depict young, beautiful girls, sometimes accomplished musicians, who pickpocket or entice their clients into excessive drinking. Among the clients are drunken, misguided men, lecherous old men and easily duped peasants, although well-dressed young men from good families are occasionally targeted. The couples are frequently presided over by a procuress (koppelaarster), who is generally portrayed as an ugly old woman, sometimes grinning hideously and gesturing to the prostitute to extract her payment. At times, the scenes include gestures indicating transactional love, such as when the thumb is slipped between the index and middle finger (see image below left) or a wine glass is held by the stem.

Man Making an Obscene Gesture, Godfried Schalken

Man Making an Obscene Gesture
after Godfried Schalcken
Second half of 17th century
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The popularity of the bordeeltjes motif in a society dominated by moralist Calvinism likely rested on the fact that they simultaneously offered viewers both a didactic warning and an undeniably pleasurable experience. Analogously, modern movie-goers hardly blink as they witness the most violent and lewd scenes, provided that "good" triumphs in the end and the wicked receive adequate punishment. For the Dutch burgher, the supposed moralizing element made such scenes perfectly suitable to hang in a family home.

Some, but certainly not all, Dutch bordeeltjes derive from the motif of the Prodigal Son, who is depicted squandering his money on drink and prostitutes in a squalid inn. Such scenes commonly appear in prints of the 16th century, like those by Lucas van Leyden. The parable of the Prodigal Son was employed to contrast Catholic principles with the Reformers' views on divine mercy, exemplified when the lost son is received with loving forgiveness by his father. While Rembrandt's celebrated Return of the Prodigal Son may be one of the most emotionally charged pictorial elaborations on shame, repentance and forgiveness, many feel that Dutch painters used the parable as a pretext for thinly disguised eroticism. Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, owned such a bordeeltje by the Utrecht Caravaggist Dirck van Baburen (1590–1624), which Vermeer included in two of his works.

In any case, bordeeltjes by Vermeer's contemporaries often feature much greater detail and occasionally include some quite explicit allusions. For instance, dogs are shown copulating in a work by Frans van Mieris at the Mauritshuis. Vermeer's restrained rendition of the theme remains unique in the landscape of Dutch art.

Prostitution in the Netherlands

Venal Love
Urs Graf

The popular scenes of prostitution (bordeeltjes) habitually portray appealing male and female figures (with typically Dutch faces) adorned in fashionable satin. The figures usually occupy the entire composition, spilling out of a rarely specified setting. De rigueur, the prostitute displays her abundant cleavage to both the client and the spectator. In reality, however attractive these paintings may be, they cannot be considered accurate depictions of 17th-century Dutch prostitution, which was in practice sordid at best. Lotte van de Pol's important studies show that the profession was dominated by poor, desperate women, often migrants.

Van de Pol reveals that prostitutes, who worked in small-scale taverns and inns, were financially trapped through perpetual debts for room and board and especially for the fashionable clothing deemed essential for the trade. Van de Pol also persuasively argues against the long-held belief that prostitution was generally tolerated by Dutch municipalities. However, even the strictest repression did not eradicate the phenomenon but merely forced its practice into less conspicuous locations such as houses, inns and taverns. Many prostitutes found themselves in a never-ending cycle of violations, confinements and banishments. The worst cases were punished with branding, flogging or time on the public pillory. And however cautious they might be, prostitutes were always exposed to random violence in the whorehouses and gaming dens. Those who survived past 30 were generally left disfigured by venereal disease, punishments and frequent stints in unsanitary jails. The best estimate is that Amsterdam had about 1,000 prostitutes in the late 17th century.

As a note, during the Renaissance, the breasts of nudes were generally depicted wide apart, well-formed and modest in dimensions. Before that, the upper body was reduced to a flat, scarcely varied expanse of immaculate pink flesh. However, by the mid-17th century, Dutch painters began to portray female figures with ample busts. Deep cleavage became attractive for the first time and was represented in visual arts countless times. Painters like Paulus Moreelse became so skilled at portraying young women's breasts—perhaps the artist was captivated by the particular beauty of one of his models whom he depicted many times—that one wonders if this aspect of female anatomy was not among the artist's principal motivations for painting. Necessarily, tight-fitting, boned stays were worn to compress the chest so that breasts and cleavage might become more pronounced. Although exposed cleavage doubtless served as an erotic signal, in the Netherlands bared legs were considered even more stimulating. In any case, the only instance in which Vermeer painted a woman's bosom was not in The Procuress but in Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid; there, a slight swelling of the breasts will be noticed only if one looks for it.

The procuress in Dutch painting

The organization of Dutch prostitution was predominantly a female matter. As Lotte C. van de Pol explains, "Only about one in five of those arrested for brothel-keeping were men, and they were nearly always the husbands or partners of bawds; husbands often declared the business of prostitution their wife's affair and usually got off with light sentences."

Young Man and the Procuress, Michiel Sweerts

Young Man and the Procuress
Michiel Sweerts
c. 1660
Oil on copper, 19 x 27 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

* The key figure in the trade of prostitution was the procuress, sometimes referred to as a matchmaker. Dutch painters traditionally portrayed the procuress—always female—as a shriveled hag to better express their moral disdain. In reality, the majority of these unfortunate women were even younger, or only somewhat older, than the four to five prostitutes they managed. The urban procuress generally diversified her illicit activities, receiving stolen goods organizing music, entertainment, drink and sexual services in a so-called musico. Musicos were not brothels in the contemporary sense of the term where customers came explicitly for sex. Card-playing, backgammon, dice and of course, heavy drinking and smoking, all provided the procuress with income, as did the rate charged for the use of the premises by the girls. Vermeer, like the vast majority of his colleagues, avoided even the vaguest suggestion of the actual working environment of the trade. We can discern only a rather austere column and what appears to be a suggested sunset or the faint flicker of a burning hearth.

*Drawn from: The Embarrassment of Riches, by Simon Schama (1997)

The painting's date

The Procuress is one of the few works whose date was undoubtedly applied by Vermeer himself. The signature and date appear as iv Meer. 1656 (ivM in ligature) at the lower right corner, painted in a dark brown color. The discovery of the signature and date by Thoré-Bürger during his examination of the painting in 1859 makes for a compelling story. Since the painting hung very high in the Dresden Gallery, Thoré-Bürger was permitted by Julius Hübner, a member of the Gallery's commission and author of the Gallery's catalogue of 1826, to use a ladder for close observation. Thoré-Bürger wrote with great enthusiasm of his discovery: "the first [date] of a painting by the Delft [artist] one is able to report." Three years later, the attribution of The Procuress (together with that of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window) to "Jan van der Meer. Geb(oren) zu Delft um 1632" was correctly entered in the Dresden Gallery catalogue of 1862.

Listen to period music

click here to hear A Horn pype [2.65 MB]

Anthony Holborne, Cittharn School,
played on a four-course chromatic cittern by Jacob Heringman

click here to view cittern-playing (especially video no. 4 Chi Passa) by Marc Wheeler from the
Renaissance group Pantagruel.


The Cittern

In Italian Renaissance humanist culture, the cittern was regarded as a classical revival of the ancient Greek kithara, even though it seems to have developed directly from the medieval citole. It bears some similarities to the fiddle in its plucked form.

The structure and tuning of the cittern varied significantly from country to country. While in England, France and northern Europe, the small four-course instrument was commonly used, Italian musicians favored the larger six-course instrument.

The cittern reached the zenith of its popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. Above all, in Italy and England, it was held in high esteem, serving both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice and for dance music. Numerous compositions were written expressly for it, often intricate and demanding to perform.

The considerable number of paintings depicting a cittern attests to the instrument's significant popularity in 17th-century Netherlands. With its flat back, it was more robust in structure than the fragile lute, making it cheaper and more portable. The cittern's ease of playability made it the preferred instrument, especially among the middle and upper classes, for song accompaniment and dance music.

The cittern has a shallow, round or pear-shaped body that tapers from the bottom towards the neck. The body is carved from a single piece of wood, and only the soundboard and fingerboard are added separately. The use of metal strings plucked with a quill or plectrum gives the instrument its lively and cheerful sound, contributing to the cittern's significant popularity.

The art of foreshortening

In painting and drawing, the technique of applying perspective to a single object or figure to create the illusion of projection or depth is called foreshortening. It mimics the distorted appearance of a form when it is not perpendicular to the line of sight. For example, an arm held out directly toward the viewer will appear shorter, and the hand larger, than an arm held straight down by the side. One of the fundamental skills taught in Baroque art academies, foreshortening amplifies three-dimensional effects and gives emphasis to gestures. The observer feels as though they are part of the depicted reality. To achieve foreshortening, the artist must learn to trust their eyes rather than their intellect. Vermeer's mastery of foreshortening suggests that he was trained by a master proficient in the art of istoria or history painting.

Strangely, the most noteworthy examples of anatomical foreshortening can be found in Vermeer's initial compositions. In Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, the foreshortening of Mary's slightly tilted head is so skillfully executed that it is surprising to see how the artist appears to grapple with the problem of the figure's arm later in The Milkmaid, as well as with the hand on the table in The Maid Asleep.

The Procuress (detail), Johannes Vermeer

By far the most eloquent examples of anatomical foreshortening can be observed in The Procuress. The marvelous passivity of the courtesan's outstretched, palm-up hand harmonizes with that of the soldier, who is about to delicately flip a gold coin as payment for the fleeting liaison. Four fingers of the courtesan's hand, pointing directly toward the viewer's eyes, are so intensely foreshortened that only Vermeer's genius makes this gesture appear utterly natural. The cavalier's foreshortened thumb (the gold coin is foreshortened as well) has become nearly invisible, and yet we almost sense the pent-up energy ready to release the coin.

Despite the transactional nature of the encounter, the "spiritual" exchange between the couple, untouched by the dark figures that surround them, produces an unexpected intimacy. As Edward Snow wrote, "Unlikely as it may at first seem, there lies at the heart of this painting...what may be one of the most unsentimental, guilt-free, spiritually satisfying representations of shared erotic experience in all of Western art."

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