Only two written accounts of people who actually met Vermeer during the artist's lifetime have survived, those of the Dutchman Pieter Teding van Berckhout and the Frenchman Balthasar de Monconys.
The portrait to the left represents Constantijn Huygens, one of the most knowledgeable Dutchman of his time. Huygens maintained close contacts with many painters, Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, and knew both of the gentlemen who would visit Vermeer and describe them in their personal diaries. Although no documents exist that prove Huygens knew Vermeer personally, it is improbable that he was unaware of Vermeer's presence in nearby Delft and that he was responsible for the visit of de Monconys and possibly Van Berckhout to artist's Delft studio.
It has also been suggested that Huygens brokered the sale of one of Vermeer's musical theme painting to his friend Diego Duarte, a rich jewelry dealer from Antwerp. If Huygens' supposed ties with Vermeer were proven to be true, this would place the Delft master squarely within the most uppermost artistic milieu of the time.
Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665) was a French traveler, diplomat, physicist and magistrate. His diary was published by his son as Journal des voyages de Monsieur de Monconys, Conseiller du Roy en ses Conseils d'Estat & Privé, & Lieutenant Criminel au Siège Presidial de Lyon, 2 vols., Lyon, 1665–1666.
Monconys, brought up in Lyon by the Jesuits and a good Catholic, had an interest in the Jesuit missions in infidel territory. He traveled to Portugal, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the Near East (visiting Baalbek in 1647). Monconys also visited Johannes Sibertus Kuffler in the same year.
De Monconys visited Delft during the summer of 1663. He came initially as a tourist, evidently unaware of Vermeer's presence. A few weeks later, "he went to pay his respects in The Hague to Constantijn Huygens, an important diplomat, art connoisseur and theorist of Dutch culture. De Monconys admired his art collection and described it in detail in his personal diary.6 However, one can only imagine "how amazed Huygens must have been to hear that the Frenchman had been in Delft, without visiting Vermeer." Given Huygens' familiarity with leading artists of the time, it seems reasonable to assume that he urged de Monconys to meet with the Delft painter, given the Frenchman's predilection for fine art. Not long afterward, Monconys did indeed visit with Vermeer at his house, and wrote the following account in his diary journal, published in 1665, the year of his death:
In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price.
Click here to access Moncony's second volume and the passage in question.
Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned. It is generally assumed that the baker was Hendrick Ariaensz. van Buyten, a master baker, headman of the Bakers' Guild in 1668 and prominent Delft citizen who owned a house on the south side of Choorstraat, possibly also one on Oude Delft. Van Buyten had at one time or another probably owned four paintings by Vermeer.7
Unfortunately, de Monconys made no mention of the style or quality of Vermeer's painting—it appears he judged them exclusively on the basis of the number of hours required to do the work. The price of six hundred livres that the baker thought reasonable for his painting corresponds to the six hundred livres the prominent artist, Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) had asked from de Monconys two days earlier for Dou's painting of a Woman at a Window, also a work with only one figure. At that time, a Vermeer evidently had the same market value as an authentic work by Dou, whom Charles II of England had invited to become his court painter in1660. De Monconys was in for more of a shock when, some time later, Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–1681) wanted no fewer than twelve hundred livres for a more elaborate figure piece of a sick lady by a quack doctor.
Although de Monconys only briefly touched upon his perception of Vermeer's work, and deprecated its worth, it is clear from his account that there existed connoisseurs in prominent circles who were aware of Vermeer's artistic skills.
No one knows precisely why de Monconys saw no paintings at Vermeer's house. Most scholars believe, since he produced relatively few works, Vermeer simply had none at the time to show him because they had been bought by his clients and patron (Pieter van Ruijven) as soon as they were finished.
How many works did Vermeer paint? John MIchael Montias argues that Vermeer made no more than two or three elaborate paintings a year. Further, he believes most were acquired by Pieter van Ruijven, a well-to-do Delft citizen and Vermeer's principal patron. According to Montias, "Vermeer resembled Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and other 'fine painters' of his day who also worked mainly on commission." On the other hand, the art historian, Arthur K Wheelock Jr. asks, if Van Ruijven had been Vermeer's principal collector, why would the Frenchman have visited the baker's home instead of Van Ruijven's? Unfortunately de Monconys' diary sheds no light on these issues.
Other than that of the Frenchman de Monconys, the only written eyewitness account of Vermeer's paintings was penned by Pieter Teding van Berckhout (1643–1713), a young scion of a landed gentry family. In his diary, May 14, 1669, he wrote:
"Having arrived in Delft, I saw an excellent painter named Vermeer," stating also that he had seen several "curiosities"
Van Berckhout, who was just 26 at the time, had arrived in Delft accompanied by Constantijn Huygens and his friends—member of parliament Ewout van der Horst and ambassador Willem Nieupoort. Huygens was an artistic authority in his own day, maintaining contacts with the famous Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck and recording in his own diary some remarkably insightful comments about the art of, among others, Rembrandt van Rijn. However, Huygens did not visit the artist's studio.
Van Berckhout was also a close acquaintance of Dirck van Bleyswijck whose Beschryving der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft) had first appeared in 1667. This work contains a now-famous poem by Arnold Bon. In it Bon laments the untimely death of Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt's most talented pupil, in the explosion of the Delft powder magazine (1654). Despite the loss of Fabritius Bon praised rising star Vermeer, who "luckily arose" from the fire.
Van Berckhout must have been deeply impressed by the work he saw on the first visit because he returned for another visit less than a month later. On June11, he noted:
"I went to see a celebrated painter named Vermeer" who "showed me some examples of his art, the most extraordinary and most curious aspect of which consists in the perspective."
This time Van Berckhout used the term "celebrated" rather than "excellent" in describing Vermeer, a fact which may testify that Vermeer had achieved a considerable reputation. What is most interesting about this visit is that Vermeer's studio (like that of Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris) was evidently a major cultural destination.1
When speaking of "perspectives," Van Berckhout "may have referred to Vermeer's interior scenes, which were very carefully constructed."2
The study of perspective was held in high esteem throughout Europe and was studied by painters. Scholars have suggested that Van Berckhout probably saw Vermeer's Art of Painting, in which the perspective is very powerful and must have startled contemporary eyes.
"The allusions to Vermeer are not the only ones made to an artist-painter in the diary. On 6 April, 1669 Van Berckhout went to see, in Dordrecht, 'Mons [Cornelis] Bischop, excellent peijntre pour la perspective.' On 20 December he visited [Caspar] Netscher in The Hague with his wife and sister and saw 'quelques peijnctures' there. In Leiden, on 30 December, 'nous fusmes voijr le fameux Dauw qui me fit voir 3 ou 4 belles pieces de son art et de sa main'" (We visited the famous Dou, who showed me three or four beautiful pieces of his art and by his hand). Only Dou appears to have impressed him a shade more than Vermeer."4
Art historians posit that Vermeer was certainly not as "famous" as Gerard Dou, but he must however have enjoyed a rather strong reputation outside Delft in order to justify Van Berkhout's praise.
"Van Berkhout had all the trappings of a true aristocrat. He lived in a stately mansion overlooking one of Delft's canals (Dry Cooningen [ Three Magi], Oude Delft number 123 and spent his summers on the family's summer estate. He employed many domestic servants, possessed carriages and had assets that amounted to 475,000 guilders, which was an enormous sum even by patrician standards. In a similarly sized city such as Gouda, the average patrician left an estate of about 70,000 guiders. Clearly, Van Berckhout belonged to the cream of Holland's elite. Although many patricians kept diaries few did so for so long. He kept an account of his life on an almost daily basis in a 31-part manuscript from 1660 to 1671, much longer than most diaries of the time. Van Berkhout wrote about his daily life, shunning in great part his public and economic activities, although he often wrote his entries some days after."5 The first six years of his diary is now kept in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek of The Hague.
Van Berkhout gathered and inherited a major fine art collection as well which included 68 paintings: 7 history subjects, 17 landscapes, 10 architectural views, 4 marinescapes, 12 genre paintings and 4 Still life, 14 portraits.
14 May, 1669 - Van Berckhout visited Vermeer again. He wrote in his diary:
Je fus levé assez matin, parloijs [a] mon cousin Brasser de la Brile, et m'en fus me pourmener a Delft avec un jacht ou estoit Mons de Zuijlechem van der Horst et Nieuwport. Estant arrivé ie vis un excellent peijntre nommé Vermeer, qui me monstra quelques curiositez de sa maijn.
(I rose rather early in the morning, talked with my cousin Brasser from Den Briel, and then took a ride to Delft on a yacht, where there was also Mr Van Zuijlechem van der Horst and Nieuwpoort. Upon my arrival I saw an excellent painter named Vermeer, who showed me a few curiosities made with his own hand.)
21 June, 1669
J'escrivis a mon cousin Berckhout, qui demeure a la Brile et aussij a Breda, ie sortis ensuite et fus voijr un celebre peijntre nommé Vermer, qui me monstra quelques eschantillons de son art dont la partie la plus extraordinaijre et la plus curieuse consiste dans la perspective. Je me promenoijs au sortir delà au marché, parloijs a quelques amijs et entroijs ensuite chez mon cousin C. Bogart pour voijr ses peijnctures.
(I wrote to my cousin Berckhout who lives in Den Briel as well as in Breda. I then went out and visited a famous painter named Vermeer who showed me some examples of his art, the most extraordinary and most curious aspect of which consists in the perspective. After leaving there I walked to the marketplace, spoke with a few friends and then called on my cousin C. Bogart to see his paintings.)