.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.
Since Vermeer's "rediscovery" in the mid 19th century by Thoré-Bürger, generations of art historians have lamented the paucity of documented facts about the artist's life. Although this lacuna is unfortunate, it should be remembered that many Dutch artists, including Netherlands' most illustrious landscape painter, Jacob van Ruisdael, have faired no better. Most, much worse. In fact, we know almost nothing the great part of Dutch painters, many of whom, reputed themselves artisans rather than artists and would have been surprised by the notoriety accorded to them by modern art history. Few painters were considered important enough to write about: the little Dutch art-writing that existed dealt primarily with art theory rather than with the private lives of artists.
Documents regarding Vermeer and his social milieu started resurfacing over century ago. In the 187Os, J. Soutendam, the first keeper of Delft’s archives, and Henry Havard, a French érudit, looked for information about Vermeer and his family in the birth and death registers of the Old Church and the New Church (both Reformed), which were later incorporated into the municipal archives.
However, the first systematic search was done by the Dutch art historian Abraham Bredius who read his way through most of Delft's notorial archives between 1880 and the I920s. Bredius, the scion of a wealthy Dutch family that was already well known in the seventeenth century, worked under special circumstances. He was given every facility in his work and even allowed to take archival material to his hotel or to his home. Archives of his day were mostly uncatalogued and unclassified.
Little new material surfaced about Vermeer's family between the two world-wars. P. T. A. Swillens published a book on Vermeer that contained a good deal of useful speculation on the relation between the artist's works and his physical surroundings. It also incorporated new material on his wife's family in Gouda. Beginning in the early postwar period, a Dutch primary school teacher, A.J.J.M. van Peerl devoted nearly thirty years of his spare time to archival research on Vermeer.
John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, 1989, p. xvi
Occasionally, other motives may explain the scarcity of written testimony about key events in the life of Vermeer. For example, not a single piece of evidence testifies directly to Vermeer's largely accepted but undocumented conversion to Catholicism. But since Roman Catholic priests operated in utmost secrecy, it is not difficult to understand why notations of the artist's conversion have not survived.
Vermeer is mentioned two times in diary entries of high-minded members of the cultural elite and later, his name appeared in a catalogue entry of a sale of paintings along with a succinct description of the work. Fortunately, the Dutch were meticulous record-keepers who compiled lists of every detail that might make the legal workings of complex mercantile society work more efficiently. A wealth of legal depositions and a good number of carefully-complied inventories and have survived which help us illuminate the dark corner's of the lives of Dutch painters.
The story of historical research regarding Vermeer began long ago. The body knowledge about Vermeer's life which had circulated in scholarly literature became available to the general public when the Dutch art historian Albert Blankert published all known Vermeer-related documents in his monographic study of Vermeer in 1975.1 Moreover, Blankert's volume furnished a first realistic picture of Vermeer as he was seen by his contemporaries: a well-known painter with in Delft and its immediate environs.
John Michael Montias, an American economist, "completed" Vermeer's portrait through his research in the Delft Municipal Archives, he analyzed every shred of evidence concerning the Delft master or any person who in one way or another came into contact with him. Montias worked with passion and discovered new, important documents."Through the scrupulous analysis of common documents ranging from notes and letters to receipts and legal papers,...Montias peeled back the layers in the life of Vermeer, one of his favorite artists—and one of the world's most enigmatic. His work opened the door for a new genre of art history in which artists were analyzed in the context of their social and economic surroundings and not merely their works."2
Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (1991)
John Michael Montias
Montias "'decided to attack the archives in Delft, knowing that they had been scoured for information on Vermeer,' recalled Otto Naumann, a Manhattan art dealer who studied under Montias. 'With the confidence that only a true genius can posses, he decided that he could do better, without first learning Dutch. It took Montias one week to find an unpublished document that mentioned Vermeer and but another to decipher it, Mr. Naumann said.'"3 A Delft archivist raccounts that Montias was often the very first to enter and the last to leave the archive's premises.
Montias unearthed over 454 documents related to Vermeer and his family that lay, long undisturbed, in the archives of no fewer than 17 Dutch and Belgian cities. In 1989 he published Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (1989).which revealed that Vermeer's grandfather was a convicted counterfeiter; that his grandmother ran illegal lotteries; and that the artist himself fathered 13 children and died at the age of 43, destitute. From an art historical point of view, his most important discovery was that (in his own words), "Vermeer had a patron, Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, who bought paintings from him year after year and to whom his wife (who had the money) left a conditional bequest in her testament. But the contribution that I most enjoyed making was to reconstruct the hitherto obscure lives of various members of his family, including his mother's father who participated in a counterfeiting scheme in which his partners were beheaded."
When Montias began his work, he intended to write a comparative study of Dutch art guilds. Delft was to be his first working station. But he rapidly found out that a comparative study required a preliminary study in depth of at least one guild. So he settled on the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft and produced a book on it (Artists and Artisans in Delft, a Study of the Seventeenth Century, Princeton University Press, 1982). In the course of this research, he realized that, contrary to his expectations, previous scholarship on Vermeer's life had not exhausted the subject. In the late1970s and the early 1980s, Montias combined research on Vermeer with research on other members of the guild, including both artists and artisans (glassmakers, embroiderers, faienciers, etc.).
(Gemeentearchief Delft) on Oude Delft
However, important these documents are, they obviously cannot convey a complete picture of a citizen's character. "The material evidence of Dutch artists of the 17th century consists depositions, business transactions and other documents drawn up by notaries and municipal clerks that force us to consider the person's life from a particular angle, closer to his adversarial than to his amicable relations to his fellow men."4 Thus only a shadowy image of his character emerges, but still far more useful than none at all. According to Montias, Vermeer seems to have lived a fairly retired life, with his wife, his dominant mother-in-law and his numerous children (mainly girls). Other scholars have painted different pictures of Vermeer's personal and professional life.
It is our hopes that the samples of Vermeer-related documents below might provide a taste of the particular flavor of civic life in Delft and, perhaps, some of the artist's character is revealed in the four signatures which appear in them. The photographs were taken by Adelheid Rech with the courtesy of the Delft Archives.
All the accompanying explanatory text was drawn from Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History. The Dutch transcriptions are taken from Montias, (Vermeer en zijn milieu. Baarn 1993.)
The small images below are details of the most significant parts of the larger image directly above. Click on the details to access larger images.
1632: Vermeer's baptism
John Montias' research reveals that Vermeer's baptism was somewhat a break from the past. The ceremony was witnessed by a certain Pieter Brammer (a skipper), Jan Heijndricxzoon (a framemaker) and Maertge Jans. Both Bramer and Heijndricxzoon were not likely family members, an unusual occurrence. The only certain family member was Maertge Jans, Reynier's, sister. In other baptisms of Reynier's brothers and sisters were all witnessed by close relations.
Another anomaly was the choice of Vermeer's first name, Joannis. Joannis was the Latinized form of Jan that Roman Catholics and upper-class Protestants favored. Reynier may have had an ambitious agenda for his first male son.
Montias entry 136
Dutch transcription (Montias 1993, 136):
31 October 1632.
dito. 1 kint Joannis, vader Reynier Janssoon, moeder Dingnum Balthasars, getuijgen P[iete]r Brammer, Jan Heijndricxzoon & Maertge Jans.
(Delft G. A., New Church, "Doopboek" no. 12; first published Obreen 1881, 4: 291.)
On the evening of 4 April 1653, the well-known Delft painter, Leonaert Bramer, a Roman Catholic himself, and a Protestant sea captain, Bartholomeus Melling, called on Maria Thins. They had with them a Delft lawyer named Johannes Ranck. This party had come to convince Maria that the young up-and-coming artist was a good match for her beloved daughter Catharina. Maria's sister was also present giving support and sympathy. "The visitors had come to ask Maria to sign a document permitting the marriage vows to be published. Maria replied that she would not sign such an act of consent. Despite this - a subtle distinction - she would put up with the vows being published: she said several times that she wouldn't stand in the way of this. In other words, she didn't welcome the marriage, but she wouldn't block it.
Next morning the notary Ranck drew up a deed attesting to Maria Thins' sufferance of the vows being published, and this was witnessed not only by Bramer and Mellling but by a man named Gerrit van Oosten and Delft lawyer Willem de Langue, who had frequent dealings with the Bramer and Vermeer family."5
Montias entry 249
Dutch transcription (Montias 1993, 249):
5 April 1653.
Op huijden den 5den april 1653 compareerde voor mij Johannes Ranck openbaer notaris...binnen der stadt Delft residerende in presentie van de ondergeschreven getuijgen, Capiteyn Melling out ontrent LIX jaeren ende Leonart Bramer schilder out ontrent LVIII jaeren beyde burgers alhier, die verclaerden ende attesteerden ten versoucke van Jan Reijniersz. ende Trijntgen Reijniers waerachtich te weesen dat sij getuijgen neffens mijn notaris gisteren avont sijnde den IIII den deser sijn geweest ten huijse aen ende bij de persoon van Joffrouwe Maria Tints woonende alhier...
W. de Langue
Gerrijt IJansz. van Oosten
Johannes Ranck notaris Anno 1653
(Delft G. A. records of notary J. Ranck, no. 2012)
1653: Record of the marriage of Johannes Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes
5 en 20 april 1653. Den 5en Apprill 1653: Johannes Ryniersz. Vermeer J[ong] M[an] opt
Marctvelt, Catharina Bolenes J[onge] D[ochter] mede aldaar.
[margin note left-side:] Attestatie gegeven in Schipluijden 20 April 1653
5 and 20 April 1653. In the "register of the persons who entered the holy marital state in the town of Delft, beginning with the year 1650, ending 'last' [31st] December 1656":
"Johannes Reijniersz. Vermeer, bachelor [living] on the Market Place; Catharina Bolenes,
young daughter [spinster], also there."
[marginal note left-side:] Attestation given in Schipluij, 20 April 1653".
Montias entry 250
1653: Vermeer and Gerrit Ter Borch witnesses an act of surety
Shortly after the marriage of Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer appears before the notary to witness and act of surety together with the successful painter Gerrit Ter Borch, one of the finest genre painters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. No other connections can be established between the two artists. In fact, when Montias discovered this document it was not even known that Ter Borch had ever set foot in Delft.
The notary referred to Ter Borch as "Monsieur" a sure sign of his respect for the 36 year-old artist who was at the height of his powers. Vermeer was not yet an accepted master of the Delft Guild of Saint Luke. Since Vermeer had been married just two days earlier, it may be that the elder painter had come expressly for this event.
April 22, 1653
Johann van den Bosch, captain in the service of the States General, stationed in Den Briel, offers surety to enable Juffr. Dido van Treslong to collect a sum of 1,000 guilders due to her from the estate of the late Lord of Treslong, former Governor of Den Briel, which sum he, Van der Bosch, guarantees will be restituted if this proves necessary. Monsr Gerrit Terburch and Johan van der Meer witness this act of surety." The older painter signs Geraerdt Ter Borch, the younger Johannis Vermeer.
Montias entry 251
(Delft GA, records of Notary W. de Langue, no. 1695.)
1654: Vermeer is mentioned as a "Master Painter"
Jan. 10, 1654, Vermeer is mentioned for the first time as 'Meester-schilder' (Master painter) indicating he had by this time improved his professional and social status.
Three pages. Page 3 (signatures), third line from below (text) + f.:
'Lambertus Morleth & Johannis
Vermeer M[eester]=schilder ...'
Montias entry 258
(Delft G.A. akten van notaris N[icolaes] Vrijenbergh, no. 2052.)
In the detail below "Vermeer Meester-schilder" is circled in light brown, further below is the painter's signature.
1655: Declaration concerning Johan van Santen with the signatures of Vermeer and his wife Catharina Bolnes
(The following is drawn from Montias, p. 134.) This document was discovered by Bredius a century ago was dated December 14, 1655. "On this day, Sr Johannes Reijnijersz. Vermeer master painter " and his wife "Juffr. Catharina Bollnes "appeared before Notary Rota to guarantee a debt for 250 guilders that the artist's father had contracted, back in 1648, from a sea captain, Johan van Santen. Nine years later, the interest on this debt was still being paid by Digna Baltens and by Vermeer who had acquired the obligation after the death of Vermeer's father, Reynier. The "Sr " (signior or seigneur) preceding Vermeer's name is a sure sign of the artist's rise in social status. It will be recalled that Vermeer's father was never dignified in such a way in any of the numerous documents which regard him.
Montias entry 262
Dutch transcription after the English explanation (Montias 1993, 262):
14 december 1655. Op huijden den xiiiien December xviC vijfenvijftich, Compareerden voor mij Govert Rota openbaer Notaris ... Sr. Johannes Reijnijers. [crossed out: Vosch] Vermeer Mr. schilder, ende Juff. Catharina Bollenes, wonende binnen deser stadt, sijne huijsvrouwe, Te kennen gevende ende verclarende sij comparanten, dat de E. heer Johan van Santen, Cap[itey]n vant Orange Vendel schutters, binnen deser stadt opten vijftien* [correct: 5] December xvi C. Achtenveertich sich selven, borge ande mede principael onder behoorlijcke renunchiatie hadde geconstitueert, ....
M[aerten] Wigant [witness]
Pieter de Koninck [clerk]
G. Rota [notary]
(Delft G. A., records of Notary J. Ranck, no. 1986, vol. 257.)
1657: Vermeer and his Wife Catharina contract a loan of 200 guilders from Pieter van Ruijven
This document testifies the first certain contact between Vermeer and his future patron, Pieter van Ruijven. Van Ruijven lent Vermeer and Catharina 200 guilders, at an extremely low interest rate, which, in the opinion of Montias, may have been an advance towards the purchase of one or more paintings.
30 November 1657. [200 guilders on loan by Pieter Clasz. van Ruijven]
Op huijden den lesten November anno XVIC sevenvyfftich, Compareerden voor my Joan van Ophoven openbaer Notaris... mitsgaders voorden naegenoemde getuygen Johannis Reyniersz. Vermeer schilder, ende Catharina Reyniers Bolnes syne huysvrou ....
(T. v. Hallitt ? 1657)
Albertus Bruijningh [clerks as witnesses]
Joan van Ophoven, Notaris, 1657
Montias entry 271
1672: Johannes Vermeer leases "Mechelen"
Johannes Vermeer leases the house/inn called "Mechelen," situated on the north side of the Market Place, on the southwestern corner of the Oudemanshuis steegje, to Johan van der Meer [apothecary] for the next six years, starting the first of May of the present year, for 180 guilders per year.
This document shows Vermeer's change to the Latin type of writing and the use first name to the Latinized form "Joannes," perhaps, he wished to feel in tune with the times.
(akten van notaris F. Boogert, no. 2008, first published Bredius 1910, 62:)
Montias entry 340
1675: Vermeer's burial in the Oude Kerk
In the register of the persons buried in the Oude Kerk states that, an entry for 15 December states: "Jan Vermeer art painter on the Oude Landendijck, in the church, 8 children under age." The register of graves states that "on December 1675 Johan Vermeer was laid in his grave and the above-mentioned infant ("baerkint") was placed on the coffin of the aforementioned Vermeer." Vermeer's infant was buried on 27 June 1673.6
Montias entry 357
15 en 16 december 1675. Onder de datum 15 december 1675:
Jan Vermeer kunst schilder aende Oude Langedijk in de kerck
[marginal note at the left side:]
8 m[ind]e[r]j[arige] kind[eren]
(Delft, G.a. Register van de 'Personen die binnen deser Stad Delf overleden ende in de Oude Kerck als oock daer buijten begraven sijn tsedert den 19 Julij 1671')
1675: Vermeer's family leaves nothing to the Camer van Charitate
"On December 16, 1675, the day Vermeer's coffin was placed in the family grave, an inscription was made under his name in the book recording death notations to Delft's Camer van Charitate. The inscription in Dutch read: niet te halen, which may be translated as "nothing to get." The reference was to the box that was normally sent to the house of the deceased. In this box his family or heirs were supposed to deposit his "best outer garment" or a suitable donation for the poor. Why no donation was made after the artist's death? was it because the widow, burdened with so many children, was too poor? Or because the family was Catholic and did not wish to contribute to an organization run by Calvinists?"3 According to Montias, the failure to donate was probably rooted in Catharina's insolvency, declared a few moths later.7
16 December 1975. 16 dito (second from below):
Johan Vermeer kunst Schilder aen de Oude Langendijck
niet te haelen [= note right-side]
O:K: [Oude Kerk]
Montias entry 358
(Delft, Kamer van Charitate, 'Beste Opperste Kleed Boeken', no. 74, part II, fol. 50 vol.)
- Albert Blankert: original Dutch edition: Utrecht 1975, first English edition: Oxford, 1978.
- Kathryn Shattuch, "John Montias, 76, Scholar of Economics and of Art, Is Dead", The New York Times, August 1, 2005. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/01/arts/design/01montias.html?_r=0>
- John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History . Princeton, NJ 1989. xv.
- ibid. p. 216.
- ibid. note 357, pp. 337.
- ibid. note 358, pp. 337.