Of the 35 generally accepted paintings by Vermeer, 25 bear signatures, which, however, vary greatly in state of conservation and, hence, visibility. Four signatures that were once reported can no longer be detected,1 and three paintings once bore the signatures of other artists before they were correctly attributed to Vermeer.2 Only three signatures are accompanied by dates.3 One painting4 bears two signatures, one of which is accompanied by a date. Never once did Vermeer accompany a signature with "f[ecit]," a frequent feature that accompanies signatures on numerous Dutch paintings of the period.
Vermeer's signatures are located on almost every area of the canvas (the Essential Vermeer catalogue numbers of Vermeer's signed paintings indicate their relative positions on the interactive diagram below). Some signatures float upon a blank area of a white-washed wall or a dark void. Others are positioned deliberately on simple objects, such as a foot stool, a picture frame or a rock, without seeking, except in one or two cases, symbolic or physical identity with the underlying object. Nine are inscribed on patches of bare white-washed wall. A few signatures were once so conspicuous that they may have been intended to contribute to the aesthetics of the work.
Roll mouse over number to slide in the painting's title. Single-click number to hold painting title, then click on painting's title to access further information about its signature.
Signatures are found on two objects to which letters of the alphabet might naturally belong: the wall map of The Art of Painting and the open letter which cascades over the front edge of the carpet-covered table of Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid. It could be speculated that by placing his signature on the wall map of The Art of Painting just to the right of the standing Clio, the muse of fame, the artist proposed a double symbolic bond: on one hand with himself and his country, the Netherlands, and on the other with everlasting fame. In fact, since classical times it was understood that great artists brought fame not only to themselves but to their native city and country.5 The role artists played in bringing glory to their homeland was given a northern flavor by Karel van Mander in his Het-Schilderboeck (The Book of Painting) of 1604, and, closer to Vermeer, in Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft), published in 1667, very near the year in which The Art of Painting was executed.
The dimensions of Vermeer's signatures also varies greatly in both absolute and relative dimensions. Some signatures are so small that they seem to have been intentionally hidden, prompting the spectator to seek them out, while others are too prominent to be ignored (most of the latter type have degraded with time and are barely visible today).6 The color of Vermeer's signatures varies from near black to cool and warm gray. Five are executed with lighter paint over darker background while the remaining twenty are executed with darker paint over a lighter background. Curiously, the two works which feature only monograms are the largest (View of Delft) and one the smallest paintings (Girl with a Red Hat) of his oeuvre.
With respect to the signatures of other Dutch genre painters, those of Vermeer vary considerably in position, relative dimension and, to some degree, form. Such an unusual variability suggests that the concept of fixing his name to his work was particularly meaningful for Vermeer.
The signatures of Vermeer's paintings are applied with fluid oil paint and a fine-tipped brush held in the hand steadied on a maulstick a few centimeters above the surface of the canvas, a practice indispensable for creating precise signatures sometimes scarcely more than a centimeter in length. The maulstick also allowed the artist to apply his signature directly into wet paint, if he desired to do so. In any case, the painter must define the variations in thickness of the letters more deliberately than with the scribe's flat-tipped pen, which, differently than the brush, produces such variations automatically if held at the same angle. With a pointed brush the thin lines are created using only its very point, while the thick lines are made by increasing the pressure of the brush so that it will spread out. Some of the thin lines in Vermeer's signatures are scarcely more than a hair's width. In those signatures that are well conserved it is possible to observe that the marks are made with precise, decisive strokes. Given their relatively crisp edges most of them seem to have been painted over a dry layer of paint, while a few that are blurry (e.g., A Lady Writing) suggest that they may have been painted directly into wet paint (wet-in-wet).
Unfortunately, given that some of Vermeer's surviving paintings no longer bear signatures and that some of those that exist are in a prejudicial state of conservation, it is difficult to track the precise evolution of Vermeer's signatures. Nonetheless, 24 of the 25 surviving signatures—the condition of the signature of the Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window is too degraded to allow an accurate assessment of its form—can be grouped into four types (in this article; a, b, c and d), which, perhaps, permit some considerations regarding the chronological ordering of the artist's oeuvre, as well as the authenticity of some signatures.
The body of type a (Diana and her Companions, A Maid Asleep and The Little Street) begins with a left-slanting vertical line whose lower extreme is attached to the left-hand base of the M, thereby forming a V (the V of "Vermeer"). This is preceded by an I (of "Johannes"). A dot stands between the I and the body of the signature. The entwined VM is followed by eer in cursive, which, obviously, completes the artist's name.
Type b (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, The Procuress and, in monogram only, View of Delft) is formed by a monogram in capital letters followed by eer in cursive. The monogram is formed by an M whose left-most line inserts itself into the valley of a wide V below. The lower extreme merges with the V's bottom. A dot placed directly above this first line of the M transforms it into a J (of "Johannes"). The type b signatures are executed with relatively quick, rhythmic gestures. A similar signature is present on Saint Praxedis, a presumed early work by Vermeer whose authenticity, however, is strongly debated.
The letters I and M of the type c monogram are formed according to classical convention, with alternating thin and thick lines that terminate in evident serifs. These letters are referred to as Roman letters. Following the universal convention, the first line of the M is thin, the second thick and so on. The I (of "Johannes") is inserted into the valley of the M. Its lower extreme does not fully merge with its companion M as in type a. Its serifs gently repose on the interior sides of the V creating a small triangle of empty space below it. The converging diagonals of the M double as a V (of "Vermeer"). The monogram is followed by eer in cursive. A flourish issues from the base of the r terminating in a dot, although in a few paintings with type c signatures the flourish is partially or completely invisible, most likely due to an imperfect state of conservation. The letters e and r are in so-called "cursiva humanistica" style formed differently from those which appear on legal documents signed by the artist. The Girl with a Red Hat is signed with only the monogram only of type c signature. After devising type c signature Vermeer used another type of signature in only two paintings.
The perfect symmetry of the type c monogram, as well as the manner in which the missing V is subtly teased out from the M—the "Ver" [from] is less important than the "Meer" ["sea" or" lake"] in Vermeer's name—makes this type particularly appealing to the eye and intellectually satisfying. The lines of the type c monogram are created with a somewhat slower and more controlled hand than those of types a and b. Judging by the more or less accepted chronological order of Vermeer's oeuvre, it would seem that the space between the monogram and the first e is somewhat wider (about the full width of the e) in the earlier paintings with type c signature and generally narrower in the later works (click here to see a complete facsimile set).
With respect to the type c, types a and b signatures may appear less sophisticated in execution and design. In his 1866 three-part article Gazette de Beaux-Arts about Vermeer, Thoré-Bürger published a facsimile of the signature of The Milkmaid, which is no longer visible (see facsimile below). If we were to assume Thoré's facsimile to be reasonably accurate, it would constitute evidence of the first use of the type c signature in the artist's oeuvre.
Type d signature is without a monogram, and it is found on two mature works by Vermeer, The Art of Painting and The Geographer. It is formed by an I., followed by Ver, a dash and Meer. The I, V and M are in Roman capital letters while the e (of Ver) and the eer (of Meer) are in cursive. A flourish issues from the base of the final r, terminating in a dot.
The signature of Vermeer below is drawn from a legal guarantee for a debt for 250 guilders that the artist's father had contracted in 1648 from a sea captain, Johan van Santen.
Types a and b signatures belong to Vermeer's early work, while those of type c, interspersed by two type d signatures, span the rest of the artist's output. If one were to group Vermeer's signed works into two chronologically ordered blocks with the first block consisting of types a and b and the second with types c and d, the type b monogram of View of Delft would suggest that this work was executed somewhat earlier than most critics suppose. The free, "splotchy" application of paint (the so-called rouw [rough] technique) of View of Delft shares nothing with the careful modeling and even application of paint of The Girl with a Wine Glass, which bears a type c signature and is almost always dated before the former picture. Thus, The Girl with a Wine Glass (and likely the unsigned Girl Interrupted in her Music) signals a change in both signature type and technique with respect to the earlier works.
From the Renaissance onward the use of Roman capital letters in artist's signature is not rare. Pieter de Hooch, one of Vermeer's closest colleagues, signed his paintings with three Roman letters in sequence: P.D.H. In the Netherlands Roman letters were widely used for inscriptions in books, and maps and they are clearly visible on the maps and the inscription on the virginal lid in The Music Lesson of Vermeer's interiors, evidencing that the artist was familiar with this script.
In ancient times, Roman letters were more often used for inscriptions cut with a chisel than letters made with a brush. The variation of thin and thick lines as well as terminal serifs give Roman letters their typical legibility, energy, balance and stateliness. No alphabet has been more successful.
The original thickening and thinning of the lines of the Roman capitals may owe to the fact that "early Latin scribes held their stiff-nibbed reed pens almost directly upright and at right angles to the writing surface, so that a down stroke from left to right and slanted at an angle of about forty-five degrees would bring the nib across the surface broadwise, resulting in the widest line possible to the pen. On the other hand, a stroke drawn at right angles to this, the pen being still held upright, would be made with the thin edge of the nib, and would result in the narrowest possible line."7 The forms of these letters were then imitated by stone cutters. An alternative theory is that stone cutters first painted the letters on the stone with a flat-ended brush, which, like the flat-tipped brush, creates the thin and thick lines automatically if held at the same angle. Edward M. Catich8 advanced that serifs originated from the way scribes wrote with flat-tipped pens. "The top serif originated in a slight movement of the pen to get the ink flowing. The bottom serif comes from a flick of the pen at the end of a stroke to finish it off neatly. In formal types of writing or large-scale painting or carving, the leading and finishing strokes were balanced with a similar stroke on the other side of the main stroke."9 An alternative theory is that serifs were devised to neaten the ends of lines as they were chiseled into stone.
Since no formula has ever been found to reduce the original Roman letters to mathematical scheme, the excellence of these letters is attributed to the sense of proportion and design of the workmen who made them.10
In Vermeer's time, there was no lack of models for well-proportioned Roman letters, many of which were produced during the revival of classical culture by Italian scribes and humanist scholars of the early 15th century. The Alphabetum Romanum (1463) by Felice Feliciano was the first book to demonstrate how to create Roman capital letters based on the geometrical subdivision of a square. In 1509, Luca Pacioli published Divina Proportione ("Divine Proportions") in which he discussed mathematical proportions and their applications to geometry, perspective, architecture and the Roman letter alphabet. Pacioli's alphabet, based on the work of Leonardo da Vinci, met a widespread demand for those who wanted to know how the construct "perfect" Roman letters.
Pacioli's volume had a great impact on his contemporaries and was immediately followed by Sigismondo Fanti's Theorica et practica ("Theory and Practice") in 1514 and Francesco Torniello's Opera del modo de fare le littere maiuscole antique ("Work on the Way to Make Ancient Majuscule Letters") in 1517. While there is no evidence that Vermeer knew any of these texts we might imagine that Pacioli's description of his own volume was well suited to the Dutch artist's temperament: "A work necessary for all the clear-sighted and inquiring human minds, in which everyone who loves to study philosophy, perspective, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and other mathematical disciplines will find a very delicate, subtle and admirable teaching and will delight in diverse questions touching on a very secret science."
Textualis form, commonly known as Gotisch or "Gothic script," was used for general publications from the fifteenth century on, although it gradually became restricted to official documents and religious publications during the seventeenth century. In the Netherlands, Roman letters were used for special purposes during the time of Vermeer, such as inscriptions and book headings. This suggests that, unlike modern individuals who are unconscious of scripts derived from Roman letters owing to their ubiquitous presence in printed matter, Vermeer's contemporaries would have noted the use of Roman letters in his signatures and attached some significance to this choice. It is likely that the use of Roman letters suggests the artist's desire to link his art to classical values.
The cursive e's and r's of Vermeer's signatures are derived from a unique style of formal writing developed in the Renaissance, known as "cursiva humanistica." Cursiva humanistica is a slanted and rapidly written letter that had evolved from the upright humanistic minuscule, which itself was developed to reconcile a stylistic mismatch between the Roman capital letters and the small Carolingian letter. Cursiva humanistica became the model for cursive or italic typefaces. As books printed with early roman types forced humanistic minuscule out of use, cursiva humanistica gained favor as a manuscript hand for the purpose of writing.
The exact form and proportion of Vermeer's signatures vary somewhat within each type. For example, the e's are at times more slanted, at times more upright. The length of the r flourish varies in length and the first e of the earlier type c signatures is more distant from the V than of the later pictures. The M of the type c monogram usually fits into a square but in some pictures it is noticeably elongated, or widened. Nonetheless, although the minuscule scale of Vermeer's signatures makes such variations expected, the signatures of three pictures present anomalies that are so significant that they may be considered extraneous to Vermeer's manner of signing his paintings.
1. The Guitar Player
Curiously, the order of the thin and thick lines of the M of the monogram of The Guitar Player is reversed with respect to those of all other type c signatures (see comparison left). Moreover, both the serifs and the sequence of thick and thin lines of Roman letters inscribed on the wall maps of the artist's interior scenes, as well as the lid of the virginal in The Music Lesson, are correctly articulated. Thus, for an artist very familiar with Roman letters and so extraordinarily sensitive to proportion and detail, such an oversight seems highly improbable. Nor does there seem to exist a plausible artistic motive why the switch between thin and thick lines might have been voluntary. For anyone more than superficially familiar with Roman letters, such an error is tantamount to misspelling a word.
Since some art historians believe that The Guitar Player was still in possession of the artist's wife, Catharina Bolnes, upon his death, it may not have yet been signed. It can be hypothesized that either Catharina or the person who eventually acquired the painting had it signed by someone who had an authentic type c Vermeer signature before him but who was neither sufficiently attentive nor cultured to comprehend that the order of thin and thick lines is not arbitrary but fixed by centuries-old convention. It is also possible that the original signature was reinforced at an unknown date, which often happened with paintings that are centuries old.
In fact, pictures that remained unfinished after an artist's death were routinely spruced up in order to increase the likelihood of sale. The addition of a signature to an unsigned work of an important painter does not necessarily suppose malicious intent, but simply to authenticate a known fact. John Michael Montias proposed that The Girl with a Flute, another late work by Vermeer, was begun by Vermeer and finished after his death by an inferior painter, perhaps Jan Coelenbier, who bought paintings from Vermeer's widow soon after his death.11 With various Vermeers on hand, Coelenbier would have found the task of copying one of Vermeer's signature relatively simple.
2. A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid
Differently from the conventional sequence of thin and thick lines of the letters of other type c monograms, except for that of The Guitar Player, the lines of the monogram of A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid appear relatively even in width, although somewhat wobbly. Moreover, the I is fully connected with the valley of the M and the whole signature is strongly angled (the angle follows the slant of the sheet of paper on which it is inscribed). None of these characteristics are found in any of Vermeer's surviving type c signatures, although the cursive eer and the flourish are in line with other signatures of this type. As in the case of The Guitar Player, some art historians believe that A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid was in possession of Vermeer's wife upon the death of the artist (for the most informed analysis of this topic see: Adriaan Waiboer, Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting exhibition catalogue, pp. 286–287, under no. 5, note 5.)12 Thus, as with The Guitar Player, it is not out of the question that the signature of A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid was applied by someone not entirely familiar with Vermeer's type c signatures after the canvas left the artist's studio. However, judging by a high-resolution image it seems not to have been reworked because the application of paint appears relatively thin and the brushwork particularly fresh, as if there was nothing concealed under it.
3. The Geographer
The Geographer presents not one but two signatures, one of which is accompanied by a date. The catalogue of Dutch baroque paintings of the Frankfurt Städel Museum (2010) states that on the basis of microscopic analysis of the museum's conservators both signatures are well integrated into the paint layer and can be considered original. Nonetheless, the occurrence of two signatures on the same painting begs some sort of explanation. Moreover, there is no mention of them in the catalogues of the sales through which the picture has passed. Thoré-Bürger, who was particularly attentive to signatures as a means of authentication, did not note the dated signature. In the case one doubts the authenticity of both signatures, given that Vermeer's Astronomer is signed on the wooden cupboard behind the seated scientist and is considered a pendant to The Geographer, the signature of The Geographer on an identical cupboard would appear to be most likely the best candidate for the original signature.
The first, and hitherto only, set of black and white facsimiles of Vermeer's signatures first appeared in 1920 (P. Johansen, "Jan Vermeer de Delft: A propos de l'ordre chronolgique de ses tableaux"(Oud Holland, vol. 38, 1920, p. 195). Despite their utility, the set is incomplete and presents such inaccuracies that they discourage stylistic comparisons. Click here to download the original set.
The facsimiles used on this web study were produced by the author, Jonathan Janson, of the Essential Vermeer website. They are based, except in a few cases, on tracings from high-resolution digital images kindly furnished by those institutions13 that house the artist's signed works. Consequentially, despite every effort, the quality of the facsimiles is not perfectly uniform. Moreover, even with good high-resolution images some signatures are difficult to trace because the signatures themselves are not in good condition,14 while the tonal value of others is so near to that of the background that they can be barely distinguished.16
As should be obvious, the relative dimensions of the facsimile of this page and of the downloadable set are not preserved. Instead, using the M' of each signature as a guide, the signatures are reproduced roughly equal in dimension in order to evidence their morphological characteristics.
Any suggestion that might improve the accuracy of the facsimiles is warmly welcomed.
Click here to download a JPG file of the complete set the facsimiles (1800 x 2590 pixels).
In 1892, Abraham Bredius, at the time director of the Mauritshuis, and his Deputy Director, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, undertook further examination of the monogram. Bredius secured the Dutch government's permission to subject the signature on the Diana to an "experiment with mineral spirits." After applying mineral spirits to the signature, the restorer, Z. L. van den Berg, determined that the false Maes monogram NM had been made from the remnants of a signature that read JVMeer. However, this discovery did not convince Bredius that the painting was by the Delft master because in his opinion it "clearly showed the traces of having been painted under Italian influence." He concluded that it was not a work of Vermeer of Delft, but of Jan Vermeer of Utrecht. The result of this research was published in the 1895 catalogue raisonné of the Mauritshuis, which included a facsimile drawing of the signature, and again in 1935. In the Mauritshuis catalogue of 1898, the Diana was still attributed to the Utrecht Vermeer, although the catalogue text stated that the painting had previously been attributed to "Maes and by some to the Delft Vermeer." With the discovery of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, which was clearly signed IVMeer, Bredius traveled to London in 1901 to examine the picture together with Willem Martin, the new deputy director of the Mauritshuis. Both became convinced that on the basis of color and signatures the newly found Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, the Diana and her Companions and The Procuress in Dresden were secure works of the young Vermeer.
The art historian Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. wrote, "The primary reason that the painting has been associated with Vermeer is that it is signed, not once but twice. One signature, on the edge of a rock in the lower left, reads: Meer 1655. The signature and date are somewhat reinforced, but are part of the paint structure. The second signature in the lower right of the painting reads Meer N R..o.o. Although difficult to decipher because it is painted in light ocher on an ocher earth tone, the signature is integral to the paint structure and has not been reinforced. Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann has suggested that it may have originally read: Meer N(aar) Riposo. Riposo was the name often given to Ficherelli. Vermeer's reasons for signing the painting twice, however, are not known." **
* Michael Kitson, "Florentine Baroque Art in New York" (The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 111, No. 795, Jun., 1969), 409–410.
** Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., "St. Praxedis": New Light on the Early Career of Vermeer" (Reviewed work: Source: Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 7, No. 14, 1986), 71–89.
*** Albert Blankert, Vermeer ( New York, Woodstock, London. 2007) 172, note 5.
**** Jørgen Wadum, "Contours of Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 219.
***** Marten van Bok, "Not to Be Confused with the Sphinx of Delft: The Utrecht Painter Johannes van der Meer (Schipluiden 1630–1695/1697 Vreeswijk)," in Vermeer Studies, (New York and New Haven, 1998), 75.
drawn from Chapter 1 of:
Rembrandt, Harmenszoon Van Rijn. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings IV: Self Portraits, edited by J. Bruyn, Ernst van de Wetering, New York: Springer, 2005.
The incidence and significance of signatures of seventeenth-century works of art has received little attention by art historians, and there is very little contemporary literature which discusses them. Various modern art historians hold that given the close cooperative workshop relationship between a master, assistants and apprentices, signatures may have been less important that there are today, fixated as we are, with authenticity. It is not clear in many cases if a signature was meant to indicate that a work had been done entirely by the hand of the master. However, various period sources suggest that their contemporaries were keen on knowing by whom a work had been made.
Early paintings could be marked by the personal mark or stamp of the artisan or of his workshop as well as the hallmark of the guild or city council in order to guarantee a certain level or quality and prevent fraud. By the second half of the sixteenth century, Northern Netherlandish painters began to sign their works in full. Although full signatures gradually became more and more common, monograms did not disappear. Many artists continued to apply monograms although painters affixed signatures that closely resembled their written signatures. Some painters, however, only rarely signed their works. Before the 1600s, Italian painters often signed their works in full followed by a "P" or "pinxit" (Latin for painted). In Southern Netherlands some painters used "pingebat" although the term "fecit" (Latin for made) was increasingly used. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings with signatures were almost always followed by "f[ecit]." Given the low artisanal level of the overwhelming majority of Dutch paintings churned out at low cost to satisfy the thirst of an ever-growing art buying public, the great part of Dutch paintings are not signed. However, most ambitious painters, who invariably belonged to the guilds, signed their works in order to distinguish their works from those of their less illustrious colleagues. Rembrandt seems to have signed almost all of his works. Some Dutch painters hid their signatures while some placed them so that they could not be overlooked. Many painters had variant signatures. The earliest documentation of falsely applied signatures can be pin-pointed to the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Forged signatures and signatures applied to overcleaned signatures occur from the eighteenth century onwards.