Vermeer's Life and Art
Whether Vermeer's initial impulse to be a history painter was encouraged by his master, his conversion to Catholicism or the hope of reaping princely commissions in the nearby Hague, he abruptly changed his subject matter and style of painting a few years after becoming a master in the Guild of Saint Luke. Perhaps he came to realize that although he was a talented painter of biblical and mythological scenes, his genius lay in the ability to convey a sense of dignity to images drawn from daily life. Except for the best paintings by Gerrit ter Borch (1617–1681), the intellectual depth and moral resonance of Vermeer's interiors find no parallel in Dutch genre painting.
Genre painting enjoyed enormous popularity in Northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and nowhere more than in the Netherlands. Genre pictures represent contemporary situations with unidentifiable models, rather than traditional subject matter such as mythological, biblical or historical events with specific gods, nymphs, saints or famous historical figures.
Genre painting was denigrated by art theorists of the time although they were avidly collected by individuals of all social strata. Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), (Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst [Introduction to the elevated school of painting, 1678]), wrote that still-life painting ranked lowest and history painting ranked highest rung of subject matter. The huge middle rung was occupied by genre painting, although in those times there existed no single catch phrase to describe the many types of subject matter that the term now comprises. The incredibly detailed genre works by Gerrit Dou could fetch the price of an average Dutch house, and more.
Other than their exceptional illusionistic quality, genre paintings may have appealed to a broad spectrum of the population because they provided an opportunity to gaze into the private lives, both high and low, of fellow Dutchmen while remaining comfortable at a distance, somewhat similar to the way modern cinema goers may view films whose contents are unusually violent or intimate, without being perturbed as if they witnessed them in real life.
In the Netherlands, artists such as Willem Buytewech (1591/92–1624) and Frans Hals (after 1580–1666) were pioneers of the first generation of genre painting. By the 1660s and 1670s, when Vermeer was active, genre painting had probably reached its zenith, although it continued to be practiced well into the eighteenth century, especially in France.
Vermeer embarked upon his career at an auspicious moment. The Dutch economy had virtually exploded with the end of the Eighty Years' War with Spain in 1648. The nation's economy would reach its apex within a few short years. Paintings of myriad of styles and subject matter were bought and sold in staggering numbers. One historian calculated that from 5 to 10 million paintings were produced in the Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) of Dutch art. Certainly, the fledging artist must have known that he was pitting talents against some of the most skilled and highest-paid painters in the Netherlands many of whom had been invited to work for important European courts. Not only was competition fierce, an aspiring interior painting had to be skilful in navigating along the channels that might bring him into contact with elite Liefhebbers van de Schilderkonst (" Lovers of the Art of Painting") who were both willing and able to purchase such costly luxury items (paintings of Dou, Ter Borch and Van Mieris could cost from 1,000 to 2,000 guilders—an average Dutch house might be worth 500 guilders). In effect, at that time, art galleries and public collections as we know them today did not exist, and painters were constrained to promote their works by themselves.
In November 1657, Vermeer and his wife Catharina were lent 200 guilders (to be repaid with a 4 1/2% interest) by Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven (1624–1674), a well-to-do Delft burger who was eight years older than Vermeer. Van Ruijven, who was a wealthy brewer's son, owned houses in Delft on the Oude Delft and the Voorstraat. He appeared to have had not other occupation than managing his investments. He married Maria Simonsdr. de Knuijt (1681), 1653. Maria de Knuijt was part of the Dutch Reformed Church while Van Ruijven adhered to a Remonstrant minority, barred from a political career in Delft. The couple probably lived in De Gouden Adelaar (The Golden Eagle), worth the considerable sum of 10,500 guilders. Van Ruijven and De Knuijt's estate was worth 24,829 guilders, making them one of the richest families in Delft.
Montias suggested that Van Ruijven's loan to Vermeer was an advance towards the purchase of one or more paintings. If this was not the case, chance has it that Van Ruijven and his wife, who could easily afford to buy expensive works of art, thereafter acquired a significant part, perhaps half, of Vermeer life-long production, or about of the twenty works. These paintings were later inherited by their daughter Magdalena and her printer husband Jacob Dissius (1653–1695). Both died young and their collection was sold in an Amsterdam auction on May 16, 1696. "The financial independence Vermeer enjoyed, partial and precarious as it was, gave him a greater opportunity to follow his own artistic inclination than most of his fellow members of the guild, who had to adapt their art to suit market demand. He could paint fewer pictures than he might have had to, had he been forced to support his family exclusively from his art." 1
It has been speculated that Van Ruijven had modeled himself on his distant cousin Pieter Spiering (c.1594/7–1652, son of the famous tapestry weaver François Spiering), a rich art collector who had first option on the fijnschilder works of Gerrit Dou, the most sought-after Dutch painter of the time. By painting fine interiors for Van Ruijven, Vermeer may have wished to align himself with his patron's ambitious plans for "social rising." Van Ruijven had paid 16,000 guilders, an absolutely astronomical sum, to acquire land near Schiedam that brought with it the title of Lord of Spalant in 1669. If one is prone to biographical speculation, Vermeer's marriage into a much higher social level might be viewed as a part of strategy to elevate his social and economic standing.
There is no indication that either Van Ruijven or his wife directly influenced the artist's choice of subject or style, although it is not out of the question. In the 1650s there already existed a strong market for exquisitely painted scenes of modern life. Unfortunately, Van Ruijven would die three years earlier than Vermeer. After 350 years, the burger's name is no longer confused among those of the many well-to-do Dutch of the time. Van Ruijven and his wife also owned works by the church painters Emanuel de Witte (1617–1692) and Simon de Vlieger (c. 1601–1653), two other painters who belonged to the so-called School of Delft.
The close relationship between Van Ruijven and Vermeer is further demonstrated by a conditional bequest of 500 guilders to Vermeer in the testament of Van Ruijven's wife in 1665 (Vermeer's wife and children were not eligible if the painter predeceased them). Bequests to members outside one's family were a rarity. Van Ruijven also witnessed the testament of Vermeer's sister Gertruy in 1670.
Sometime in the mid-1660s, Vermeer painted his first genre interiors which in appearance have nothing to do with his inaugural history paintings or the boisterous Procuress.
Vermeer's first surviving domestic interior is the Maid Asleep (fig. 1), a view of a young maid who is either drunk, asleep or afflicted by melancholy. It is also the first painting to have entered into Van Ruijven's collection. Both the theme and the composition of the picture were not original. The composition can be easily traced to specific works of single-figure type of interiors pioneered by Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693) such as, A Young Woman Sewing (1655) and The Idle Servant (1655) (fig. 2). The Idle Servant supplied the budding painter with the young woman whose sleepy head is supported by her arm, the see-through doorway and perhaps the warm palette dominated by comforting reds and browns, immediately abandoned by Vermeer after this picture.
In the Maid Asleep, every trace of technical bravado so conspicuously apparent in the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary has for some reason evaporated. From a technical point of view, the surface of the canvas appears somewhat clogged. Modeling is labored and contours are tired, although the unattractive woolen effect of some key passages may owe to the work's modest state of conservation. The maid's fingers that are propped on the table are timidly rendered. The design on the flat surface of the carpet is confusing and the lion-head finials perched on top of the empty chair to the right lack sufficient definition. The lighting scheme is unusually erratic 2 (various objects and architectural element are lit from different directions) and the three-dimensional space, except for the see-through door that opens into another room, is almost as suffocating as the claustrophobic space of The Procuress. Perhaps the painting's most attractive passage is that of two slender streaks of light paint which suggest the soft glint of light on the semi-gloss surface of the door's wooden frame, an effect, however, which seems to have been borrowed from his less talented, but more inventive colleague, Pieter de Hooch.
Evidently the choice to depict contemporary subject matter in the refined style required Vermeer to rewire his technical, stylistic and compositional approach to painting.
For all the failings of A Maid Asleep, the work prepared the young painter for one of his most interesting early works, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (fig. 3).
Despite the faulty composition of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window—the young girl is sunk too low on the picture plane—the sacramental dignity of the slender young figure makes it one of Vermeer's most poetic inventions. One art historian justly nominated it the most "beautifully imperfect" 3 picture of Vermeer's oeuvre.
Unlike the majority of Vermeer's paintings, art scholars have had difficulties in uncovering a prototype for the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The miniscule, hyper-detailed pictures of Frans van Mieris (163–1681) are occasionally summoned to explain the single, standing-women motif (fig. 4), but Van Mieris' exasperated illusionism seems, in respects to Vermeer's broad manner, as an end unto itself. However, the apparent tranquility of Vermeer's scene fails to suggest the momentous technical and intellectual struggle that was necessary to have brought such an ambitious work to completion. X-ray images reveal numerous major and minor alterations made during the painting process including the removal of a huge ebony-framed Cupid (which would eventually appear in two later works), the change of position of the girl's head, which originally looked away from the viewer, and the addition of the green trompe-l'œil curtain which conceals a large Roemer glass placed on the foreground table. Some critics have speculated that the young woman in profile, who resembles other of women in Vermeer's paintings, was Vermeer's wife, Catharina. Having finally discovered his true "calling," the artist proceeded to slowly paint one masterwork after another.
In the late 1650s, Vermeer painted two small, intensely colored pictures, the Officer and Laughing Girl and The Milkmaid (fig. 5). While both are set in the left-hand corner of a room, they instantly distinguish themselves from the somber A Maid Asleep and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window for the cool, exceptionally vibrant light which burst in through the window instilling life into all it meets, both figures and inanimate objects.
The theme of the Officer and Laughing Girl (fig. 6) is based on the popular Dutch guardroom motif in which military men are portrayed gaming, drinking, rebel rousing or inconveniencing young women. Perhaps Vermeer's composition is based on Gerrit van Honthorst's saucy bordello scene, The Procuress (fig. 7), but the Delft master has stripped his work of any sort of the motif's traditional low-life implications. Since the model is wearing a blue work apron over her dress (largely hidden in the shadow cast by the table) art historians have suggested that she had been surprised by an impromptu visit by the dashing military man during her morning chores. The window of the Officer and Laughing Girl is the same as the window in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The map has been interpreted in any number of ways although it cannot be excluded that it was essentially a compositional filler with primarily an aesthetic rather than symbolic function.
Although no historical evidence has surfaced that proves Vermeer used the camera obscura, a rudimental photographic camera fitted with lens but with no film, the forced perspective, high contrast and globular quality of the reflections and highlights of the scene have induced most art historians to conclude that the artist had indeed employed the device as an aid to his painting. The camera was apparently known to painters but it has been seriously linked only to Vermeer and the obscure Dutch painter Johannes van der Beeck (1589–1644) alias Johannes Torrentius. Although Torrentius may have used the camera obscura as an aid to painting—only one such painting (fig. 8) has survived—contempoirary documents suggesy he may have desired to keep it secret. The camera obscura debate had begun in the early years of Vermeer study and was protracted until the early 2000s, when Philip Steadman published Vermeer's Camera, tipping the scales in favor of Vermeer's having used the device.
Steadman emphasized two principal uses to which Vermeer could have put his camera. "The first was as an aid to composition. The camera is a device…which collapses a scene into a flat picture onto a luminous screen. Vermeer would have set out his pieces of furniture and positioned his sitters in some provisional arrangement, chosen a viewpoint, set up his camera, and studied the resulting image on the camera's screen. He would have gone on to make adjustments to the positions of furniture and viewpoint, and alterations to the models' poses, always judging the consequences for his composition by reference to the optical image, until he was finally satisfied. He composed, that is to say, with the objects and human figures themselves—much like a studio photographer or a film-maker. His second use of the camera would have been to trace detail and obtain accurate perspective outlines." 4 Whether one believes that Vermeer employed the camera obscura methodically, occasionally, or never at all, the serious anomalies in anatomy, perspective, illumination and proportion in Vermeer's first paintings disappeared as if by magic.
The Milkmaid, one of the Vermeer's most powerful works executed when the artist was only in his mid twenties, is kindred in both spirit and vigor to the Officer and Laughing Girl and must have been painted long before or after it. Despite the work's traditional title (milkmaids actually milks cows) the painting shows a kitchen maid in a plain room carefully pouring milk into an earthenware container (now commonly known as a "Dutch oven"). The stale bread, which lies in broken chunks on the vivid green tablecloth, is presumable, together with the milk that issues for the stoneware jug, an ingredient for making simple bread pudding. The picture's exceptional illusionistic impact, minute details and sympathetic treatment of the humble kitchen maid made the picture highly appraised in Vermeer's time and today. Never again did Vermeer portray a member of the lowly working class. Some critics have speculated that the woman who posed as the kitchen maid was a certain Tanneke Everpoel, probably employed as a maid in the Thins household. In 1663, years after The Milkmaid was painted, Tanneke would testify to a notary on behalf of Maria Thins.
Immediately after the two breakthrough works mentioned above, Vermeer channeled his creative energies towards to a completely new and broader type of picture, such as the Girl Interrupted at Music, The Girl with a Wine Glass (fig. 9) and The Glass of Wine. All three of these complex scenes represent a moment of restrained courtship. In two, music making is a subtheme. The figures and furniture that are placed in the middle ground of a deep, box-like space arrangement of windows and other elements create, as Walter Liedtke points out, a "self-sufficient" image.5
In the Girl with a Wine Glass, the most carefully contrived on the three works, the artist employed various means to enhance the sense of spatial recession: overlap, one-point perspective, sharp and blurred contours, and variations in color saturation—brighter colors which seem nearer to the viewer's eye are reserved for the foreground figures while the background figures are depicted with drab greens and browns. The small ochre and blue ceramic tiles of the Girl with a Wine Glass and The Glass of Wine betray problems in perspective, which were soon replaced by the wider and more "manageable" black and white marble floor tiles typical of the artist's subsequent interiors. The annotations of the chips and cracks of the ceramic tiles suggest that they were observed from life, perhaps in Vermeer's house, while the elegant marble tiles are almost certainly fruit of artistic license. Due to their expense (marble had to be imported) and impracticality, marble floorings were rarely found in private homes, and then only in entrance ways or corridors where they could be optimally appreciated by guests. Simple large wood planked floors were preferred by both the rich and humble for domestic use because they naturally insulated the Dutchmen's feet against the long gelid winter cold. Unlike Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684), Vermeer always set the floor tiles obliquely to the background wall, presumably in order to temper the strong recessional effect of perpendicularly tiles when created with one-point perspective.
The left hand corner of the room of these three interiors was certainly inspired by De Hooch's luminous interiors of Delft middle-class life such as The Visit (fig. 10) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This compositional model had already been experimented in other parts of Southern Holland but nowhere, except in the works of De Hooch, had space and the transient effects of daylight and naturalness of every-day gesture been married so happily.
The intense coloring and relatively uneven surface of the Glass of Wine connects it with the earlier Milkmaid and Officer and Laughing Girl while the Girl Interrupted in her Music and Girl with the Wine Glass are painted differently, with thin layers of paint. The gossamer surfaces and continuous modeling of the latter works recall the interiors of Ter Borch and Van Mieris rather than De Hooch's detailed but comparatively roughly painted Delft interiors. Importantly, the first signs of a strict geometrical order appears and will become a dominant concern until the end of the painter's short career. The tactile and sculptural qualities of Vermeer's early canvases are abandoned: form is no longer created via pictorial analogy or textural description, but suggested with subtle shifts in tone and hue.
It is almost certain that Vermeer's early haute bourgeoisie interiors do not reflect the artist's real living conditions—Vermeer's home was full of children, cribs and an assertive mother-in-law—but are artfully contrived mise-en-scène, intended to appeal to a restricted market of affluent and sophisticated clients. Historians have shown that middle-class Dutch homes were typically much darker and far more cluttered that the pristine interiors of Vermeer.
It is likely that Vermeer painted The Little Street, and another lost street scene, some years before the last three interiors. It has been conjectured that it represents a view from the first story of the back side of Mechelen overlooking the canal on Voldersgracht. Many critics connect this work with the quietism of the Delft courtyard scenes (fig. 11) pioneered by De Hooch.
Unlike De Hooch, Vermeer, who would father 15 children in all before his death, never painted children except for the two figures playing quietly on the cobblestone sidewalk in the Little Street.
Much has been written about Vermeer's models but nothing is really known about them. Most appear to be well behaved, cultured and in their mid twenties or early thirties. The heads of the four tronies are depicted so simply that the models could be adolescents as well as young adults. No old women, men or domestic animals are ever pictured (a dog originally stood back to the viewer looking through the open doorway of the A Maid Asleep but was painted out by the artist). All the figures in Vermeer's interiors hold poses that we would not expect to change quickly. It is principally through the figures' discreet gestures, rather than facial expressions, that we gain access, albeit limited, to their emotions and thoughts. Many writers claim that some of the women in Vermeer's pictures are in advanced state of pregnancy while art historians are more cautious. Pregnant women were never portrayed in any type of Dutch painting, even in portraits of young married couples where pregnancy would be appear statistically probable.
The relationship between De Hooch and Vermeer has been the source of considerable debate among art historians. It was initially assumed that De Hooch had exerted influence on Vermeer's work, but this verdict has been partially overturned, although it seems evident that the relationship was beneficial for both. Vermeer borrowed compositional motifs from the more inventive De Hoogh, while Vermeer may have stimulated De Hooch to improve his draftsmanship, perspective and application of paint. Certainly in a small town such as Delft, the two painters, who both belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke, could not have ignored each other's work.
Little is known about Vermeer's civic or private life in these years. One of the few documents that refers to his life comes from the registry of the Oude Kerk in Delft and is dated December 27, 1660. It states laconically that a child of "Johannes Vermeer on the Oude Langendijk" was buried in a family tomb in the Oude Kerk (previously purchased by Maria Thins). At the time, Vermeer and his wife, who lived in his mother-in-law's spacious house, had three or four children, probably all girls.
It is not known exactly when Vermeer and his wife moved into Maria Thins' spacious house on Oude Langendijk, practically a stone's through away on the other side of the Market Square. We know only that the burial record mentioned above proves he was living there by 1660. Some have suggested that Maria Thins would not have accepted the relatively poor and Protestant painter as a member of her patrician household, and that perhaps the young couple perhaps rented rooms somewhere before 1660. However, notwithstanding eventual initial reservations, Vermeer must have proven his trustworthiness via his conversion to Catholicism, a choice not without consequences, immediately prior or following his marriage to Maria's daughter. "Furthermore, until she had her abusive son Willem confined to a house of correction in the 1660s (at a cost of 310 guilders a year) Maria Thins was remarkably tolerant of her son's hostile behavior. This suggests that she would not have punished her only other surviving child, Catharina, by keeping her and her new husband out of the large house on the Oude Langendijk. On the contrary, Maria Thins must have been cautiously supportive of the decent young man, about whom not a single negative remark is recorded apart from debts."6
There is no indication that Vermeer ever traveled farther from Delft than Amsterdam. The idea that he had traveled to Italy has been proven unfounded.
In the early- and mid-1660s Vermeer executed five small canvases eloquently named the "pearl pictures" by Lawrence Gowing, which are among the artist's most lucidly conceived yet enigmatic works: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (fig. 12), Woman Holding a Balance, Woman with a Lute and Woman with a Pearl Necklace. These works are, remarkably enough, more noteworthy for their naturalistic qualities than the paintings of the late 1650s, in large part because even their most striking passages are subordinated to the impression made by the whole.7
The subject matter of the pearl pictures is restricted to a single woman who momentarily engages in some discreet activity in a left-hand corner of a room, very near a window, sometimes in view sometimes not. While persistent iconographical interpretations seem to have successfully illuminated the story behind the Woman with a Balance, the other works have largely resisted interpretative attempts. Nonetheless, a common theme that unites the women's activities might be that of thoughtful reflection.
Even by Vermeer's standards, the scenes of the pearl pictures are organized with exceptional economy utilizing as props only a table, a meager still life, a map or painting on the background wall and one or two chairs (infrared reflectograms reveal that the original version of Woman with a Pearl Necklace once displayed a large wall map behind the standing girl, later painted out).8 All the scenes are staged against a simple, white-washed wall set parallel to the picture plane. The particular chromatic and tonal values of the walls are key to establishing the direction, intensity and temperature of the incoming light. Despite their deceptively unproblematic appearance, Vermeer's walls constitute an unsung technical tour de force.
Notwithstanding the compositional and thematic affinities of these paintings there is no evidence that they were conceived as a group or pendant, intended to be hung and appreciated together.9
A sense of unspeakable serenity and balance reign over each of the pearl pictures. This achievement is all the more significant when we remember that in those years the artist's family life was probably the filled with trauma. A glimpse of the hardship is given by a succinct notorial deposition made in 1663 by Gerrit Cornelisz., stone carver, and Tanneke Everpoel. Tanneke stated that,
That on various occasions Willem Bolnes [Maria Thins, jobless and irascible son] had created a violent commotion in the house—to such an extent that many people gathered before the door—as he swore at his mother, calling her an old popish swine, a she-devil, and other such ugly swear words that, for the sake of decency, must be passed over. She, Tanneke, also saw that Bolnes had pulled a knife and tried to wound his mother with it. She declared further that Maria Thins had suffered so much violence from her son that she dared not go out of her room and was forced to have her food and drink brought the. Also that Bolnes committed similar violence from time to time against the daughter of Maria's, the wife of Johannes Vermeer, threatening to beat her on diverse occasions with a stick, notwithstanding the fact that she was pregnant to the last degree.
Tanneke added that she was able to prevent some of the violence herself. Another witness, Willem de Coorde, declared that on various occasions he had stopped Bolnes from entering the house and "several times thrust at his sister with a stick at the end of which there was an iron pin." As early as 1653 Willem was already making trouble calling on Maria Thins to lend him money. Maria's sister, Cornelia, had disinherited Willem in a last testament made shortly before she died in1641. After years of hesitation, Maria Thins had her son committed to a house of correction, and at least a semblance of domestic peace returned to the Vermeer household. Willem later escaped the house of correction with a maid with whom he had become sexually involved promising to marry her when he was free. Willem was later caught and he seems to have repented. No evidence has survived which regard how the painter had reacted to the spiraling violence. This seemingly obvious incoherency should warn us that the personal affairs of an artist may be very remote from the art he produces.
Sometime in the 1660s, perhaps after the three box-like interiors and before the pearl pictures, Vermeer painted two of his most ambitions interiors, The Music Lesson (fig. 13) and The Concert (fig. 14). A number of Delft interior and church paintings dating from the early 1660s feature forced perspectives although the trend was not only limited to Delft but extended to Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Antwerp. Both pictures have posed many interpretative problems to art historians, and some consider them a pendant, although the paint handing is different enough to suggest they were painted years apart. The compositional failings of The Concert are evident when it compared side by side to its "companion," one of the artist's most original artistic statements.
A sequence of objects on the right-hand half of The Music Lesson lead the viewer from the foreground table into the cavernous depth of space, each one overlapping the other. The inscription on the lid of the virginal, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], means "Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow." It suggests that it is the relationship between the man and the young woman that is being explored by the artist, but what stage that relationship has reached is impossible to say. A painting of Roman Charity in the ebony frame to the extreme right of the composition, in which the Cimon is pictured bound in chains, may allude to the gentleman captivated by the smartly dressed virginal player. The Roman Charity was likely the work described as "A painting of one who sucks the breast" cited in the list of Maria Thins' belongings.
In November 12, 1663, Vermeer is listed as an outgoing (second-year) headman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft. The incoming headman was Anthonie Palamedesz (1601–1673), a successful painter of interiors in Delft. In an inventory drawn up for the English sculptor who lived in The Hague, Jean Larson, was listed "a head by Vermeer."