One of the most puzzling facets of Vermeer's oeuvre is its restricted dimension. As today, there are roughly 35 paintings which scholars unanimously agree upon. Albert Blankert, one of the most reputable and cautious Vermeer scholars, wrote: "There is good reason to believe that Vermeer's artistic production was small. Three of his paintings are recorded in documents as property of the painter's widow. Twenty-one more are listed in the catalogue of an auction of paintings held in Amsterdam in 1696. Another five occur in auction catalogues from the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Remarkably enough, nearly all of these paintings can be identified. Moreover, all but a few of the thirty-odd paintings now regarded as autograph works by Vermeer are mentioned in these few sources. This provides strong evidence that the Vermeer's known today constitute nearly the entire oeuvre of the master."1
John Montias, who has analyzed every shred of historic evidence regarding Vermeer's art and life, has speculated that the total number of paintings executed between his first dated work, The Procuress (1656) and 1675, range approximately between forty and sixty, a truly paltry number if compared to the standard output, often counting into the hundreds, of Dutch painters of the Golden Age. Thus, Vermeer would have painted only two or three works a year, most likely, according to Montias, two highly finished works and one small painting of a lower price range.
On the other hand, renowned artists like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen produced works in the hundreds; in Van Goyen's case, more than one thousand paintings have survived. Vermeer's production however, should be more fairly compared to those of artists who worked in a similar controlled manner and whose production would have been logically more limited such Gabriel Metsu, or Pieter de Hooch and specifically to the fijnschilders (fine painters), Gerrit Dou, Gerrit ter Borch and Frans van Mieris. More than one hundred paintings by Metsu and De Hooch have survived and the output of the other artists mentioned easily exceed that of Vermeer.
Even if it seems very probable that Vermeer produced only a few works other than the 35 (36?) which have survived, it is just as important to know for what reason he did so.
Detail. Vermeer's paintings present a marked illusionist quality and a seemingly high degree of detail. But under close observation, more than the quantity of detail, it is the quality of detail which is most notable. When we have the opportunity to make side-by-side comparisons between works of Vermeer and of the fijnschilders mentioned above, we are struck by the relative lack of detail in Vermeer's work. Not one of these painters every applied paint so broadly and so boldly as Vermeer did in his famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The level of detail in Dou's work, which cannot be perceived in even the most accurate printed reproductions, nears the microscopic. It is said that when the artist was complimented on his skill in painting a broom no larger than a finger nail, he remarked that the broom was unfinished, he still had three days' work to do on it. Dou, Van Mieris and Ter Borch neglected no detail or tonal change. No time was spared to insure the maximum degree of illusionism and commercial success.
Vermeer instead, especially in his mature works, took a different pictorial approach. Accuracy of tone and contour, rather than the methodic accumulation of descriptive elements and their minute description, sustain the illusion of reality. Vermeer's tonal approach is particularly evident in the deep shadows which are often flat and virtually unmodulated areas of paint. The shaded side of the woman's blue satin dress in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, is a flat unmodulated shape of deep blue that is startling. Even more so is the absolute visual authenticity obtained.
Nicola Costaras ("A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies edited by Ivan Gaskell, 1998), provides convincing objective evidence that the artist probably worked with extended periods between painting sessions. Jørgen Wadum, who restored both the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the View of Delft has this to say: "on one of the small women in the foreground of the View of Delft Vermeer painted gray vertical lines over so-called premature cracks in her black skirt. As this sort of drying of cracks in paint does not form overnight, Vermeer could therefore have applied this modest detail only after the painting had been sitting in his studio for a considerable amount of time. Elements like these prove that the timeframe he needed to reach the finished image was without limit—and not necessarily equivalent to the hours actually spend applying the paint."
Van Ruijven may have enabled Vermeer's experimental working mode by keeping the painter on something of a retainer. There was a precedent for such arrangements in the competitive Dutch market for top paintings, and Van Ruijven is almost certain to have had direct knowledge of it. From the late 1630s into the 1640s, Gerard Dou had received 500 guilders a year from Pieter Spiering for the right of first refusal on the painter's new works. Dou committed to offer to sell Spiering one painting a year, of whatever theme, and his patron would then have the options of paying an additional sum for the work or releasing the painter to sell it to others. Spiering, a Dutch representative for the Swedish queen in The Hague, was the son of François Spiering, a tapestry weaver of Delft, who was related through marriage to the Van Ruijven family. The example of his distant cousin may have prompted Van Ruijven to reach a similar agreement with Vermeer. Van Ruijven's 1657 loan of 200 guilders to the painter may have been a partial advance towards the purchase of a first group of paintings: he eventually owned five works by Vermeer from the late 1650s, inducing the Little Street, The Milkmaid, and A Woman Asleep.
Spiering bought numerous paintings from Dou under their arrangement, and it is clear that Van Ruijven had a similarly-privileged relationship with Vermeer. The nineteen or twenty works in the 1696 Dissius estate that Van Ruijven is likely to have bought directly from the artist include works from about 1657 to the early 1670s, including the View of Delft and probably the late A Lady seated at a Virginal. The chronological spread of these works indicates the longevity of the arrangement, and suggests that it may have gone beyond a mere exchange of paintings for money. It is striking that the earliest-known contact between Van Ruijven and Vermeer, the 1657 loan, coincides precisely with the painter's abandonment of the Caravaggesque mode and his new pursuit of domestic themes and a strong emphasis on optical verisimilitude.
Whatever the precise character of their exchanges, they surely must have ranged beyond financial matters to shared artistic interests. The personal nature of the interest Van Ruijven and his wife had in the artist suggested by a most unusual bequest in the couple's will. After both marital partners had died, Vermeer was to receive 500 guilders. Vermeer was the only person without a family relationship to the Van Ruijvens to be included in the will, and the gesture may have been to ease the transition from life with an annual retainer to complete market autonomy.
"Vermeer and the Self Aware Interior," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, ed. Alejandro Vergara, Madrid: Galleria Nacional de Madrid, 2003, 224–225.
Composition. Another factor which contributes to Vermeer's lengthy painting process is the paramount role that composition played in his work. Composition must not be confused simply with the number of elements placed more or less in the position where the artist found them in the real world, but rather, a thoughtful and meaningful ordering of those elements in order to achieve a desired artistic expression. Vermeer must have spent many long hours arranging and re-arranging the various objects he intended to represent even before he began the actual painting process. Both the objects' positions and the spatial interval between them, called negative space, are given equal expressive significance, which no other artist before or after Vermeer has achieved. X-ray images and neutron radiographs have revealed an impressive number of many major and minor corrections in Vermeer's compositions. It would seem that Vermeer was a contemplative painter who may have spent long hours meditating exact thematic and formal relationships.
The technical and artistic complexities of Vermeer's art offer a satisfying explanation for his low output; however, they ultimately depend on a single guiding factor: Vermeer's vision of art. Although it is well known that he repeatedly drew inspiration from fellow genre painters he filtered their thematic inventions and technical findings through the light of his own personal experience. In Dutch art of the last quarter of the seventeenth century, Vermeer was, with the exception of Gerrit ter Borch, the only artist capable of infusing a sense of timeless dignity and moral gravity to his scenes of contemporary life which had been the prerogative of history painting. Luckily, Vermeer's lofty concept of painting was evidently shared by a few choice patrons (principally Pieter van Ruijven of Delft) and occasional clients from the social elite. John Montias believes that the relationship that Vermeer had with Van Ruijven (and with his wife Maria de Knuijt) went beyond the usual client/artist one.
More than one critic has advanced the idea that Van Ruijven played an decisive part in Vermeer's evolution as an artist). Not only did he guarantee the artist a degree of financial support and encouragement, he must have also have offered the artist entry into the world of discerning connoisseurs and powerful functionaries that constituted the highest end of the art scene of the art world in the Dutch Republic. Thus, Vermeer could develop freely his own artistic inclination differently from many other Dutch painters who were forced to produce great numbers of paintings while keeping an eye on the capricious moods of the art market. It may not be accidental that Vermeer died shortly after Van Ruijven, who had certainly bought the largest part of his artistic production. Paradoxically, it was Vermeer's own approach that was to limit the spread of his fame. By selling so few works to so few patrons located in a minor artistic center such as Delft, he had reduced drastically the possibility that his fame might spread in his own time.
While there are sound reasons which would lead us to believe Vermeer's output was only marginally larger than the 36 generally accepted paintings, there exist no valid evidence that might induce us to believe that Vermeer had a significantly larger output than that which has survived. Vermeer painted a restricted number of highly significant number of paintings for a few connoisseurs who shared the same vision of art.