Of the few surviving archival documents that regard Vermeer's civic and professional life, only one refers directly to what might be considered Vermeer the man. Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, after the premature death of her husband, describes her disastrous financial state as follows: "as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead." It would seem that Vermeer was at least a caring father whose difficulty in providing for the welfare of his family had become so painful that it caused him to fall into a state of deep depression from which he would never recover.
Everything else which concerns Vermeer's character is purely hypothetical. Even a presumed self-portrait (right) in the background of The Procuress cannot be supported by any objective evidence. If we wish to in some way to imagine Vermeer the man, we must rely uniquely on the interpretation his 36(?) paintings which is, at best, an extremely subjective method open to inevitable personal and cultural prejudice. At times, a painter's work reflects fairly accurately his character as in the cases of Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dalì, and another times, there seems to be no relation whatsoever. The capability of an artist to reach into the depths of his being seems in many cases to exist independently from his particular outward character traits.
The Painter Vermeer through the Eyes of Art History
While Vermeer's personality illudes us, a look at his professional attitude may yield a bit more satisfaction.
The portrait that historians have painted of Vermeer has varied according to the interpretation of the scant, known facts of his life see through the lens of each time and place. A century ago, historians like Bredius and Hofstede de Groot tended to cast Vermeer in a tragic light: they believed he lived in poverty and died in distress, ignored by his contemporaries. Another period historian perceived him as an artist totally lacking in ambition. A third, more recent tradition, exemplified by P. T. A. Swillens and John Michael Montias, sees Vermeer as a man dedicated to his art but somewhat a recluse and out of touch with the major cultural events of the United Provinces.
In order to define Vermeer's art and comprehend it within the context of Dutch painting, every known fact of his life, no matter how insignificant, has been passed through a fine comb. Recent scholarship tends to focus on the relations that the painter entertained with members of the Dutch cultural elite (Constantijn Huygens to name the most illustrious) even though some of these relationships are probable but unproven. The artist's "elitist" subjects and the refined facture of his canvases, together with his ambitious artistic agenda and even the upward direction of his marriage, have convinced art historians that Vermeer was a sort of good courtier who conversed and commerced his work at the highest social level.
For example, one of the richest citizens of Delft, Pieter van Ruijven, had collected almost half of the Vermeer's output, an extraordinary painter/client relationship in any age. We know that the artist received visits from well-heeled gentlemen: the French connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys and Pieter Teding van Berckhout, a patrician of the The Hague with strong family connections to the influential Huygens. During his life, one of Vermeer's compositions found its way into the hands of Diego Duarte, an immensely rich Antwerp jeweler, again, a friend of Huygens. Duarte's inventory reports a "young lady playing the clavecin, with accessories" (perhaps the Lady Seated at a Virginal) . To give some sort of idea of the stature of Duarte's collection, it is enough to know that he possessed more than two hundred paintings by masters such as Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck. Duarte was an accomplished musician and composer as well.
Notwithstanding Vermeer had gained access to the circles of elite collectors, he died in poverty. In part, his demise was his own doing. Having sold the good part of his slim production (truly slim by any standard) to one single collector in his native Delft, his fame was destined to remain substantially within the city walls of Delft. In a sense, a single work of art, no matter what its artistic worth may be, has short legs. In those times, there existed no commercial art galleries and no museums where the public lined up to see paintings and specialized art publications were unheard of. If an artist wished to diffuse his images, the most efficient channel was through engraving and etching techniques. Vermeer did neither.
Few privileged people, indeed, had access to either Vermeer's studio or the house of his patron Van Ruijven. Vermeer's artistic production was simply too limited to spread a clear picture of his genius and create demand. Oppositely, the great Rembrandt, who had achieved fame even in Italy, the cradle of classical painting, had flooded the market with countless engravings, etchings, drawings and paintings. Even the output of his talented apprentices enhanced Rembrandt's "visibility."
The other cause of Vermeer's premature downfall was beyond his control. In his last years, the French army had repeatedly invaded the United Provinces bringing the Dutch economy to its knees. The art market, which is historically is the first to take the brunt of bad news, had all but collapsed.
Another recent view have also been put forth. Robert D. Huerta underlines the conceptual and methodological links between the Delft painter Vermeer and his near neighbor and exact contemporary, the microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek. Huerta's study considers the close connections between painting and science during the seventeenth century. He argues that Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura parallels Van Leeuwenhoek’s pursuit of the "optical way," and embodies a profound philosophical connection between these investigators. Thus, Vermeer’s informed observations enabled him to confront the same issues as other natural philosophers regarding the interpretation of unfamiliar images presented by instrumental systems (viz, the telescope, microscope, camera obscura).
Much modern art-writing has been influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by the assumption that the painter's work is intimately related to his inner self. This widespread, but unproven, hypothesis seems so obvious today that it is taken for granted that it was so in past times as well. Vermeer has been particularly subject to this kind of analysis, perhaps due to the presumed difficulty of grasping the artist's original intentions.
Lawrence Gowing and Edward Snow, who have both extensively analyzed Vermeer's painting from a predominately intuitive point of view, have offered some of the deepest insights into the fundamental nature of Vermeer's artistry. It may not be coincidental that both authors reach similar conclusions regarding Vermeer's creative thought process and hence, indirectly, Vermeer's own peculiar psychology. Gowing states: "The detachment to which he clings as if in self-preservation, the tiny body of his work and the closed hermetic perfection of the system it presents are so many signs that the painter is facing an issue of some personal difficulty" and: "His style developed under an unremitting internal pressure."
Snow's discussions of Vermeer's paintings are conducted in a language of patient observation, and they involve the reader in an experience of deepening relation and ongoing visual discovery. He, too, adverts strong contradictory emotional undercurrents which, especially in his earlier paintings, which he identifies as "negative male conscious" and "sexual inhibition." Thus, the beauty, stability and order so characteristic of Vermeer's artistry may have been compensatory to some grave personal conflict. Even though such an interpretation may satisfy modern sensibilities, it must necessarily be taken as purely hypothetical.
Whatever kind of man Vermeer might have been, it seems befitting to his indecipherable nature that even his tomb marker, now in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, is no longer in the position where he is buried. His tomb, not original, testifies only the barest facts: his name, date of birth and date of death. What remains of the artist is a handful of small unobtrusive paintings which are, in contrast to what we know of Vermeer the man, more than enough.
Vermeer’s choice of subject matter was of capital importance to his concept of painting. No matter how masterfully his works are painted from a technical point of view, it would be entirely incorrect to assume that he painted for the sake of painting. His range of subjects, although not large, provided a reservoir of images that permitted him to reach deep and experiment universal emotions. His paintings are arresting for their lack of clear-cut narrative, for their externalization of seemingly inconsequential moments.
In our age, which retains originality to be the prime value of the artistic endeavor, it may come as a surprise to discover that Vermeer was perhaps one of the least original masters of the glorious Golden Age of Dutch painting. While Rembrandt inspired numerous talented disciples - some masters in their own right - and his paintings are confused with period copies and works of imitators, Vermeer was neither an inventor nor precursor of any technique or style, much less a founder of a school or art movement. The number of paintings by Dutch painters which display unequivocal signs of Vermeer’s influence can be counted on the fingers of a hand. None of his children carried on with his profession and it is even doubtful that he had a single apprentice although he was well known within the environs of Delft during his lifetime. His name virtually vanished within a few years of his death.
If we press the issue of originality further, from a technical point of view, Vermeer painted little that was not within reach of his school, although the means of that school were indeed extraordinary. Even his celebrated use of the camera obscura, a precursor of the modern photographic camera, is not entirely unique. The camera obscura was well known in contemporary scientific and artistic communities. It had been recommended to artists and at least one Dutch painter employed it for the purpose of painting prior to Vermeer.
All summed up, Vermeer was a professional late-comer of sorts and certainly his paintings reveal no revolutionary or provocative content. He embraced the basic theoretical tenets of European art and fully adhered to common technical procedures of his school even though he worked outside the conventional history painting idiom. Moreover, Vermeer identified himself with his native culture. His canvases are a direct confirmation of the moral and social values held by the majority of his fellow Dutchmen. His political allegiance is amply demonstrated by the numerous maps of the Dutch Republic which populate his works, in particular, by the exquisite treatment reserved for the map of the Netherlands which proudly hangs as the backdrop in The Art of Painting. In the early Officer and Laughing Girl, the carefully integrated relationship between the figures and the map in this sunlit interior expresses not only an unmistakable pride in the homeland but also the communion between the people who live there and enjoy the fruits of peace. Moreover, he portrayed the highest cultural and scientific achievements of his countrymen without a trace of irony.
In particular, Vermeer identified with his native Delft. Anyone who has had the chance to directly view the View of Delft or The Little Street cannot deny the empathetic treatment of these subjects. In Vermeer’s time, Delft was conservative, patriotic and provincial. It was considered the cleanest of all Dutch cities, and the Dutch were considered the cleanest of all European populations. No doubt, Vermeer was the cleanest painter in Delft. While almost every other painter had left Delft by the late 1660s for the prosperous Amsterdam, Vermeer remained loyally bound to his beloved birthplace until the day of his premature death.
While from a thematic and technical point of view Vermeer’s art might be considered fundamentally conservative, his genius is not subject to dispute and his name now stands above the most highly regarded Dutch genre painters and, indeed, it towers over artists such as Dou and Van Mieris who were considered by their contemporaries as giants able to rival the Italian Renaissance masters.
Indeed, it is odd that Vermeer’s quiet, measured art reached a highpoint of popularity in the twentieth century when year after relentless year contemporary artists did all that was within their powers to shatter established norms. Obviously, Vermeer’s fame hardly rests on modern standards of originality, to say nothing of novelty-at-any-cost. We might say Vermeer’s greatness lies more in the extraordinary depth of his vision rather than in his artistic inventiveness.
Vermeer rarely roamed far from the restricted territory staked out by his fellow painters, but his breed is unique. For he is among those few great artists able to perceive unseen expressive potential in the minor works of his contemporaries. He was alone in his capability for sounding the unexplored depths of daily life which passed, and still pass, largely unobserved by painters, connoisseurs and common folk alike.
EXPERT OPINION...Vermeer's Mystique
That mystique is such that it now seems uncontentious that Vermeer has overtaken Rembrandt as the supreme Dutch artist of the seventeenth century - the cynosure of that culture - in informed public opinion. Why should this be the case?
If Rembrandt, imagined as an intense emotionalist, appealed to the Romantic conception of an artist that prevailed popularly until recently and still has a certain currency, the Vermeer is the opposite. He was apparently self-effacing, and undemonstrative, a sensitive and methodical person, who today might have been a computer software designer. If we use the metaphor of sound so beloved of even scholarly commentators, while paintings by Rembrandt encompass the entire dynamic range, from raucous shouting to quiet whimpers, those of Vermeer 'exude silence', a frequently-used critical trope. Many viewers understand Rembrandt to be always forcefully present in his works, whether in self-image or painterly touch. Vermeer seems to many to be either utterly aloof, or so enwombed in his works as to be indecipherable in any realistic sense. Allied to this are, on the one hand, Rembrandt's forthrightness about his own image and, on the other, Vermeer's reticence.
If we know what anyone looked like from his self-portraits, we know what Rembrandt looked like. We see him contrive depictions of himself in innumerable moods and roles. Vermeer, however, remains unseen, as far as we know. Commentators have tried to identify him -with the painter seen from behind in The Art of Painting, and with the man on the left meeting our gaze in the Procuress - but doubt or disbelief are the prudent responses to both these suggestions. A self-portrait may have existed -at least a painting that was described in the seventeenth century in those terms - but if indeed this was the case, it is lost. We have no idea of Vermeer's physical appearance. His gaze never certainly nor unambiguously meets ours from canvas or panel. Rembrandt's is the mystique of the role player, the actor: a public mystique. Vermeer's is the mystique of a deity, extremely economical with his self-image: a mystique of simultaneous personal withdrawal and impersonal permeation. In an age in which the preservation of privacy on the part of figures in the public gaze is largely unattainable, Vermeer's apparent situation represents an ideal fantasy far those who would have renown, but not its concomitant inconveniences.
A further issue that separates Vermeer from Rembrandt to the relative advantage of the former's reputation concerns authorship. Ironically, the most sustained and concerted attempt to establish Rembrandt's painted oeuvre yet under-taken has had the effect - for now, at least - of contributing to the diminution of his reputation. The Rembrandt Research Project and its critics have evoked more doubts and fears than reassurance. As we have seen, Vermeer's corpus, in contrast, is as secure as any.
Furthermore, that corpus comprises paintings alone, and in public estimation paintings -not drawings or prints - are important art. Unlike that of Rembrandt, Vermeer's oeuvre is undiluted by works on paper that seem merely to distract attention from what really matters to most viewers. The economy of the corpus - a maximum at present of 36 known works - recommends itself to those who would encompass a total career achievement. Furthermore in Vermeer's work, unlike that of Rembrandt, there is little classical mythology or overt religion. Domesticity is preponderant, and this has a complex ideological appeal. Women see themselves taken seriously; men see their surrogate wives and daughters treated respectfully in safe roles. Even Vermeer's treatment of lasciviousness is decorous to the point of prudishness, as can be seen in his handling of the Procuress in comparison with those of his Utrecht predecessors. Lastly, to appeal to intellectuals, we have work that lays itself open to convenient theorizing ..., and we have the ultimate dead author (in Roland Barthes's terms) who transcends his creations and evades our grasp.
The perceived homogeneity of Vermeer's oeuvre also contributes to the mystique with which he and his works are imbued. Although that perceived homogeneity dissipates when one begins to attend with care to the paintings, there is an important sense in which the total achievement seems, nonetheless, greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Arthur Wheelock expressed it thus: ' Although the individual paintings are well known, their cumulative impact is all the greater because the stylistic and thematic relationships among them reinforce and enhance each work. As we view each painting by Vermeer, our memory is at work, relating it to qualities perceived in other paintings by the artist. One result, is the acquisition of a sense of the harmony of Vermeer's life's work, which is quite unlike that of any other artist. This, too, engenders mystique. This is a complex matter concerning the effective boundaries of objects, how we know objects and what viewers bring to objects....
Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer's Wager (Essays in Art and Culture), London, 2000, pp. 39-42
The dramatic end of Vermeer's life was told by his widow a year and a half after his death, when she applied to the States of Holland and West Friesland far permission to use the rest of the capital still tied up in the Diewertje van Hensbeeck trust to help bring up her children. She stated in her petition that her late husband Johannes Vermeer
"during the long and ruinous war with France not only had been unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."
A very plausible interpretation of this story is that Vermeer, frantic over his inability to earn money to support his large family and to repay his debts, had a stroke or a heart attack from which he had died in a day or two.
John Michael Montias, Vermeer and the Web of Social History, 1989, p. 21
How tall was Vermeer?
In 1952 P.T.A. Swillens calculated that Vermeer was from 5 ft. 5 in. to 5 ft. 7 inches tall The interiors represented in Vermeer's paintings are so precisely rendered that Swillens was able to recreate them mathematically in schematic drawings. In order to calculate Vermeer's stature Swillens considered the height of horizon line in the paintings which represents the height of he painters eye level, the fact that Vermeer certainly worked seated, and the exact measurements of the floor tiles ( 27 cm. x 27 cm.) represented in the paintings
Prints & Posters
internet's most reputable art website with more than 400,000 images