Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

Catharina and Johannes: Did Vermeer Ever Paint his Wife Catharina?

Click here to view images of all of the women of Vermeer's oeuvre.

Did Vermeer ever paint his wife, Catharina Bolnes? Were his sitters professional models, friends or relatives?

Although no historical evidence has survived that connects any of Vermeer's sitters to known individuals, the artist's working habits and style of living suggests he may have employed his wife, daughters and perhaps even a family maidJohn Michael Montias, Vermeer's principal biographer, suggests Vermeer's servant, Tanneke Everpoel, may have been the model for the early Milkmaid. to pose for some of his interior scenes. Gerrit ter Borch, a fellow Dutch artist whose discreet genre interiors inspired some of Vermeer's own compositions, frequently employed members of his family as models, in particular his beloved step-sister Gesina ter Borch (1631–1690). From a practical point of view, not having to pay models for long hours of posing may have represented a significant economic advantage.

Art historians have dedicated only passing comments in regards to the eventual identity of Vermeer's sitters. The scarcity of inquiry may be due to the fact that Vermeer's interiors were not conceived not biographical statements: that is, they do not represent real life situations but carefully composed mise-en-scène. The individual likenesses of his sitters was therefore subordinate to the role they played in the overall picture. Consequently, the identity of those who posed is of scarce importance to our understanding of Vermeer's art.

Vermeer and Maria de Knuijt, the wife of Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijven

As John Michael Montias has shown, Vermeer had a close relationship with Van Ruijven. As for Van Ruijven's wife, we know that in her will she bequeathed to Vermeer 500 florins. This sum was comparable to the cost of from one to three expensive cabinet pictures. Such a bequest, made to a painter who was not a family member, was possibly unique. It thus counts as a gesture of special esteem and commitment to the painter's well-being. Maria de Knuijt might have been acting on behalf of her husband, but she evidently had brought the far greater share of money to the marriage, and her taste must have been taken into account. Indeed, Dutch domestic scenes as well as many other subjects were designed to appeal to a woman's gaze at least as much as to a man's. That is, in conceiving female figures, Vermeer needed to include among his concerns (to paraphrase Gowing) the attention that woman pays to woman. As a supporter of the Orthodox wing of the Reformed church, De Knuijt might have found particularly appealing the chaste dignity that informs Vermeer's interpretations of femininity.

When it came to the burgher household, Dutch scenes of ideal domesticity tended to identify its presiding spirit as female. So we may partially explain Vermeer's focus on burgher women through their association with the clearly ordered spaces of an ideal home. Artistically, Vermeer felt comfortable with such spaces, with the perspective needed to construct them, and with the quiet demeanor expected of women. Encouragement by faithful, sympathetic patrons to explore domestic subjects no doubt nourished his artistic perfectionism as well as his sense of self.

Vergara, Lisa. "Perspectives on Women in the Art of Vermeer." In The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), edited by Wayne Franits, 69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

The signatures of Johannes Vermeer and his wife Catharina Bolnesfig. 8 The signatures of Johannes Vermeer and his wife Catharina Bolnes on a legal document of 1655

In any case, some critics have seen Catharina's likeness in one painting or another. The most frequent candidates are the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, and Woman Holding a Balance (see detail images below). This young woman has the same high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes, and she also appears to be pregnant in two of the pictures.

Love in Painting

Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer's Wager (Essays in Art and Culture), London: Reaktion Books, 2000, 63–63.

Otto van Veen, Amorum Emblemata
Emblem p.43: 'Au milieu plus seur' (Fly in the middest) from Otto van Veen, Amorum Emblemata

The love of art is not a matter for the viewer alone. It is of great consequence for the artist. In his book published in 1678, Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst, Vermeer's contemporary, the painter and theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten, contended that there were three fruitful consequences of artistic effort for the artist himself. He cited Seneca's ascription, in De beneficiis, of benefits that accrued to the sculptor Pheidias by means of his art. These were, first, the knowledge and the satisfaction of the conscience gained when the work was complete; secondly, reputation; and, thirdly, the practical advantage of profit to be gained from its sale or other disposal. Van Hoogstraten goes on to explain that the first benefit demonstrates that painting must be counted as one of the liberal, rather than the mechanical, arts, a point he elaborates with many references to both classical and modern examples. He contends that what is to be learned from the practice of art is itself the reward of art; therefore it is to be loved for its own sake. Love of art, as well as of fame and wealth, must therefore inspire and propel the artist.

head of Catharina Bolnes?
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657–1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

In less than two decades, Catharina is know to have borne Johannes 15 children, four of which did not survive infancy.2 However, modern scholarship has not come to agreement to the fact that these, or any other women in Vermeer's paintings, were portrayed while they were carrying children (see "Were Some of the Women in Vermeer's Paintings Pregnant?"). Pregnant women were probably not considered attractive from an aesthetic point of view: they are portrayed only rarely in Dutch seventeenth-century painting. Would Vermeer, who seemed content to work within the established artistic framework of his age, have addressed such an unconventional theme as that of a pregnant women?

Another candidate for Catharina is the young woman dressed in the characteristic lemon yellow morning jacket who looks out directly at the viewer in A Lady Writing. One critic noted that the painting, more than others, "possesses a singularity and mood that points to it being a portrait."3 Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (Johannes Vermeer catalogue) wrote: "The problem of identifying the sitter, however, seems insurmountable. The most likely candidate is that she is his wife, Catharina Bolnes, who, having been born in 1631, would have been in her early-to-mid thirties when Vermeer painted the work. While it is difficult to judge the age of models in painting, such an age does seem appropriate for this figure. Little else, however, confirms this hypothesis."

tulips by Jacob Marel
Two Tulips, a Shell and an Insect
Jacob Marrel
Watercolor and gouache on parchment, 26.1 × 33.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Catharina Bolnes and Johannes Vermeer

click to hear
  • Johannes Vermeer
  • Jan Vermeer
  • Catharina Bolnes

Even though we know nothing of Catharina's character, we do know some facts about her childhood, her family life and her marriage with Vermeer which have been gathered from documents drawn up by contemporary notaries. Catharina was the daughter of Maria Thins, who came from a well-to-do patrician family in Gouda, a Catholic stronghold, and Reynier Bolnes, a prosperous but irascible brickmaker. "Catharina's childhood memories were full of violence, fits of temper and tears. Her father, after 13 years of marriage, had become an ogre. Maria's relatives and neighbors were to testify that they saw him insulting his wife, kicking her, pulling her naked from her bed by her hair when she was sick, attacking her with a stick when she was pregnant, and chasing her out of the house. She was forced to eat her meals by herself. On one occasion, Catharina, aged nine, ran to her neighbors in fright, yelling that her father was about to kill her sister Cornelia. Maria received the support of her sister and brother, who was himself stabbed in a fight with one of Reynier's brother while Reynier was bolstered by his son Willem."Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001), 37-38.

Years later, after the unhappy couple had been legally separated, Catharina and her mother moved into the quiet Catholic enclave, called the "Papists Corner," in Delft, perhaps, seeking solace from their traumatic life in Gouda. Willem, Catharina's brother, who had sided with his father, later moved in with them when Vermeer was living—and probably painting—there as well. Willem's behavior was no less reprehensible than his father's. He called his mother an "old Papist sow" and a "she devil" and, as his father had done before, forced her to have her meals taken up to her. Willem also attacked his sister threatening on a number of occasions to beat her with a stick with a metal point, although she was in the last stages of pregnancy. Maria was eventually able to commit her son Willem to a private house of correction although he continued to intimidate his mother by threatening to marry a servant of dubious reputation who was employed in the house of correction.

Like the almost totality of Dutch seventeenth-century women, Catharina remains anonymous. Her only surviving words are those of a plea to her creditors after the premature death of her husband describing her disastrous financial state: "…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."

Catharina's Legacy

Girl with a Pearl Earring film
Actress Essie Davis as Catharina Bolnes and Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the fictitious young maid of Vermeer's household in Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film based on the novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier

The best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (and the eponymous film adapted from the novel) portrayed Catharina in an unpleasant light. She is characterized as jealous, selfish, vain, and superficial: a completely spoiled young woman. Worse perhaps, she is incapable of understanding her husband's art, and in a fit of envy she even attempts to destroy one of his finest paintings.

Notwithstanding the novelist made no claim to historical accuracy, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (curator of Northern Baroque Painting of the National Gallery, organizer of the historic 1995-1996 Vermeer exhibition and author of important publications on the Delft master) declared in an interview that "The film was quite beautiful, but I had a hard time with the characterization of Mrs. Vermeer. She was portrayed as a very unpleasant individual. And there's nothing at all remotely to suggest that in what we know about her. She was a model for a lot of his work. I don't think the picture is fair to her memory."James Auer, "Vermeer's work becomes part of viewer's soul," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 21, 2004, no longer available online.

Writer and London Times columnist Simon Jenkins has also taken a stand in Catharina's defense in an article, entitled "Vermeer was No Sex-Mad Garret Artist. The Scribblers have got the Wrong Girl,"Simon Jenkins, "Vermeer was no sex-mad garret artist. The scribblers have got the wrong girl," The Guardian, October 3, 2008, accessed October 19, 2023. which is strongly critical of David Joss Buckley's stage play based on Chevalier's novel. J enkins believes that the novel's story is "wholly at odds with all that scholars have gleaned of Vermeer's home life…" and that "there is not a shred of evidence that Johannes and Catharina were unhappily married.

He writes:

Vermeer's marriage to Catharina in 1653 was manifestly one of love, a Protestant to a Catholic and against both families' wishes. He had to leave his neighborhood and was erased from the civic records, moving into the house of his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, in what was known as Delft's "Papists' Corner." There he ran an art dealership and acted as family rentier.

There is every sign that the family was happy. Catharina was to be pregnant throughout their 22-year marriage, with 11 of their 15 children surviving. Vermeer named them after his mother-in-law, Maria, and her favourite saints (including Ignatius and Franciscus). She made him her heir in preference to her own son. When he died bankrupt at the age of 43, Maria referred to him as "the sainted Vermeer." Catharina pleaded with the executors to let her keep three of her favourite paintings, one almost certainly of her and the others, I believe, of their girls. None of this suggests a frigid, jilted canvas-slasher.

Archival research has uncovered enough about Vermeer's household to indicate a close-knit home, full of children and music.

Jenkins is "unnerved by fiction's relentless abuse of history, as if 'real' invention is no longer up to the job of packing a literary punch," and that there "must be a difference between intelligent deduction and pure make-believe."

In a previous articleSimon Jenkins, "Johannes Vermeer, you've been framed," The Times, October 28, 2003, 12:00 a.m., which appeared in The Times ("Johannes Vermeer, you've been framed"), Jenkins had already expressed deep dissatisfaction with both the portrayal of Vermeer and his wife and the idea that Griet, the author's fictitious young maid, had posed for Vermeer's masterwork Girl with a Pearl Earring. Moreover, he lamented that the negative images of Catharina and Johannes Vermeer "are doomed to be forever fixed in the public imagination as the 'true' Vermeer."

In effect, even though there is no historical evidence that speaks directly of the nature of Vermeer's relationship with his wife, surviving archival documents seem to suggest that Johannes and Catharina had been a reasonably good, if not well-matched couple. They had many children, a rare occurrence in seventeenth-century Netherlands where most couples had only two or three children and birth control was actively practiced. While the burden of so many children may have certainly made itself felt, their choice to have an unusually large family must have been taken mutually since other couples who desired so evidently managed to keep their families within limits. Simon SchamaSimon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches (New York: Vintage, 1987). has shown family planning was practiced by the seventeenth-century Dutch, Catholics included.

Catharina after Vermeer's Death

Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York, 2001, 210–211.

Catharina outlived her husband by twelve years. Considering the number of children she had given birth to and raised, this was good going. Unfortunately the records that have been found concern themselves only with the debts and obligations in which her many children involved her. She seems to have stayed on in Delft for a few years. In 1681 she borrowed 800 guilders. In 1684 she was living in Breda, a largely Catholic city near the border with the southern Netherlands, while still trying to support eight children, one of whom—Gertruy—was sick at the time. Catharina applied to the burgomasters of Gouda for assistance from the funds her ancestors had left the town for helping the worthy poor; she was awarded 96 guilders a year for five years. In October 1687 she acknowledged before a notary in Breda debts to a respectable widow named Pitronella de Lange that included a loan of 300 guilders and boarding costs of 175 guilders. Catharina was now in her late fifties and apparently unwell, and the debt acknowledgement may have been a formal way of regularizing a situation that Juffrouw de Lange feared might lose her money if her tenant died. At the end of that year Catharina returned to Delft; she, the writer, if we can take her husband's paintings as evidence, of many personal letters in the past was unable to sign in her usual educated hand when she made her last testament on 27 December, 1687 and named a lawyer in The Hague as guardian to her five minor children. (The local notary C. Ouwendijck endorsed her feeble pen marks as her signature.) In this will Hendrick van Eem lost his guardianship for unexplained reasons; his last recorded task had been to empower Leeuwenhoek in November 1682 to sell two sureties in Gouda worth about 1,400 guilders, arising from property passed by Willem Bolnes to Maria Thins, on behalf of the Vermeer estate. Catharina was now staying at the Blue Hand, the house on the Verwersdijck that was the home of her daughter Maria and son-in-law Johannes Cramer. A few days later, another end-of-the-year departure, she was dead—Father Philippus de Pauw having given her the last sacraments. She was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk on 2 January, 1688; the grave in the Oude Kerk was full, but it seems strange that no one thought it right to bury her near Vermeer. There were twelve pallbearers in attendance, no doubt paid for by the Cramers. No donation found its way to the Chamber of Charity.

When questioning himself on the singularity of Vermeer's marriage to Catharina, John Michael Montias, in his seminal study of Vermeer's extended family Vermeer and His Milieu, suggests that it was love which attracted the two and goes on to note that "'romantic love' was not unknown in mid-seventeenth-century Holland. Indeed, it was thought to be a source of artistic aspiration."

Although no one can definitively say who Catharina Bolnes was or if she was happily married to the great painter, perhaps she merits at least the benefit of doubt. If the general public were to come to believe that she was an antagonist to her husband and his work without a shred of historical foundation of either fact, a deep injustice will have been dealt to both of their memories. In a sense, Catharina would be condemned to death not once like her husband, but twice.


Catharina's presence in Vermeer's compositions hinges largely on the presumed but unproven pregnancy of some of the artist's sitters and the subjective interpretation of their expressions. Even under the best circumstances, the task of identifying anonymous sitters in an artist's work is complicated by the cultural gap of 300 years that separates us from them

For more information on the ramifications of Vermeer's marriage to his Catholic wife, Catharina Bolnes, see Gregor Weber's Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection (2023),Gregor J.M. Weber, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection (Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2023). or click here.

Maria Thins

from Wikipedia, "Maria Thins" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Thins

Maria Thins was born in Gouda. In 1622 she married Reynier Bolnes, a prosperous brickmaker. In 1635, the marriage deteriorated; Maria's sister, Cornelia, found her crying in bed after her Bolnes had beaten her. The couple moved to another house, where Wouter Crabeth had lived. There Bolnes had his dinner in the front room, together with his son while refusing to speak to Maria who slept in a room upstairs. At one time their daughter Cornelia was locked up by her father.

The events were recorded in a notary public deposition made three years later. In those times, people who had trouble in society did not go to the police—as we conceive of it today a police force did not exist—but were careful to have events officially recorded for future use in a court of law. The notary recorded the visit and depositions of several people, Willem de Coorde, Gerrit Cornelisz., stone carver, and Tanneke Everpoel, all of whom testified at the request of Maria. Both Tanneke and Gerrit the stone carver testified:

That on various occasions that Willem Bolnes 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 them 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.

In this document we learn that Tanneke Everpoel, who was likely the family's maid, lived in the house of Maria and Vermeer in Oude Langendijck.

In 1641, however, Maria moved to Delft, where her brother lived, with her daughter and sister. The family then split into warring parties. On one side there was the lone and wild tempered Willem Bolnes and on the other hand there were Maria Thins, her daughter Catharina Bolnes and her son-in-law Johannes Vermeer.

Bolnes refused to divorce Maria, but after considerable legal maneuvering, in 1649 Thins was awarded the considerable sum of 15,606 guilders from Bolnes. In the 1660s, her annual income amounted to at least 1,500 guilders, enough to maintain a solid patrician standard of living and shield Vermeer from market pressures. One on Maria's two unmarried sisters, Cornelia Thins, was about to die in 1661 and decided to, disinherit Bolnes.

Although there is no direct evidence in regards, it appears that Maria favored Vermeer's activity as an artist.

From a document of 1641, we know that Maria owned two or three paintings in the style of the Utrecht Caravaggists. Most likely, one was Dirck van Baburen's Procuress (16622) or a version of it. The composition appears in the background of two paintings by Vermeer, The Concert and the Lady Seated at a Virginal. Moreover, Maria owned "A painting of one who sucks the breast," which was cited in the same document. This is apparently the picture which art historian Gregor Weber identified as a Roman Charity, partially visible to the extreme right-had side of Vermeer's The Music Lesson. Maria also owned other Utrecht works, in particular "A Man Being Flayers" (Apollo and Marsyas).

In 1653 Maria's daughter Catharina married Vermeer in Schipluiden, a small Catholic enclave an hour's walk from Delft. The strong-willed Maria had initially opposed the marriage but stated she would take not take legal steps to block it, likely a move to condition the new family's religious orientation. It is not known exactly when the couple moved in at Maria's spacious house on Oude Langendijk. The first document which indicates that the married couple was living with Maria is dated 27 December, 1660. Vermeer installed his studio on the front side of the second floor facing north.

Maria Thins played an important role in the couple's life. She was a devotee of the Jesuit order in the nearby Catholic Church, and this seems to have influenced Johannes and Catharina too. Vermeer evidently loved his slightly older wife, enough to give up his family religion (which as asking fro trouble in some quarters of Delft). Their third son was called Ignatius, after the founder of the Jesuit Order. It is not known if the children were baptized in the Catholic Church, because baptismal records from that period are no longer extant. In any case, none of Vermeer's children were named after Vermeer's father (a common practice in the Netherlands) a fact which, perhaps, testifies to Maria's formidable character.

In 1663, Maria Thins succeeded in having Willem, a jobless bachelor, committed to a house of correction after an argument with his mother, and for attacking his pregnant sister Catharina "with a pointed stick." In 1665, Maria was entrusted with her son's property. She was not required by law to limit his share to the legal minimum, but she mentioned that he had been calling her names since his youth. After years of abuse,

In 1672, Maria got into financial difficulties: her land near Schoonhoven was flooded to prevent the French army crossing the Dutch Water Line. In 1675, when Vermeer went on several business trips for his mother-in-law, first to Gouda, when her husband had died, and then to Amsterdam. There it is believed that Vermeer borrowed money by fraudulently, perhaps, using her name. Shortly thereafter Vermeer suffered what was referred to as a "frenzy," in the words of his wife, and died. She attributed the painter's sudden death to stress caused by the family's deep financial difficulties. After the artist's death, Maria stated that she used her income to help support the struggling painter and his growing family. For her help she received The Art of Painting, one of the artist's finest and most ambitious works. In 1676, Thins was living in The Hague but moved back to Delft where, upon her death, she was buried in the Protestant Oude Kerk on 27 December, 1680, next to Vermeer. The burial record states that she died as the widow of Reynier Bolnes. Catharina moved to Breda. Her daughter Catharina Bolnes received "Holy Oil," according to the records of the Roman Catholic parish of Saint Joseph, before being buried on 30 December, 1687.


  1. John Michael Montias, Vermeer's principal biographer, suggests Vermeer's servant, Tanneke Everpoel, may have been the model for the early Milkmaid.
  2. Three other Vermeer's children were buried by Catharina and Vermeer in 1667, 1669, 1673. One other child born 1672 died in or after 1713. The one born 1674 died in 1678. At Vermeers death eleven children were recorded as being alive.
  3. Lisa Vergara, "Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Vermeer's Theme and Variations," in exh. cat. Love Letter in Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer, ed. by Peter Sutton, Singapore: Frances Lincoln, 2004, 58.
  4. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 203–204.
  5. James Auer, "Vermeer's work becomes part of viewer's soul," April 21, 2004 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  6. Simon Jenkins, "Johannes Vermeer, you've been framed," The Times, published at 12:00 a.m., October 28 2003, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article1715064.ece.
  7. Simon Scahama, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York: Vintage, 1987.
  8. Kees Kaldenbach, "Willem Bolnes spells trouble," http://www.johannesvermeer.info/verm/house/h-a-bolnes-willem-ENG.htm

EV 4.0 Newsletter ✉

Latest Article


Looking Over Vermeer’s Shoulder

The complete book on Vermeer’s materials, artistry and painting techniques

Jonathan Janson

(founder of Essential Vermeer.com)