Catharina e Johannes: Did Vermeer Ever Paint his Wife Catharina?
Two Tulips, a Shell and an Insect
click here to view 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 would connect any 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 maid1 to pose for some of his paintings. Gerrit ter Borch, a fellow Dutch artist, whose discreet genre interiors inspired some of Vermeer's own compositions, frequently employed members of his own family as models, in particular his beloved step-sister Gesina. From a practical point of view, not having to pay models for long hours of posing may have represented a significant economic advantage.
A declaration concerning Johan van Santen
the signatures of Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes.
Click on the image to access a high-resolution image.
Art historians have dedicated only passing comments in regards to the identity of Vermeer's sitters. The scarcity of inquiry may be owing to the fact that Vermeer's interiors are not biographical statements, that is, they do not represent real life situations and the individual likenesses of his sitters was subordinate to the role they play in the overall picture. Consequentially, the identity of those who posed is of scarce importance to our understanding of Vermeer's art
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 by 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.
In less than two decades, Catharina is know to have bore 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 a an aesthetic point of view. Pregnant women occur only rarely in Dutch 17th century-painting . Would Vermeer, who seemed entirely content to work within the established framework of contemporary themes and compositions, have addressed such an unconventional theme such 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 from 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."
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.from:
Lisa Vergara, "Perspectives on Women in the Art of Vermeer." in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), Cambridge, edited by
Wayne Franits, 2001, p. 69
Woman Reading a
Letter by an Open Window
Woman in Blue
Reading a Letter
A Lady Writing
Catharina Bolnes and Johannes Vermeer
Even though we know nothing of Catharina's character, we do 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."4
Years later, after the unhappy couple had been legally separated, Catharina and her mother moved into the quite Catholic enclave, called the “Papists Corner,” in Delft perhaps, in the hopes of finding 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 forced, as his father had done before, 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.
Catharina’s 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."
The best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (and eponymous film drawn from the novel) portrayed Catharina in an unpleasant light. She is characterized as a jealous, selfish, vain and superficial: a completely spoiled young woman. Worse, perhaps, she is sadly incapable of understanding her husband's art, and in a fit of envy she attempts to destroy one of his finest paintings. Notwithstanding the novelist made no claim to historical accuracy, Arthur Wheelock, 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."5
Writer and London Times columnist Simon Jenkins also took up Catharina’s defense in an article strongly critical of David Joss Buckley’s stage play based on Chevalier’s novel entitled "Vermeer was no sex-mad garret artist. The scribblers have got the wrong girl" (to read Jenkin's article, click here). Jenkins 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."
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 neighbourhood 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. Vermeer, though trained and in the artists' guild, earned little from painting and stopped altogether during the crash of 1672 to concentrate on making money.
In reference to the novel’s plot, Jenkins writes that he 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 article6 which appeared in The Times ("Johannes Vermeer, you’ve been framed"), Jenkins had expressed the same 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."
the signatures of Johannes Vermeer and
his wife Catharina Bolnes which appear
on a notorial document
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 would seem to suggest that Johannes and Catharina had been a reasonably good, if not finely matched couple. They had many children, a rare occurrence in 17th-century Netherlands where most couples had only two or three children. 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 Schama7 has shown family planning was avidly practiced by the 17th-century Dutch, Catholics included.
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."
If the public were to come to believe that Catharina was an antagonist to her husband's life and work, a deep injustice will have been dealt to both of their memories and in a sense, she has been unfortunately condemned to die not once, but twice.
Catharina's presence in Vermeer's compositions is largely hinged on the presumed but unproven pregnancy of some of his sitters and the subjective interpretation of these women's expressions. Even in the best of circumstances, the task of identifying anonymous sitters in an artist's work is compounded by the cultural distance of 300 years which separates us from them. For further information on Vermeer's marriage to Catharina Bolnes, click here.
- John Michael Montias, Vermeer's principal biographer, suggests Vermeer’s servant, Tanneke Everpoel, may have been the model for the early Milkmaid.
- 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.
- Lisa Vergara, "Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Vermeer's Theme and Variations,", in Love Letters, Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer, edited by Peter Sutton, Singapore, 2004, p. 58.
- Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York, 2001, pp. 203-204.<
- James Auer, "Vermeer's work becomes part of viewer's soul", April 21, 2004 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Simon Jenkins, Johannes Vermeer, you’ve been framed, The Times, Published at 12:00AM, October 28 2003, :<http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article1715064.ece>.
- Simon Scahama, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York, 1987.
emblem p.43: 'Au milieu plus seur' (Fly in the middest) from Otto van Veen Amorum Emblemata
Love in Painting
Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer's Wager (Essays in Art and Culture), London, 2000, pp. 63-63.
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 modem 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.
Catharina after Vermeer's Death
Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft , New York, 2001, pp. 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 - Gertruyd - 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.