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

tulips by Jacob Marel
Two Tulips, a Shell and an Insect
Jacob Marrel
1639
Watercolor and gouache on parchment, 26.1 × 33.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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 which 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 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 owes g to the fact that Vermeer's interiors were not conceived not biographical statements: that is, they do not represent real life situations but carefully composted mise-en-scène. The individual likenesses of his sitters was therefore 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.

Signatures of Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes
A declaration concerning Johan van Santen with
the signatures of Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes.
Click on the image to access a high-resolution image.

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.

head of Catharina Bolnes?
A Girl Reading a Letter by 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 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: they are portrayed only rarely in Dutch 17th 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."

Catharina Bolnes and Johannes Vermeer

click to hear mp3
  • Johannes Vermeer
  • Jan Vermeer
  • Catharina Bolnes
mp3 files by marco schuffelen

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."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, 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 17th-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 Pear Earring film
Actress Cillian Murphy (left) as Catharina Bolnes and Scarlett Johansson (right) 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 eponymous film drawn 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."5

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," which is strongly critical of David Joss Buckley’s stage play based on Chevalier’s novel. 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."

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 article6 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 17th-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 Schama7 has shown family planning was 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-17th-century Holland. Indeed, it was thought to be a source of artistic aspiration."

Although no one can pretend to know 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 when there is no 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.

Conclusion

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 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.

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.8

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 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 Love Letters, Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer, edited by Peter Sutton, Singapore, 2004, p. 58.
  4. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York, 2001, pp. 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 12:00AM, October 28 2003, :<http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article1715064.ece>.
  7. Simon Scahama, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York, 1987.
  8. Kees kaldenback, "Willem Bolnes spells trouble," <http://www.johannesvermeer.info/verm/house/h-a-bolnes-willem-ENG.htm>

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder
The complete book on the technique and studio practices of Johannes Vermeer
2nd edition
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+300 color illus.
Jan., 2016


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