Jan Vermeer

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Jan Vermeer
born October 31, 1632, Delft, Netherlands
buried December 15, 1675, Delft

Johannes also rendered Jan painter, mainly of interior genre subjects, who was one of the masters of Dutch art in the 17th century. He had an unerring grasp of pictorial design and a pure and individual colour sense. But the most extraordinary element in his art is the unswerving objectivity with which he recorded the soft play of daylight on varied shapes and surfaces. His masterpieces include the self-portrait Allegory of Painting (c. 1665).


Vermeer was born in his family's tavern in the marketplace of Delft, and he lived his entire life in that city. The city archives indicate that he married on April 5, 1653, and was enrolled in the artists' guild in December of that year. That he had some reputation in his lifetime is indicated by the record left by Balthazar de Monconys, a Frenchman, who went to Delft especially to see him in 1663. He served as chairman of the artists' guild in 1662–63 and 1670–71. Further records, however, indicate his financial difficulties. It appears that he looked principally to his activities as an art dealer to support his family, rather than to the sale of his own paintings.

According to the sparse records of this quiet man, Vermeer lived in a small world of bakers and grocers who accepted his paintings as pawns for his debts. It was in a shopkeepers' milieu that he conducted his artistic experiments: these tradesmen of his neighbourhood supplied him the bread, with its hard and shiny crust, the flowing milk, and the other bodily nourishments to which he added a spiritual dimension in his painting, as in his Kitchen-Maid.

Vermeer also depicted Dutch aristocratic and upper-middle-class society, in which refined ladies read theirmail, do lacework, receive cavaliers, play music, dabble in philosophy and literature, and entertain in their salons. The theatre in which these characters appear is a lavish one, with precious carpets, fine musical instruments, embroidered dresses and robes, ermine and silk, pearls, and silver cutlery.

Vermeer re-created the figures of Dutch society as wholly devoted to the weighing of pearls, to poetry and astronomy, to music and geography; they are heroes of a closed universe, in which gradations of natural and reflected daylight are rendered with infinite care. His paintings may be said to depict a refined life, if refinement is understood as a sifting of reality designed to make it more easily apprehended.

The mystery of Vermeer's life has produced scores of interpretations, all revealing the same tendency to circumscribe it narrowly. One art historian, Reginald H. Wilenski, presented him as a laboratory researcher attempting to broaden the scope of the eye by means of optical instruments and mirrors. In France, Andre Malraux saw him enclosed in his family circle and recognized his wife, Catharina Vermeer, in scores of his characters. Notably, however divergent the views are, both represented him as a recluse. A close scrutiny of his paintings also brings to mind the idea of an artist confined to the rooms that he is depicting, attentive to all the objects separating him from his main theme but giving no hint whether he considers them obstacles to his progression or supports in a difficult enterprise. It should be added here that the two known landscapes by Vermeer were both painted from a window; it is uncertain whether it was some physical infirmity or merely the wish to paint with all his supplies at hand that rooted Vermeer to the stool on which he portrayed himself, seen from the back, in his Allegory of Painting. The question reveals the paucity of knowledge of his surpassingly accomplished and hermetic art. It scarcely influenced either his contemporaries or the painters of later time, however; its tightly knit texture was enough to discourage whole legions of artists, and even a major 20th-century counterfeiter of Vermeer did not dare to imitate his mature works but rather forged works from the Delft master's unknown youth.

In his own time Vermeer's works seem to have been regarded as experimental and therefore not widely appreciated. After he died, at the age of 43, and was buried in the Old Church of Delft, his wife, Catharina, frantically tried to save 29 of his paintings from the bankruptcy that was her lot. Vermeer had been ruined by the political troubles and the wars of the times.


The art of Vermeer expresses a knowledge of matter that is so sensitive as to be almost scientific. Each painting seems to be the sum of various analytic experiments with light and with the microscopic observation of matter, as well as of a specifically pictorial research that frees his colours from merely rendering forms, that investigates new visual means of suggesting the rapports between the human presence and its environment, and that explores bold perspectives that today suggest the use of wide-angle lenses and telescopic lenses in photography. It is noteworthy that the rediscovery of Vermeer in the late 19th century coincided with the interest in the refinement of perception accompanying the development of photography.

A certain number of paintings attributed to Vermeer are clearly marginal in respect of his sustained and exceptionally high level of production. Although unsigned, they cannot be attributed to any other artist. These works—Diana and Her Companions (c. 1655), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c. 1654–55), the Procuress (1656), and A Girl Asleep—are assumed to be works in which Vermeer conducted his earliest investigations.

Elements such as colour treatment, the perspective, the analysis of some objects, although not conclusive in themselves, unmistakably relate them to the Delft master's greatest works, next to which they become unified and attuned. In his next stage, the great painter acceded to the levels at which art is the absolute master of subject matter; he assumed a gradually fuller possession of reality. Neither distance nor shade attenuated the perception of every element in the paintings. Vermeer even went so far as to indicate the time on the clock—7:10 AM—in a celebrated View of Delft. At this level of perfection, it is difficult to establish a clear progression among the various paintings. There are some works of exceptional power and others that are less accomplished. Some may even reveal a side of the painter not particularly noticed before: Allegory of the Faith, for example, is of an unexpected symbolical complexity. One composition that seems to surpass all the rest is the Allegory of Painting, which was long attributed to Pieter de Hooch.

Since the authenticity of the dates on his paintings is generally considered to be doubtful, the chronology of Vermeer's sparse production is almost impossible to determine. Within the assemblage of his greatest paintings, it is impossible to determine that one is an improvement over another. The traditional rule of art historians is that the more complex compositions are created later in the artist's career. Accordingly, the Allegory of the Faith and the Allegory of Painting should represent the painter's ultimate accomplishments. But Vermeer is just as faithful to himself in such simpler compositions as the Head of a Young Girl or The Girl in a Red Hat, not to mention his landscapes. Young Woman Reading a Letter, sometimes known as Woman in Blue, and The Kitchen-Maid are simpler and therefore inferably earlier than those compositions in which there is a wealth of symbolic elements, but the simpler works are also bolder in experimentation, which is traditionally an indication of a later work.

Vermeer somehow manages to be unique within a typically Dutch genre. He withstood all of the Italian, the French, and the Flemish influences that are sensed in the work of other Dutch artists of his time. Whereas Frans Hals seems at times to converse with the Spaniard Velázquez, for example, and Rembrandt with the Italian Baroque painter Guercino, Vermeer is preoccupied with a wholly personal direction unlike any other. Vermeer is typically Dutch, however, in his way of “planning” reality, of analyzing it thoroughly. It is reminiscent of the rigorous methods of the Dutch hydraulic engineers in their conquests over marshland and sea or of the astronomer Huygens discovering the rings girding Saturn.

Despite their unique denseness and clarity, all of Vermeer's works were attributed to others until, in 1866, the art historian Theophile Thore (pseudonym of W. Burger), who rediscovered him, attributed 76 paintings to him. Two years later, this number was reduced by another scholar to 56. By 1907, the number was reduced to 34, and it remains between 30 and 35, depending on the authority.

An attempt in 1937 to create a chronology of his works brought the authorities into heated controversy with each other. The matter was greatly complicated when a forger, Han van Meegeren, in 1945 demonstrated that he had painted works that had been attributed by the greatest connoisseurs to Vermeer's early period. Insofar as Vermeer studies are concerned, the art world has not yet recovered from that hoax.

Pierre Descargues


Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
1654-55 (?)
Oil on canvas, 160 x 142 cm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Saint Praxidis
1655 (?)
Oil on canvas, 102 x 83 cm
Private collection

Diana and her Companions
Oil on canvas, 98,5 x 105 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

The Procuress
Oil on canvas, 143 x 130 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden


The Procuress (detail)

The Procuress (detail)

A Woman Asleep at Table
c. 1657
Oil on canvas, 87,6 x 76,5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A Woman Asleep at Table (detail)

A Woman Asleep at Table (detail)

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64,5 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail)

The Little Street
Oil on canvas, 54,3 x 44 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Officer with a Laughing Girl
c. 1657
Oil on canvas, 50,5 x 46 cm
Frick Collection, New York

Officer with a Laughing Girl (detail)