Delft, The Dutch Republic
Delft, The Dutch Republic
Summary of Johannes Vermeer
Today, the name Vermeer instantly conjures an image of his Girl with the Pearl Earring painting, known as the "Mona Lisa of the North." The 17th century Dutch Master's rendition of an ordinary girl, sublimely glancing at the viewer from a mysterious black background with a shining pearl upon her lobe, has become a universal icon in the canon of Dutch Golden Age artwork. Vermeer's career was devoted to exploring tender moments of everyday life, documenting the private interior spaces of both mind and environment that epitomized the age of Baroque genre works. Yet his mastery of pigment and light elevated the artist beyond the realm of his contemporaries, providing an inimitable glimpse into the lifestyle of his thriving historical era.
- Vermeer specialized in scenes of domestic life, a genre he helped catapult within the Baroque lexicon. Many of his paintings contain the same furnishings or motifs that inhabited his own private studio, and his models were often women that he knew or relatives of patrons.
- Vermeer was posthumously titled the "Master of Light" due to the delicate attention he paid to express the way light played upon skin, fabrics, and precious stones in his work. His expertise stemmed from using Renaissance techniques such as chiaroscuro, mixed with his own signature utilization of light, shadow, and paint to evoke texture, depth, and emotion.
- Colors and pigments were of extreme interest to Vermeer and he was known for his exquisite mixing of ethereal hues. It is said that his long-term patron Pieter van Rujiven bought and provided the artist with expensive ingredients such as lapis lazuli and carmine for these efforts. It is perhaps unsurprising that it was around this time that the painter began his own downward slide into debt, as obsessive as he was about his prized materials.
- Vermeer was a modestly successful painter in his lifetime, yet only 34 paintings are attributed to him today (a few more are under question), signifying the artist's semi-lackadaisical handling of his career, which would eventually leave him and his family in debt and despair.
- Because financial insecurity, madness, and depression peppered the artist's life, it has been surmised that the calm idyll Vermeer was known to capture in paint reflected a world that he, himself, perhaps wished to inhabit.
Biography of Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer was born the in the mercantile Dutch town of Delft in October 1632 to a lower-middle-class family. His father Reijnier Jansz was a hardworking cloth weaver turned innkeeper, and then art dealer. His mother Digna Baltus is thought to have been an illiterate housewife due to her ability to sign only an "x" in place of her name on her marriage certificate.
Important Art by Johannes Vermeer
In this painting, Christ sits in the house of his close friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. While Martha is busy cleaning, cooking for, and serving the son of God, Mary sits calmly and contentedly at his feet and listens to him preach. Martha rebukes Christ for not encouraging the other sister to get up and help with the chores but Christ explains that while Martha is "worried and upset by many things," Mary needs "only one," that being the word of God. Martha was seen to be a personification of the active Catholic path where good deeds and humility led to salvation, but Mary is thought to be a symbol for the quiet, contemplative life of Protestantism, which required only the word of God for redemption.
In his own way, Vermeer was conveying the theological struggle between Protestants and Catholics that raged not only within his own country, but also within himself. As a recent convert to Catholicism, after his marriage to Catherina Bolnes in 1653, it is unsurprising that one of his first works would depict this Biblical scene. Interestingly, some art historians have suggested that owing to the canvas size, which is the largest of all Vermeer's surviving works, it seems likely that this was a commission for a hidden Catholic church. People who followed the Pope's religion were persecuted in much of Northern Europe and forced to hide their spiritual convictions and services in secret basements or disguised lofts.
One of the rare Biblical depictions by Vermeer, the painting radically depicted an intimate scene with Christ as if it were an ordinary, everyday scene. The artist Diego Velazquez would go on to recreate his own version of this iconic scene.
This image of The Procuress appears to take place within the walls of a shady, dark brothel. The viewer's eye is drawn immediately to the young woman on the right, as her pale yellow bodice, white lace head covering, and pale skin are the brightest parts of the painting. The woman is looking down at her open right palm, which will shortly receive the coin that the man in red is giving her. That man is possessively curling his body around her, placing his hand over her breast, clearly claiming her for himself. His face is largely hidden in a shadow cast by the broad brim of his feathered hat. In seventeenth century Dutch popular culture, the presence of a feather on headwear held connotations of lechery and sexual immorality, which Vermeer has used to further emphasize the sordid tone. This undertone is also emphasized by the way the man in the center, thought to be a self-portrait of Vermeer, is gripping the neck of a stringed instrument, possibly a cittern, which gives an undeniably phallic impression. The man on the left is dressed in a black beret and a black, possibly silk, doublet with ripped sleeves. These items were in vogue in the previous century, and their placement within this image would have been quite jarring to the first audience of the painting. It could be argued that this man, who attempts to make eye contact with the audience, is attempting to draw them into the scene and make them complicit in the transaction. The inanimate objects within the painting also convey details about the setting. The Turkish carpet in the foreground, which appears to be hanging over a banister, has been an important part of European portrait paintings for centuries, for example in The Ambassadors, (c. 1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Vermeer's use of chiaroscuro, a popular technique of the Baroque period, in which light and shade contrast starkly with each other to improve the composition of the piece, appears to be directly influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio. Similarly, Vermeer seems to have taken inspiration for this scene from other works like The Procuress by Dirk van Baburen, (c. 1622) which was, in fact, owned by Vermeer's mother-in-law Maria Thins and displayed in their shared house.
This snapshot of 17th century Dutch life has divided opinion for many decades. Art historians are unable to ascertain whether the young woman is a prostitute greeting a customer or a love-struck girl. The map of The Hague, Netherlands behind her head implies that she is worldly, but her covered décolletage and headdress suggest that she is the daughter of a well-to-do Dutch mercantile family who has just met a dashing young officer.
It has been suggested that Vermeer's wife, Catherina, posed for this and many of his other paintings. Certainly the delicacy and care with which he has painted her face would reinforce this notion.
It has also been conjectured that this is one of the first paintings Vermeer produced with the help of a camera obscura. While no written records exist to prove that he used one and one was not recorded in the household inventory at the time of his death, the artist Joseph Pennell noticed the "photographic perspective" of the painting in 1891. He suggested that despite the two figures sitting closely together, the officer is twice the size of the girl. In the photographic age this is unremarkable, but for 17th century painters it would have been more striking and we can see that although other painters placed figures and objects in the foreground and close to the viewer, they were usually in proportion to the space they inhabited.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Johannes Vermeer
- Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old MastersBy David Hockney / Thames and Hudson / 2001
- Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social HistoryBy John Michael Montias / Princeton University Press / 1989
- Vermeer's Women: Secrets and SilenceBy Marjorie Wiesman / Yale University Press / 2011
- The Cambridge Companion to VermeerEdited by W. Franits / Cambridge University Press / 2001
- The Young VermeerBy Edwin Buijsen / WBooks / 2010
- Vermeer in DetailBy Gary Schwartz / Abrams / 2017
- Vermeer and Painting in DelftBy Axel Ruger / National Gallery London / 2001
- Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic EvolutionBy Wayne Frantis / Yale University Press / 2004
- Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of VermeerBy Peter Sutton / London / 2004
- Why Vermeer's paintings are less 'real' than we thinkBy Alistair Sooke / BBC Culture / April 25, 2017
- Vermeer: The artist who taught the world to see ordinary beautyBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / February 7, 2017
- Vermeer and the Camera ObscuraBy Philip Steadman / BBC History / February 17, 2011
- Vermeer's PaletteBy Helen Howard / National Gallery Research / 2013
- Vermeer was an authentic artistic genius - even if he did cheatBy Simon Jenkins / The Guardian / August 10, 2017
- Secret Lives of the Artists: The Madness of VermeerAndrew Graham-Dixon / BBC / 2003
- Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid - Discreet Object of DesireWalter Liedtke / The Metropolitan Museum of Art / 2009
- Vermeer's Camera and Tim's VermeerPhilip Steadman / University College London / 2015
- Why is Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" considered a masterpiece?James Earle / TedEd / 2016
- Vermeer: Beyond TimeRTÉ One / 2017