Johannes Vermeer - Biography and Legacy
Delft, The Dutch Republic
Delft, The Dutch Republic
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.
Despite the painter's popularity during his life, criminality seems to have run in Vermeer's veins. In 1625, before the painter's birth, his father was convicted and acquitted of the manslaughter of a soldier following a brawl at an inn. It has been suggested that the acquittal was granted owing to the familiarity between the assailant and the master painter of the Guild of St Luke. The painter's maternal grandfather was also arrested and imprisoned for counterfeiting. It is of little surprise that drama and dalliances with the law were to plague Vermeer throughout his adult life.
Education and Early Training
It is thought that in the mid 1640s, the teenage Vermeer was enrolled as an apprentice painter of his father who was willing to pay the expensive fees to ensure a promising future for his son. Due to lack of empirical evidence, it is impossible to name whom Vermeer was apprenticed to, but a number of historians suggest that Rembrandt's star pupil Carel Fabritius provided his early training. Others think that his teacher was the Delft-born and Guild of St Luke-bred painter Pieter van Groenwegen.
In 1653, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes, the daughter of a well-to-do Catholic family in Delft. Despite both sets of parents being resistant to the marriage due to opposing Christian beliefs, the wedding went ahead after Vermeer's conversion to Catholicism. Perhaps in efforts to prove his devotion to his new found religion and in-laws, Vermeer painted Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654-55), his only known depiction of a Biblical narrative. His marriage to Catherina allowed Vermeer to climb the social scale significantly, and it is thought that afterwards he even limited the contact he had with his family while living in the house of his formidable mother-in-law.
In the same year as his marriage, Vermeer followed in his father's footsteps and enrolled as a master painter in the Guild of St Luke, which allowed him a wealth of opportunities, patrons, and connections to advance his career. His early work shows the influence of masters like Rembrandt, the Italian Caravaggio, as well as the Utrecht Caravaggisti painters like Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburnen.
In 1662, Vermeer became the head of the Guild of St Luke, which meant that he would have been in close contact with numerous Delft patrons, artists, and collectors. The new position established him as a well-respected painter in his own right, although the few paintings that exist have led many scholars to calculate that the artist only produced three or so paintings per year.
One day in 1663, while Vermeer was away from the house, his wife's absent and aggressive brother Willem returned and physically attacked the heavily pregnant Catherina, threatening to stab her with a pointed metal stick. The mother and unborn child were saved from the attack when the Vermeers' maidservant put herself between the siblings. According to court records, Willem was heard to shout "she-devil" and "old popish swine" at Catherina and her mother Maria, before being taken away and incarcerated until the end of his life. Interestingly, the traumatic, violent episode didn't make its way into Vermeer's art. On the contrary, the calm idyll that Vermeer was known to capture in paint reflects a world that he, himself, perhaps wished to inhabit.
The wealth of his wife's family allowed Vermeer to paint for his own pleasure, rather than to support his family as was the case for most other painters, and he never took on pupils or apprentices. The painter was also known to have used expensive pigments like lapis lazuli for the skirt of The Milkmaid and deep carmine for the dress of The Girl with a Wineglass. While some have suggested that Vermeer's long-term patron Pieter van Ruijven would have bought and supplied the artist with these exclusive ingredients, it is perhaps unsurprising that it was around this time that the painter began his own downward slide into debt.
Late Period and Death
In Dutch history, the year 1672 was termed "The Year of Disaster," owing to the invasion of the Dutch Republic by the French, German, and British armies. This led to a dramatic economic crash for the once prosperous, middle-class country. The art market plummeted, and Vermeer could barely afford to keep himself, his wife, her mother, and his eleven children. He took on increasing amounts of debt, borrowing thousands of guilders, and was even caught pocketing his mother-in-law's money.
Vermeer died on December 16, 1675, having fallen into a fit of madness and depression. In the court records, his wife stated that, "...during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he 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 and a half he went from being healthy to being dead."
The Legacy of Johannes Vermeer
Due to the very localized fame during his lifetime, Vermeer seemed to disappear from the art world until the 19th century when French artists in the manner of Édouard Manet; started to turn their eyes toward the real and unpretentious. Since Vermeer had been so adept at capturing moments of ordinary beauty, he became a major influence on these artists, who revived an awareness of the master's work. Despite the fact that only 34 (3 more are disputed Vermeers) of his pieces have survived, Vermeer is considered today to be one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age.
In the twentieth-century, the Surrealist Salvador Dali became entranced by Vermeer's work and produced his own variations including The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft which can be used as a Table in 1934, as well as The Lacemaker (After Vermeer) in 1955.
Other artists like the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi adapted Vermeer's calm domestic interiors for their own nineteenth and twentieth century subjects. Hammershøi has modernized Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by reversing the image and subduing the color palette so that it almost feels the audience is looking at an early photograph of a domestic, Danish interior.
Among many of his exalted paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring is considered the "Mona Lisa of the North." Its staggering realism and emotional ambiguity has inspired artists, novelists, and filmmakers for decades. Most recently, the anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy reinterpreted and reproduced the painting on a building in Bristol, UK, using a burglar alarm in place of the iconic pearl earring.