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JOHANNES VERMEER- The Sphinx of Delft- (Part I)


Paintings have a visual appeal. It becomes more interesting when we know the background of the art or the artist or some interesting facts of the painting or the artist.

This is my endeavour to put forth some context on the paintings I post on the website through this blogpost. This installment in the blog is about the artist "Vermeer". My painting of "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" is inspired from his original painting by the same name. 


Jan Vermeer Van Delft, Johannes Vermeer or as we know him as Vermeer, was a painter, who was a modest celebrity in the late 17th century in Delft and The Hague in the Netherlands. Vermeer after his death in 1675 went into obscurity and did not find any mention by contemporary art historians. Some of his paintings were even attributed to being works by painters of more repute.

Two centuries later in 1860 art historians Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Theophile -Thore Burger rediscovered Vermeer and attributed 66 paintings to him, although 34 of them are universally accepted to be painted by Vermeer himself. Burger named Vermeer as Sphinx of Delft.

Since then Vermeer's reputation has grown and is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of Dutch Golden Age Baroque. 


Vermeer was born in October 1632 to Reijnier Janszoon and Digna Baltens. His father Reijnier was a sericulturist of silk or caffa, which is a mixture of silk, cotton, and wool. Vermeer had an elder sister named Gertruy who was 12 years elder than him. Later Reijnier started dealing in paintings and also leased two inns. The names of the inns were "The Flying Fox" and "Mechelen". After the death of Reijnier in 1652, Vermeer started to look over the business of his father along with his sister.

Very little is known about Vermeer's life. The source of information is from the register records, a few official documents, and comments by his fellow artists.


It is unclear about Vermeer's training as a painter. Some are of the opinion that since his father was an art dealer Vermeer self-taught himself with his visits to the artists Vermeer's father dealt with. Some art historians are of the opinion that Vermeer was trained under Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert, who was known to teach the painters who belonged to the "Utrecht Caravaggists". Vermeer's style was similar to this school which had paintings within paintings. 



Abraham Bloemaert- The expulsion of Hagar and Ishamael (Oil on Canvas)


From the records available there is very little evidence that Vermeer tutored any pupils. Some records are available that mentions that he taught his eldest daughter Maria to paint.


However, it is evident that Vermeer influenced Peiter De Hooch and Gabriel Metsu and very much influenced Vermeer's style of painting however Metsu's work requires more emotional involvement of the viewer.


Gabriel Metsu- A young woman Composing Music- Oil on Panel (22.7X17.1inches)


Peiter De Hooch- A woman with a baby in her lap and a small child- oil on panel (23.6x18.5 inches.)


In April 1953 Vermeer married a Catholic woman named Catharina Bolenes. His mother-in-law Maria was wealthier than Vermeer and it is presumed that she persuaded him to convert to Catholicism before the marriage. During 1670 and 1672 Vermeer did a painting "The Allegory of Faith" which is said to be done with less emphasis on Vermeer's natural style and more on religious applications.



Vermeer- Allegory of Faith- Oil on Canvas- (45x35 inches)


At some point, the couple moved to the house of Vermeer's mother-in-law Maria which was a spacious house at Langendijk, almost next to a hidden Jesuit Church. Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life. Most of his paintings were done in the front room of the second floor.

His wife gave birth to 15 children of whom four were buried before being baptized. The names of the children were:  : Aleydis Vermeer, Beatrix Vermeer, Catharina Vermeer, Cornelia Vermeer, Elisabeth Vermeer, Franciscus Vermeer, Gertruyd Vermeer, Ignatius Vermeer, Johannes Vermeer Jr, Maria Vermeer

The couple had another child who was unnamed (1674 - 1678-80).


In 1653 Vermeer became a member of "Guild of Saint Luke", a trade association of painters. Vermeer was a respected artist in his hometown of Delft but was almost unknown to the outside world. One of the reasons was that Vermeer had only one patron who bought most of his works thus Vermeer's works were not very widely known during that time. Vermeer's inspirations to the art of "fijnschilders", which means "fine paintings". Vermeer was a slow painter and used very expensive pigments like Ultramarine, Lead tin yellow, Madder Lake, Vermillion, Ochres, Bone black, and Azurites. Even during the year of disaster, 1672, he used expensive pigments (lapis lazuli) of natural ultramarine generously. This suggests that his materials were supplied by a collector and some historians claim that Pieter van Ruijven was Vermeer's patron.

Vermeer's contemporary Gerard Dou adapted the style of "fijnschilders" and charged high for the paintings. Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, and Metsu did also charged highly from their customers.

Vermeer used to first do a tonal underpainting either using monochrome or shades of grey (grisaille) or a limited palette of browns and greys (dead colouring). Over the underpaintings, he applied transparent glazes of more saturated paints like reds, yellows, and blues. No drawings or preparatory methods were found in his works.

This absence of any preparatory drawings and almost photorealistic rendition brought in a debate that Vermeer along with his contemporary Renaissance and Baroque painters like Hans Holbein and Diego Velazquez, used optics like camera obscura, camera lucida in a combination of curved mirrors. A detailed study was done by David Hockney and Charles M Falco which is known as the Hockney-Falco thesis.

However, the theory remains disputed. The details of the inventory of Vermeer's belongings recorded after his death do not include a camera obscura or any similar equipment. However, Vermeer was in close connection with pioneer lens maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Leeuwenhoek was Vermeer's executor after his death.


Vermeer was said to be a slow painter and he used to paint about 3 paintings a year on order. Vermeer painted about 50 paintings of which 34 have survived. Only three of these paintings are dated: The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668), and The Geographer (1669).


Vermeer- The Procuress- Oil on Canvas (56x51inches)



Vermeer- The Astronomer- Oil on canvas- (20x18 inches)


Part II is to be followed in the next post.

 *Source: Wikipedia

                Google Art Project