Jan Vermeer, one of the greatest Dutch masters, is responsible for some of the most iconic imagery in the history of art, such as The Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca.1665), The Milkmaid (ca. 1660) and The Art of Painting (1665-1668). His artworks are a rarity, with only around 36 known paintings attributed to him. Much of Vermeer’s life remains a mystery, which makes him and his paintings all the more captivating and intriguing.
Jan Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft. His father was a weaver, who was also registered as an art dealer in the Delft Saint Luke’s Guild in 1631. Very little is known about Vermeer’s early education and why he decided to pursue a career as a painter, but in December 1653 he was registered as a master painter in the Saint Luke’s Guild. In the same year, he also married Catharina Bolnes. His mother in-law, Maria Thins, possessed a moderate collection of paintings by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, painters that were profoundly influenced by the art of Caravaggio. This influence was a factor in the development of Vermeer’s early style in biblical and mythological paintings, like Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654) and Saint Praxedis (ca. 1655).
Work / Education
In the latter part of the 1650s, Vermeer gradually switched to genre painting, that depicted intimate scenes of domestic life. His most famous paintings were interior scenes of young women engaged in reading and writing, playing musical instruments and doing domestic work. In Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662-1665), Vermeer demonstrated his mastery of light and texture. In the quiet scene, Vermeer expressed the beauty and harmony found in everyday objects and activities. By the 1660s, Vermeer was an established artist, and he was selected to serve as one of the heads of the Saint Luke’s Guild in 1662-1663. During his career, the artist showed interest in camera obscura, an optical tool that could project imagery on a flat surface. Some have argued that this interest extended into his method of painting, and that he used the device to plan the arrangements of his compositions.
In 1671-1672, Vermeer was once again selected to serve as head of the Delft Saint Luke’s Guild. Despite being well respected within Delft’s artistic community, Vermeer fell into financial peril towards the end of his life. He died in 1675 in Delft, leaving his wife and children with enormous debt. Because he only garnered moderate success and encountered unfortunate circumstances at the end of his life, Vermeer was largely forgotten by history. However, this all changed in the 19th century, mostly due to the work of French art critic, Théophile Thoré-Bürger. Thoré-Bürger’s efforts to identify Vermeer’s paintings, and the admiration he expressed for Vermeer in his writings piqued the interest of the broader public. The famous French novelist Marcel Proust even featured Vermeer’s View on Delft (ca. 1660-1661) in his novel In Search of Lost Time. All these were indicative of the rediscovery of Vermeer’s art, that forever lamented his place in art history.