Jan or Johannes Vermeer van Delft, b. October 1632, d. December
1675, a Dutch genre painter who lived and worked in Delft, created some of the
most exquisite paintings in Western art.
works are rare. Of the 35 or 36 paintings generally attributed to him, most
portray figures in interiors. All his works are admired for the sensitivity
with which he rendered effects of light and color and for the poetic quality of
is known for certain about Vermeer's life and career. He was born in 1632, the
son of a silk worker with a taste for buying and selling art. Vermeer himself
was also active in the art trade. He lived and worked in Delft all his life.
Not much is known about Vermeer's apprenticeship as an artist either. His
teacher may have been Leonaert Bramer, a Delft artist who was a witness at
Vermeer's marriage in 1653, or the painter Carel Fabritius of Delft. In 1653 he
enrolled at the local artists guild. His earliest signed and dated painting, The Procuress (1656; Gemaldegalerie
Alte Meister, Dresden), is thematically related to a Dirck van Baburen painting
that Vermeer owned and that appears in the background of two of his own
paintings. Another possible influence was that of Hendrick Terbrugghen, whose
style anticipated the light color tonalities of Vermeer's later works.
The Kitchen Maid
the late 1650s, Vermeer, along with his colleague Pieter de Hooch, began to
place a new emphasis on depicting figures within carefully composed interior
spaces. Other Dutch painters, including Gerard Ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu,
painted similar scenes, but they were less concerned with the articulation of
the space than with the description of the figures and their actions. In early
paintings such as The Milkmaid
(c.1658; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Vermeer struck a delicate balance between the
compositional and figural elements, and he achieved highly sensuous surface
effects by applying paint thickly and modeling his forms with firm strokes.
Later he turned to thinner combinations of glazes to obtain the subtler and
more transparent surfaces displayed in paintings such as Woman with a Water Jug (c.1664/5;
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City).
View of Delft
keen sensitivity to the effects of light and color and an interest in defining
precise spatial relationships probably encouraged Vermeer to experiment with
the camera obscura, an optical device that could project the image of sunlit
objects placed before it with extraordinary realism. Although he may have
sought to depict the camera's effects in his View of Delft (c.1660; Mauritshuis, The Hague), it is
unlikely that Vermeer would have traced such an image, as some commentators
have charged. Moralizing references occur in several of Vermeer's works,
although they tend to be obscured by the paintings' vibrant realism and their
general lack of narrative elements. In his Love
Letter (c.1670; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), a late painting in which
the spatial environment becomes more complex and the figures appear more
doll-like than in his earlier works, he includes on the back wall a painting of
a boat at sea. Because this image was based on a contemporary emblem warning of
the perils of love, it was clearly intended to add significance to the figures
in the room.
The Guitar Player
1672; Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.3 cm; Kenwood, English Heritage
his death Vermeer was overlooked by all but the most discriminating collectors
and art historians for more than 200 years. His few pictures were attributed to
other artists. Only after 1866, when the French critic W. Thore-Burger
"rediscovered" him, did Vermeer's works become widely known and his
works heralded as genuine Vermeers.
35 works are known to have been painted by Vermeer. His early paintings -
mainly history pieces - reveal the influence of the Utrecht Caravaggists. In
his later works, however, he produced meticulously constructed interiors with
just one or two figures - usually women. These are intimate genre paintings in
which the principal figure is invariably engaged in some everyday activity: one
is reading a letter, another is fastening a collar about her neck, yet another
is pouring out milk. Often the light enters Vermeer's paintings from a window.
He was a master at depicting the way light illuminates objects and in the
rendering of materials. The Rijksmuseum has three domestic portraits by Vermeer
and one street scene: the world-famous Little
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