Jan Vermeer was a painter who excelled in portraying comfortable interior scenes that are composed with mathematical clarity and suffused with cool, silvery light. Vermeer was a master of composition and representation of space. He recorded the effects of light with superlative subtlety, delicacy, and purity of colour. Vermeer appears to us as a ghost from the past, which we can only glimpse at fleetingly and only guess at through the work he has left us. Nothing is known of his masters, models, and companions. We do not have a single handwritten line or a self-portrait. Very little is known about him except for a few surviving records, such as his birth, marriage, and death certificates. There are also stories about his family, inheritance, and debts.
Vermeer, also called Jan van der Meer van Delft, was born in Delft in 1632 where he spent his entire life. His father, Reynier Vermeer was a weaver, innkeeper and art dealer, who was enrolled in the Guild of Saint Luke as (master merchant of artworks). The Guild united painters in all genres, including glassmakers, faience makers, embroiders, and art dealers. During the Dutch Golden Age, painting was not considered an art, but a craft, a way to make a living. A precondition for being admitted was an obligatory six-year training with a master, recognized by the Guild. It is believed that Jan Vermeer studied in Delft and that his teacher was Carel Fabritius (1622 – 1654).
The Vermeer family bought an inn called the Mechelen, in Delft in 1641. As a child, Vermeer would see his first paintings in his father’s establishment. After the death of his father, Vermeer inherited the Mechelen as well as his father’s business. Despite the fact that he was Protestant, he married a Catholic girl, named Catherina Bolnes in 1653. He converted to Catholicism shortly before their marriage. They had fifteen children, four of which died before Vermeer. In 1653, Vermeer also became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was not able to pay the admission fee right away. He served four terms on its board of governors. He made a modest living as an art dealer rather than as a painter.
Only 35 of Vermeer’s canvases have survived, and none appears to have been sold. Vermeer probably painted very little for the public art market, most of his work being produced for those patrons who valued his work. This may also account for the modest number of paintings he produced. His output was limited by his deliberate, methodical and precise work habits, a comparatively short life, and constant disruptions from his many children. Vermeer apparently produced only one or two pictures a year during his period of greatest activity. Besides painting, Vermeer also worked as an art dealer to support his large family.
With a few exceptions, including some landscapes, street scenes, and portraits, Vermeer painted sunlit intimate domestic interiors in which one or two figures are shown engaged in reading, writing, or playing musical instruments. These objectively observed, precisely executed genre paintings of 17th-century Dutch life are characterized by a geometrical sense of order and sophistication. They depicted the love of fine furniture, attractive women, lavish clothing, and maps decorating interiors. Although his paintings are modest in theme, they exhibit a profound serenity and an unsurpassed splendor of execution. No painter has represented more exquisitely luminous blues, yellows, and pearly highlights. The subtle gradations of reflected light, all perfectly integrated within a strictly ordered composition. In almost all his pictures, Vermeer is experimenting with light. Radiant light comes from somewhere beside or behind the canvas. Jewelry, wet lips, bright eyes, reflections from window glass, kitchen utensils and surrounding objects, catch the gleaming light, creating an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Vermeer preferred the cool tones of blue, white and yellow There is a fascination with the intricate combination of light, color, proportion and scale that enhances the moods and reality of the subjects.
Vermeer began to place a new emphasis on depicting figures within carefully composed luscious interior spaces. He was more 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), 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. A 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. The camera obscura was an optical device that could project the image of sunlit objects placed before it with extraordinary realism.
Vermeer’s paintings are imbued with symbolism and sensitivity. The role of maps indicated wealth. Maps were considered an expensive luxury and considered indicative of a good level of education. Vermeer’s pictures are also moralizing. Women who had become intoxicated on wine were thought to be the embodiment of sin, and this is a central motif to some of Vermeer’s works, such as The Glass of Wine (c.1658). In these pictures, men are trying to seduce young women by giving them wine. Moralizing references occur in several of Vermeer’s works, although they tend to be obscured by vibrant realism and a general lack of narrative elements. In his Love Letter (c.1670), 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.
Vermeer’s later years were overshadowed by a dramatic deterioration of his personal financial position. The art dealing business went bad and he got into debt. This was one of the reasons Vermeer and his family left the Mechelen in 1672, to move in with the mother in law, Maria Thins. In 1672 war between France and the Netherlands, the Dutch defence strategy was to open the dikes and flood the land, which ruined the agriculture, Vermeer’s family no longer had rent for their estate. His wife later commented, “Because of this and because of the large sums of money we had to spend on the children, sums he was no longer able to pay, he fell into such a depression and lethargy that he lost his health in the space of one and a half days and died.”
When Johannes Vermeer died in 1675, he left Catherina and their children with very little money. Catherina was forced to ask the city council to take over the estate, which not only included paintings but also great debts. In the same year, 19 of Vermeer’s paintings were bequeathed to Catherina and Maria. In 1676, Catherina Vermeer filed petitions to obtain assignment letters to his creditors. In 1677, twenty-one of Vermeer’s estate paintings was sold at the Guild. In 1687, Catherina Vermeer died, the last of Vermeer’s works from her estate were sold to Delft’s collectors, and Vermeer fell into obscurity. Art historian and critic, Joseph Théophile Thoré, rediscovered the View of Delft in 1842. He became fascinated by the painting and devoted twenty years of his life to researching the artist’s identity. In 1866, Thoré published the first monograph on Vermeer. Today Vermeer is ranked among the greatest Dutch masters and considered one of the foremost of all colorists.