We all know “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and most of us love this portrait. The mysterious young
woman and the beautiful drop pearl earring. We wonder who was she? Where did she live? Well the answer is we will never know for sure who she was, but there is good evidence that she was from Delft, Holland. She was painted by Johannas Vermeer and we know he lived his entire life in Delft, and is believed to have never traveled away from his home. Vermeer was born in October 1632 and died at the the young age of 43 on December 15th, 1675.
Very little is known about Vermeers’ life. It is known he was born into an average Protestant Dutch family. He had a older sister named Gertruy and his family moved to Delft about the time she was born. His father owned an inn and was an art dealer. After his fathers death Johannas took over the inn and and the art dealer businesses.
In April of 1653 Johannas married Catharina Bolenes. Her mother Maria was against the marriage as Johannas was not a Catholic and Johannas’s family had substantial debt. Johannas converted to Catholicism and his friend Leonaert Bramer put in a good word to Maria about Johannas. Maria approved the wedding. Joahnnas and Catharina had 15 children,
4 died at birth and were never baptized. We know of the 11 other children as their names show up in the wills of other family members.
It is not known for certain whether or where Vermeer was trained to be an artist. There are 4 thoughts or suggestions about his training. Three suggestions are, he trained with Carel Fabritius as his style was similar, or possibly with his friend Leonaert Bramer, but their two styles differed. Another possibility is the Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert. The fourth possibility is that he trained under the Utrecht Caravggists whose works are depicted in the background a few of Vermeers paintings. Further, Vermeers’ style was very similar to the Carravggists painters of the time. It has also been speculated that Vermeer was self taught.
The same year he married, he became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association of painters. Also, 1653 was a Plague and war year - many suffered not only due to illness but to financial hardships. It is noted in records the Vermeer did not pay the membership fee into the Guild. Vermeer remained a member the rest of his life and was elected as head of the Guild in 1663, 1670, and 1671 giving evidence that Johannas was a well respected artist in the community.
In 1657 Vermeer may have found a patron in Pieter van Ruijven. Ruijven lent Vermeer money.
Vermeer had been inspired to paint like the Fijnschilders (fine-painters), painters like Gerard Dou. Dou sold paintings for higher that usual prices and Vermeer did the same. At this time Vermeers’ work did sell and an unknown collector was the purchaser.
1662 we know Vermeer produced only three paintings- he was known for working slowly and meticulously. The following year a diplomat and 2 clergymen came to see what Vermeer had accomplished only to find no paintings. The 3 men were directed to the local Baker who had several of Vermeers’ painting as collateral.
In 1672 war came to the Netherlands, the Franco-Dutch War. France invaded Holland. Then the Anglo-Dutch War, where the English and Germans attacked the Dutch Republic. It is known that Johannas was in the civil guard in 1674. Johannas was unable to sell any paintings due to the wars. It was 5 long years of difficulty for the Dutch people. All suffered, school, businesses and theatres all closed, there was financial hardship for the Vermeers’ and many others.
On December 15th, 1675 Johannan Vermeer died of a short illness. Catharina declared that the financial hardships has contributed to Johannas’s death. This left his family in debt. The High Court relieved Catharina of the debt due to the fact she had to look after and raise 11 children. The City Council took the Vermeer house and most of the contents, there were not may left at this time. There were 19 remaining paintings all were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. Catharina sold two paintings to Henrich van Buyten from whom Vermeer had borrowed money.
We know for sure there are 34 paintings attributed to Johannas Vermeer. We know he painted domestic scenes of mostly woman. Many of these scenes were painted in his own home, using the same props, rooms and furnishings. Vermeer was a respected artist in Delft, though he was almost unknown outside of his city. His Patron Pieter van Ruijven had been the largest purchaser of Vermeers’ paintings. Ruijven had been the person responsible for any recognition that Vermeer ever achieved in his lifetime. There is a belief that the reason he painted limited works was due to the fact he had a large family to look after, was director of the guild, and was also an innkeeper and art dealer, all taking up his time.
Johannas Vermeer, was a slow working meticulous painter. He was not just meticulous with the painting process, but he only used the finest and most expensive pigment. Vermeer painted in a method called Grisaille. This is when you paint the entire painting in monochrome gray or browns, than go over top the entire painting again in colour. He used saturated colours, applying layers upon layers of glazing, repeating until he got the depth of colour he desired. There are no records of any drawings or preparatory work. Johannas used enormous amount of the most expensive pigment lapis lazuli, (ultramarine blue). He used this colour more than any other known artist. The warm light he produced came from colours like ochre and umber. Vermeers’ work was inspired by Da Vinci, the way Leonardo observes light on every object, every surface, the way the light reflected colour from any object nearby. Because of this reflected light no object is solely of its’ own natural colour. Other colours that Vermeer used were vermillion, azurite, madder lake and lead-tin yellow. In his paintings you can see so much of these colours. Tests and studies have shown that he only used about 20 colours in total. Others he repeatedly used are green earth, raw umber, lead white and ivory or bone black.
There has always been much discussion about Vermeer’s techniques- so much so that David Hockney tried to rediscover Vermeers’ techniques and wrote the book: “Secret Knowledge, Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters” Stating that Vermeer used a camera obscura or a camera lucida; both mechanisms used to cast an image on to a surface. There has also been suggestions that a concave mirror or comparator mirrors could have been used. Another American inventor named Tim Jesion tried to reproduce Vermeers’ painting “The Music Lesson”, again attempting to rediscover the techniques of Vermeer. There is a documentary of this entitled “Tim’s Vermeer”.
As we know only 34 painting have survived and it is said Vermeer produced less then 50 paintings in total. There are only 3 paintings dated, “The Procuress” 1656, “The Geographer” 1669 and “The Astronomer” 1668. Between the number of paintings produced, war and the financial struggles, we are more than lucky to have any of Johannas Vermeer’s work at all.
Keep well, Diana
“ Art History” by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Copy-write 2014.