On Johannes Vermeer: The Man and His Masterpiece

Johannes Vermeer essay
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Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Johannes Vermeer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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If you are not an art lover and enthusiast, you have probably never heard of the name Johannes Vermeer until this very moment. In fact, I am sure there are many art enthusiasts out there as well who have probably never heard of him but would surely be able to recognize one of his paintings when they see it. I know this because I am one of them.

One can hardly be blamed for such ignorance, for Vermeer did not leave a name behind like Picasso or Michelangelo or da Vinci or Matisse or van Gogh did, a name that would be enough to evoke his great legacy. But what he did leave behind was one of his paintings that would indirectly ensure his immortality without many actually knowing his name.

Vermeer also did not revolutionize art in any substantial manner like some of the above-mentioned names did. But, nonetheless, his influence on the art world and on popular culture has been immense.

In this essay, we will take a little peek into the man and his masterpiece. So allow me to begin by introducing our subject as usual.

Johannes Vermeer, also known as Jan Vermeer, was a Dutch painter of the Baroque Period, born on 31st October 1632 in Delft, Holland. During his lifetime, he became a fairly well-known painter in his hometown for his domestic interior scenes of middle-class life and for his masterly treatment and use of light in his artworks.

After being ignored for almost two centuries after his death, Vermeer’s reputation grew slowly and steadily to reach a point where he is now regarded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

By the time Vermeer was born in 1632, his father had started an art business dealing in paintings in a leased-out inn. In 1641, when Vermeer was 9 years old, his father sold the old inn and purchased a larger one at the market square, which cost him a great deal of money and plunged him into debt.

Purchasing the inn increased the financial burden on the family and by the time Vermeer took over the business after his father’s death in October 1652, they were already in considerable debt.

Barely a year after taking over the family’s art business, Vermeer, aged 20, married Catharina Bolenes, a catholic woman, in the village of Schipluiden. The couple moved in with Catharina’s mother, who lived in a spacious house at Oude Langendijk, where they would spend the rest of their lives. It was from this house that Vermeer would go on to produce almost all of his paintings, working in the front room of the second floor.

The couple would go on to have a total of 15 children together, four of whom died in infancy.

It is not sure yet when, where, and how Vermeer picked up and learned the art of painting. Becoming interested in art was probably inevitable for him due to his family’s involvement in the art business. However, when did he actually pick up a brush and start painting, and under whose tutelage did he practice and learn the art, we do not know for sure.

Some historians and scholars speculate that he may have studied under painter Carel Fabritius. However, there is no concrete evidence to certify this speculation as fact, as the speculation is merely based upon a controversial interpretation of a text written by a printer named Arnold Bon in 1668.

Some scholars speculate that he studied under the tutelage of the Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert, while some others believe that he taught himself to paint with some help from one of his father’s connections.

The truth, unfortunately, is lost to time and history, possibly never to be known.

The year 1653 was a particularly difficult time for the Dutch as they suffered from war, plague, and general economic crises. Vermeer, obviously, was not exempted from this ongoing crisis. Already bearing considerable debt on his young shoulders, Vermeer, aged 21, was gravely affected by this economic crisis, which further worsened his financial situation to such an extent that he was not even able to pay the admission fee when he became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, which was a guild for painters and other artists in Delft.

Vermeer’s situation remained more or less the same for the next four years, until finally, in 1657, he found himself a patron named Pieter van Ruijven, a local art collector who even graciously lent him some money. Ruijven would remain his patron for most part of his career.

Inspired by the Leiden Fijnschilders, who were Dutch Golden Age painters who created small-scale paintings that strived to naturally depict reality as much as possible by being meticulously executed, Vermeer too began creating paintings in a similar manner.

Also, following the example of painter Gerard Dou, who charged high prices for his small, highly-polished paintings, Vermeer too began charging a higher price for his paintings and even managed to sell most of them to an unknown local art collector.

By the early 1660s, Vermeer was a well-respected and established painter in his hometown of Delft. This can be concluded from the fact that in 1662, he was elected head of the guild and then again reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671. His election and reelection to the highest position of the guild are testaments to the fact that he was well-respected by his artistic peers and contemporaries in Delft.

Vermeer was a notoriously slow painter who, it is believed, produced only around three paintings a year on order. He worked with great care, precision, and deliberation, and was one of the rare artists of the time who used very expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine), ochre, and umber in a lavish manner from early on in his career.

He continued to use such expensive pigments despite his poor financial condition and debts, which suggests that he was mostly supplied with such materials, or with the money for such materials, by some benevolent patron.

Vermeer worked so slowly that when on one occasion a French diplomat named Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663 to see some of his artworks, he was surprised to learn that Vermeer had no paintings to show him. Monconys, who was accompanied by two others, went to a baker named Hendrik van Buyten, to whom Vermeer’s wife had sold two paintings of his and been paid 617 guilders, which she owed van Buyten for bread delivered.

In this way, van Buyten probably became the most famous baker from Delft in art history.

Some of the works attributed to Vermeer in the mid-1650s to early 1660s are The Procuress (1656), Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657), The Little Street (1657-58), The Milkmaid (1658), The Wine Glass (1658-59), View of Delft (1659-60), Girl Interrupted at Her Music (1660-61), The Music Lesson (1662), Woman with a Lute (1662-63), and Woman with a Waterjug (1660-62).

Johannes Vermeer painting, The Milkmaid
Johannes Vermeer’s painting, The Milkmaid (c. 1658). Image by Ron Porter from Pixabay

His works were mostly small genre pieces and portraits, usually dealing with the subjects of contemporary 17th-century Dutch society. Many of them have the same domestic interiors with a figure or two lit by a window on the left.

It was around 1665 that Vermeer painted his most famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which would be considered his masterpiece for posterity. It not only became his most famous work but also one of the most famous artworks in the whole of art history.

Over the centuries, several titles were associated with the painting, such as The Young Girl with a Turban, Head of a Girl in a Turban, Head of a Young Girl, and Girl in a Turban. It was only sometime in the late 20th century that the painting came to be known as Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The painting depicts a European girl wearing an oriental turban, an exotic dress, and a large pearl earring, and is oil on canvas, 17.5 in high and 15 in wide. Recent restorations and studies have discovered that the dark background we see today was actually originally a deep enamel-like green. The two organic pigments of green, indigo, and weld, had faded over the centuries.

Over the years, after taking the painting on traveling exhibitions across the world, the painting became one of the most recognizable paintings in the world and has often been compared to the Mona Lisa. In 2006, it was voted the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands by the Dutch public.

Due to its rising popularity, the Girl with a Pearl Earring became the subject of several works of cinema and literature. References to the painting were made in poems by poets such as W.S. Di Piero and Yann Lovelock, in literature by writers such as Marta Morazzoni (in her 1986 collection of five short novellas set in the Baroque period titled Girl with a Turban), and Tracy Chevalier (in her 1999 historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was subsequently adapted into a film and a play).

The painting also made an appearance in the 2007 British comedy film St Trinian’s, where a group of schoolgirls steal the painting to raise funds to save their school.

In 2009, Ethiopian-American artist Awol Erizku recreated the painting as a print, depicting a black woman with a bamboo earring instead of a pearl one and titling it Girl with a Bamboo Earring.

And in 2014, anonymous English street artist Banksy reproduced it as a mural in Bristol Harbor with an alarm box in the place of the pearl earring, calling it Girl with a Pierced Eardrum.

In this way, Vermeer’s masterpiece has gone on to have a massive cultural impact on contemporary society.

However, the fame and acclaim that eventually came Vermeer’s way due to the painting all came posthumously. While he was alive, there was no such buzz surrounding the painting. It was just one of several other paintings produced by him that was probably not known to anyone outside of his hometown of Delft.

Although he was fairly established and well respected as an artist in Delft, he was practically unknown outside of it. Most of his works were purchased by his local patron, which prevented his fame from spreading outside of Delft.

Another reason that may have contributed to his late recognition and to his lack of influence outside of Delft was the fact that he was not prolific in his output. Being a slow and careful painter, his responsibilities at the guild, his worsening financial condition, running his art business, and looking after his large family were probably the reasons for him not being a prolific artist.

By 1675, Vermeer’s financial situation was worse than ever before due to the economic crisis imposed by the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War of the preceding years. This affected his art business as well as the sale of his paintings, slowly down both to a stop around 1672. Sadly, post-1672, not a single painting of his was sold.

In the summer of 1675, he borrowed 1000 guilders in Amsterdam from a silk trader, using his mother-in-law’s property as a surety and plunging him into deeper debt from which he would never recover.

It was the stress of these financial pressures, his wife said, that led to his death on 15th December 1675 at the age of 43. As per his wife, he went from being healthy to being dead in barely a day and a half after suffering from a short illness.

Vermeer was buried in the protestant church Oude Kerk. Following his death, his wife wrote a petition to his creditors and even requested the High Court to relieve her of her husband’s debts as she was left with the sole responsibility of raising their 11 children.

For almost two centuries after his death, Vermeer’s paintings were ignored and overlooked by art historians and scholars. He was little remembered in Delft and hardly at all in the rest of the Netherlands, and many of his artworks were attributed to other better-known artists.

It was only around 1860 that his work was discovered once again by a German museum director named Gustav Waagen. Waagen saw his painting The Art of Painting in the Czernin Gallery in Vienna and recognized it as a Vermeer artwork, even though at the time it was attributed to Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter de Hooch.

Six years later, art critic Theophile Thore-Burger published a catalog of Vermeer’s works in the Gazette de Beaux-Arts based on his extensive research. The catalog attracted international attention to Vermeer’s artworks, attributing more than 70 works to his name although many were still uncertain. In the present day, only 34 artworks are universally attributed to Vermeer.

As Vermeer’s work began gaining recognition outside of Delft, more and more artists such as Dutch artist Simon Duiker, American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Danish artist Wilhelm Hammershoi, and several other Dutch artists became influenced by his work.

His influence continued through to the 20th century, inspiring Spanish artist Salvador Dali, who produced a painting in Vermeer’s honor titled The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table (1934).

Over the years, Vermeer and his works would go on to have a great impact on popular culture. He and his works would frequently feature in literature in novels such as In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, After the Funeral by Agatha Christie, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, The Discovery of Light by J.P. Smith, and Hannibal by Thomas Harris, The Dance of Geometry by Brian Howell, and several other works of literature, all of which cannot be mentioned here.

If literature was not enough, several songs, documentaries, movies, and operas too make references to Vermeer and his works. Some of them include John Jost’s 1990 film All the Vermeer in New York, Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film A Zed & Two Noughts, and songs like Jan Vermeer by Bob Walkenhorst, Mister Vermeer by David Olney, and No One Was Like Vermeer by Jonathan Richman.

Vermeer’s influence on our popular culture runs far and deep and wide, and I cannot possibly cover it all in this essay. Although it took centuries to get here, Vermeer and his works managed to become a part of our history and culture. He himself would probably never have expected, dreamed of, or even strived for what he has managed to achieve posthumously.

One can only imagine how his life would have turned out if he had lived longer and received even a fraction of the acclaim and fame he has now while he was alive. Maybe the recognition and money would have saved him. Or maybe not, who knows? One can only imagine what other masterpieces of art he would have produced if only he had lived longer.

Although the acclaim and recognition he deserved came to him a little too late, he can surely rest in peace knowing that he is now widely regarded as a master of his craft and as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.