Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

Jan Vermeer grew up in the prosperous town of Delft around the early 1630’s. He was an acclaimed Dutch artist for his excellence in genre painting with the domestic life of the middle-class individuals as his themes and subjects. Vermeer’s detailed and vivid paintings showed the great amount of care he puts when selecting pigments for his palette. He would often choose the expensive brands such as the Indian yellow and lapis lazuli.

In most cases, Vermeer used the interior scenes to depict the life his middle-class subject. No wonder his paintings depict typical household furniture in a small room such as his home in Delft. He was particularly popular in The Hague and Delft although he didn’t travel far across the country. But what is known is that Vermeer had multiple masters during his late adolescent years.

Vermeer’s popularity in Western art circle flourished two centuries after his death. His works had been given proper attribution as well, as museum directors such as Gustav Waagen had found out that Vermeer originally executed The Art of Painting rather than Pieter de Hooch. His other famous works included View of Delft (1661), The Geographer, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659), The Music Lesson (1665), and The Procuress (1656).

Early Life of Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer received his christening on October 31, 1632 in the Nieuwe Kerk Reformed Church; thus he was a Protestant. Vermeer grew up in a well-to-do family with the art dealer Reynier Jansz as his father and Dignum Balthazars as his mother. Reynier was a native of Delft while Dignum originally came from Antwerp in Amsterdam.

Reynier’s family had lived quite comfortably in De Vliegende Vos in Voldersgracht which was just walking distance from Nieuwe Kerk. The said place was the center of trade and commerce in Delft so the family would have an easier time finding business opportunities for living there. This is also why Vermeer had a chance to spend most his days in a mansion near the Nieuwe’s Market Square. And thie beauty of this place served as the painter’s inspiration for painting the View of Delft in 1660 to 1661.

In 1641, Reynier bought the Nieuwe Kerk building worth 200 guilders plus a couple of mortgages. This implies how capable Vermeer’s father was financially. The building was large enough to be an inn, which Reynier had converted as such and called it Mechelen and some sections of the edifice were also converted to be a silk production area. It was conveniently located near the Guild of St. Luke so different artists and art dealers would have easily access to the inn.

However, when Reynier died in 1652, the family has had a difficult time dealing with the estate he had left. This resulted to the widow and her children to unable to attend to their financial obligations with the Camer van Charitate. And being the only son in the family, Johannes Vermeer had no choice but to help his mother run their inn business. But this troubling situation didn’t hinder him to pursue his membership with the Guild of St. Luke 14 months after his father’s death.

Early Training

Art historians are not sure how did Vermeer arrive to a decision on joining St. Luke’s Guild in 1640’s. There is little evidence to show his earliest connections with acclaimed masters anywhere in Delft. He was also mistaken for Johannes van der Meer of Ultrecht who believed to have traveled to Italy to seek inspiration from Renaissance artists.

Nevertheless, Vermeer received his formal training in painting under the Guild of St. Luke for it was a requirement for all Dutch painters. In 1653, he became a member of the Guild officially meaning to say that he has completed all the training works required to be able to prove his artistic skills.

Artistic Influence

Art historians have dropped several names of Vermeer’s possible masters. Few of them were Pieter van Groenewegen, Carel Fabritius, Jacob van Loo, Willem van Aelst, Leonaert Bramer, and Abraham Bloemaert. Groenewegen could have been Reynier’s friend as he once worked as an art dealer for the guild. It is known that Vermeer used Groenewegen’s landscape paintings as an inspiration for his earliest works.

After Groenewegen’s possible influence on the young Vermeer, nothing else follows as there is no solid linking between the works of the Delft-based masters and to the mature works of Vermeer. This theory opens the possibility about Vermeer’s apprenticeship in other cities like Amsterdam or Ultrecht. He might have apprenticed for Carel Fabritius of Amsterdam for there was a poem by Arnold Bon that recites “following in the footsteps” of Fabritius. Art critics have found little traces of the master’s style in Vermeer’s paintings but the relationship would have been cut short due the untimely death of Fabritius during the destructive explosion in Delft.

Surviving Works

Johannes Vermeer grew out of the Mannerist and Baroque style of 17th century artists. The first two of the three surviving paintings are considered an ambitious attempt of the artist to develop and introduce to Dutch art a new form of painting that art critics call history painting, which was also flourishing in Italy during the time of Bernini and Guido Reni.

The surviving works of Vermeer are painted on large canvasses and their quite broad in width. However, while they look magnificent and exceptional in its own right, by technicalities, they pose some problems in anatomical pattern, perspective, use of light and composition. This could have stemmed from Vermeer’s lack of formal apprenticeship with an old master.

His famous work, Diana and her Companions, is said to be his bid to win a commission by The Hague court. Albeit he was still at his early stages of his career at the time he painted it, art critics wouldn’t still consider it as a masterpiece at least by modern-day standards.

In fact, the head of the figures were painted in a manner that doesn’t translate something divine or emulate a transformative experience, as the characters bow their head down not facing the source of light thus casting the shadow over their faces. If anything, Diana and her Companions is an example of a gloomy and melancholic painting but it seemed that Vermeer failed to apply some psychological meaning to the characters.

Meanwhile, the second istoria painting of Vermeer which is the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary showed progress in his style and technique. It was skillfully executed. Vermeer rendered his subject in depth as the head of the seated character and clasped hand displayed his higher level of confidence in exercising a technical approach to this work. It is believed that Hendrick ter Brugghen’s religious art works were Vermeer’s sources of inspiration for this particular painting.

Middle Years

In 1657, it is believed that Vermeer was contracted by Pieter van Ruijven to do some paintings for him. Ruijven was an art collector and was capable of lending some money to Vermeer when he was in dire need for cash after the terrible gunpowder explosion in Delft.

Five years later, Vermeer was appointed as the head of the St. Luke’s Guild and had served his tenure until 1671. Because of his heavy work load at the guild, he had little time to paint several paintings, in fact he progressed slowly producing about three art works in a year only.

In 1672, the Dutch nation was in great economic distress as Louis XIV of France invaded the country during the Franco-Dutch war. The French moved from the south, while another enemy in English-German allies was brewing its plan on invading the east side of the country. This war brought panic to the people that they were forced to shut their businesses down.

The country was paralyzed economically that from 1672-75 Vermeer’s career was considered as dormant. To help his family recover from the war, he applied for a loan in Amsterdam with his mother-in-law as the co-guarantor.

Family Life

Johannes Vermeer married a Catholic in Catharina Bolenes in April 1653. Before the marriage, Vermeer decided to convert to Catholicism and his conviction was later expressed in the painting, The Allegory of Faith (1672). The couple held their matrimonial ceremony in Schipluiden while his mother-in-law Maria Thins was in attendance. They moved to the large house of Bolenes’ mother at Oude Langendijk and there they bore 15 children.

However, out of these 15 children, four had died shortly after their birth. Eleven had survived infancy and into adulthood namely Ignatius, Catherina, Johannes, Elizabeth Catherina, Maria, Elisabeth, Aleydis Beatrix, Cornelia, Franciscus, Gertruyd, and one unnamed child.

Art historians noticed that Vermeer didn’t name any of his children after his intermediate family members in Delft. It was probably because he moved outside of his home town to be with the maternal family of his wife; thus, he stayed away from his family for the rest of his life. The plausible reason behind his distance might also be because of his conversion from being Protestant to Catholic.

Later Years and Death

Not only did the war cause a negative effect on Vermeer’s career but he also left his family in debt when he died in 1675, shortly after the war had ended. He fell ill due to stress and died on December of the same year and was buried in the Protestant Old Church.

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