Only 28 paintings and yet it is the largest collection of Vermeer masterpieces ever. What do we know about the 17th century Dutch artist whose life and work remain shrouded in mystery?
Little is known about Johannes Vermeer, which makes the work of the cult painter of the Dutch Golden Age even more fascinating, whose Rijksmuseum presents the largest exhibition ever organised. However, documentary and scientific research is beginning to shed some light on his life and work.
28 of the artist’s 37 known paintings can be seen in Amsterdam (from February 10 to June 4, 2023). Vermeer has produced mysterious interior scenes in which he poses figures that seem immersed in silence, in poetic, almost magical light and colors.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was born in Delft, between Rotterdam and The Hague, where he was baptized and where he spent his entire life. His father was an upholsterer, then an innkeeper and an art dealer. The young Vermeer was therefore bathed in an artistic environment but we do not know with whom he trained in painting. His father died in 1652, leaving him with heavy debts. He was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in 1653 and ten years later he would lead this professional association of artists, which suggests that he was a recognized painter in his city.
Converted to Catholicism
Raised in a Protestant family, Vermeer converted to Catholicism to marry Catharina Bolnes, daughter of a prosperous Catholic family. A new biography published by the Rijksmuseum on the occasion of the exhibition reveals the influence that the Jesuits may have had on him. In this book, Gregor Weber, who is responsible for fine arts at the museum and co-curator of the exhibition, says that the painter lived right next to a Jesuit mission and its underground church (the practice of the Catholic religion was banned at that time in the Netherlands). His daughters attended the mission school.
These last works on Vermeer underline that in the inventory drawn up after his death appear a painting of Christ on the cross and a Saint Veronica characteristic of Catholic devotional rooms. In L’Allegory of the Catholic Faith, one of the artist’s early canvases, there is also a Crucifixion scene. In The woman with the scalesit is the last judgment which is represented on the wall.
Rediscovered in the 19th century
During his lifetime, Vermeer sold his paintings to rich bourgeois of Delft. Alone, Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, his main patron, would have acquired about twenty. His art would have spread little beyond the limits of the city, which would explain why after his death he was ignored except by a few specialists. It was a French Republican art critic and journalist, Théophile Thoré-Buerger, who rescued him from oblivion by publishing three articles in 1866 and setting off in search of the painter’s works. It was he who nicknamed it “The Sphinx of Delft”, given the mystery that surrounded it.
Little is also known about Vermeer’s way of working, a painter who produced little, no more than two or three paintings a year, of small dimensions, but the latest research has gradually dissipated part of the mystery. The work of Gregor Weber confirms that he used a darkroom to produce his works. He would have been introduced to the “camera obscura” by the Jesuits, who saw in it a tool to observe the light of God. The camera obscura, ancestor of the camera, passes light through a small hole which produces on the image effects of sharpness and blur, of depth of field that are commonly found in Vermeer’s paintings. The most striking example is that of The Lacemakerpreserved in the Louvre: the sharpness of the background draws attention to the action of the hands of the young woman and the thread she uses.
Discovery of underlying drawings
It was thought that Vermeer worked very carefully and very slowly. But research carried out before the exhibition, with the most modern scanning tools, revealed underlying drawings on The milk girl : the painter made a rough sketch in black paint under the arm (other underlying drawings were discovered on The woman with the scale). We also discovered that he had sketched two objects in the same way: on the wall, behind the head of the milkmaid, he had planned to paint a pitcher holder, and at the bottom right of the painting, a fire basket, object which was used to dry clothes and nappies. He then gave it up and covered them in white paint, leaving only a foot warmer on the floor.
He thus freed up a larger space next to the young girl and made her all the more monumental.
A certain austerity is one of Vermeer’s hallmarks, which gives way to light and powerful, subtle colors (he used ultramarine blue a lot, often associated with yellow). Some elements are recurrent, thick carpets and curtains, tiles, a window that does not open a view of the outside, always located on the left, musical instruments, jugs. The painting within the painting is frequent: a painting is often hung on the wall. This may be a reproduction of one of Vermeer’s own works, another artist’s, or an original composition. The same can appear in several tables. Vermeer’s paintings open the door to many interpretations. The tables in the table can be an additional key to understanding them.
Women, few men, no children
Most of Vermeer’s works are bourgeois interior scenes where he imagines characters in everyday gestures or intrigues. Large windows, generally located on the left, do not see the outside. There are no children in his paintings. While his mother-in-law’s house where he lived must have been full of them (he had fifteen of them, four of whom died in infancy), the only ones he painted were the two playing on the ground in front of a house in The small street. This painting is also one of only two landscapes by Vermeer, with the sublime View of Delft.
Most often, the characters in his paintings are young women, alone at work (The Milkmaid, The Lacemaker…), playing music, sometimes accompanied by a servant, a soldier, a music teacher. Two are visibly pregnant (Woman in blue reading a letter And Woman with scales).
Music and musical instruments are very present in Vermeer, they are found in about a third of his paintings, paintings which, here always, depict young women. Paradoxically, these works rather evoke silence. Music was then associated with love, as suggested by the Cupid in the center of the large painting hanging on the wall above The woman standing at the virginal (the virginal is a kind of harpsichord).
The young woman with the lute, in the process of tuning her instrument, looks out the window. Is she expecting someone? Beside the Young woman seated at the virginalthe questioning gaze turned towards us, a viola da gamba placed on the ground near her seems to be waiting, just like her gaze, for the arrival of a partner.