Jan Vermeer

The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) of Delft transformed traditional Dutch themes into images of superlative poise and serenity, rich with emblematic meaning.

Rarely has such a small body of work supported such a l!rge reputation as that of Jan (Johannes) Vermeer. Most experts would agree O. 35 authentic works, with a few more on which opinions differ. For the most part his paintings are of Mode 3t size, and their subject matter appears to be commonplace.

The documented facts about Vermeer's life are scanty. He was born in Delft. His father was an art dealer and silk weaver who also kept a tavern, and Vermeer probably took over the business after his father's death in 1655. In 1653 Vermeer married a well-to-do Catholic girl from Gouda; they had 11 children. In the year of his marriage he became a master in the Delft painters' guild, of which he was an officer in 1662-1663 and 1669-1670. He seems to have painted very little and to have sold only a fraction of his limited production, for the majority of his extant paintings were still in the hands of his family when he died. His dealings in works by other artists seem to have supported his family reasonably well until the French invasion of 1672 ruined his business. He died in 1675 and was buried on December 15. The following year his wife was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Nothing is known about Vermeer's education and training as a painter. In part because verses written following the death of Carel Fabritius in 1654 mention Vermeer as his successor as Delft's leading artist, it has been suggested that Fabritius was Vermeer's teacher. Certainly Fabritius anticipated Vermeer's interest in perspective experiments and his use of a light-flooded wall as a background for figures. But Fabritius lived in Delft only after 1650, by which time Vermeer would have been well on his way toward the completion of his training.

Sixteen of Vermeer's paintings are signed, but only two are dated: The Procuress (1656) and The Astronomer (1668). A chronology of his works, based on their stylistic relationships with these two landmarks and on other considerations, has found general acceptance, though some points continue to be argued.


Early Works

The warm colors and emphatic chiaroscuro of The Procuress relate it to paintings of the Rembrandt school of the 1650s, but its subject matter and composition reflect an acquaintance with paintings of the 1620s by the Utrecht Caravaggists. Considered to be earlier than The Procuress are two pictures that resemble it because of the color scheme, dominated by reds and yellows, and because they are larger in size and scale than Vermeer's later works. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is reminiscent of compositions by Hendrick Terbrugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst, who disseminated the Caravaggesque style in Holland. Diana and Her Companions, Vermeer's only mythological subject, is also redolent of Italy. It is his only painting of figures in a landscape setting.

After these three diverse experiments, which may have owed something to Vermeer's familiarity with works in his father's stock of art, he painted the Girl Asleep at a Table, in which he retained the warm palette of his other early pictures but in terms of subject matter and composition plunged into the mainstream of current Delft painting. The room with an open door, through which the adjoining brightly lighted room is visible and which is typical of Vermeer's Delft contemporary Pieter de Hooch, went back to early Netherlandish tradition. For Vermeer it was the first attempt to place a figure in the defined space of a room, a problem that preoccupied him throughout the rest of his career. The effect of sharp recession also was a prominent feature of Vermeer's compositional mode from then on. The quality of self absorption seen in this painting contributed to his most characteristic emotional effects. Subtle allusions to meanings beyond the obvious one, which have made this picture the subject of much discussion, were also found in Vermeer's later works.

All these tendencies were brought under full control for the first time in the Soldier and Laughing Girl. This painting also marked the transition between Vermeer's early and mature works in that pointillé (gleaming highlights of thick impasto), which brightens the paint surface, appeared for the first time.


Mature Period

Vermeer's two town views, the Little Street and View of Delft, have been called "the first plein-air pictures of modern painting." The View of Delft has been in the 20th century one of the most admired of all paintings. Marcel Proust's appreciation of it enhanced its charms for many observers.

Vermeer's style just before 1660 is also well represented by The Cook. The rich paint surface with its extraordinary tactile quality, the monumental figure perfectly balanced in space and engrossed in a humble task performed with the dignity due a solemn rite, and the intense color scheme dominated by yellow and blue all show Vermeer at the height of his powers. Before long his paintings tended to become more delicate and detached, with more diffused light and a smoother surface, as in the Lady Weighing Gold, which is an allegory of God's judgment of man.

Following these great works, which are assumed to have preceded and immediately followed 1660, come the "pearl pictures." The Concert of about 1662 and the Woman with a Water Jug of perhaps a year later display the dulcet charms of this period.


Late Works

More complicated compositions and especially more elaborate space representations mark the major works of the last decade of Vermeer's life. The Allegory of the Art of Painting (ca. 1670) is large and complex in both composition and meaning. On the whole it is untainted by the hardness and dryness that marred his later works, such as the Allegory of the Catholic Faith.

Characteristics of Vermeer's Art

Vermeer was criticized for exaggerating the perspective of his interior settings until eyes accustomed to reality as seen through the camera lens recognized that his perspective was in fact accurate. When the painter is very close to the nearest object in his composition, for example, only 2 feet from it, an object of equal size that is 4 feet from his eye will be depicted, correctly, as half the size of the first. Vermeer arranged his objects to achieve such contrasts. The effect of this practice is to make the voids in a sense tangible. The space is built up along with the objects in a construction of cubic solidity.

It has been suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscure in composing his pictures and that this accounts for both his striking compositions and his peculiarities in handling colors and values. Delft in his time was a center of optical experimentation and lens making, and it would not be surprising if artists there availed themselves of optical devices in their work. The unique qualities of Vermeer's paintings must, however, be attributed to his artistic personality, whether he did or did not make use of mirrors or lenses in attaining them.

The figures and objects Vermeer painted belong to their environment in a special way that heightens the impression that what he is depicting is a block of space with all that it contains rather than solids separated by voids. He renounced the contours that in most paintings distinguished between figures and their setting. Instead, the outlines of his objects are insubstantial; they unite the elements of his paintings rather than separate them.

Vermeer's manner of modeling, too, was exceptional. He built his figures with planes of contrasted values, omitting the graduations of tone that most painters use to model the form. In his mature works he punctuated his subtle patterns of light and shadow with pointillé.

The figures of Vermeer, fixed in their enveloping space as a fly is fixed in amber, deny any possibility of the disruption of their perfect poise. They exist in a realm of abstract beauty. The quietness, serenity, order, and immutability of the world of Vermeer's art provide, for those with a taste for such virtues, intimations of immortality. Perhaps that is why this painter, whose works appear to be as forthright and clear as the light of day, has always been felt to be mysterious.


Further Reading on Jan Vermeer

A thorough study of Vermeer's life and work is Pieter T. A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft (1949; trans. 1950). It is especially valuable for information about the historical background, including all relevant documents, and for technical analyses of the paintings and Vermeer's system of perspective. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (1953), is a sensitive examination of Vermeer's stylistic development and provides much comparative material that clarifies the place of his works in relation to contemporary painting. Ludwig Goldscheider, ed., Johannes Vermeer: The Paintings (1958; 2d ed. 1967), is noteworthy for its fine plates, including original-size details in color and in black and white.