Jan Vermeer, Dutch Neoclassic Painter

by J. S.

Jan Vermeer's life was short and was spent on his artwork. It is uncertain which painter(s) influenced or taught Vermeer to paint in his neoclassic style. Scholars suggest that Vermeer used the camera obscura to make his paintings more realistic. Was Vermeer one person or a collection of many painters named Vermeer? Whether Vermeer was one person or not, his work was still popular even more after his death than during his life. Jan Vermeer's life is an accumulation of unanswered questions, but one thing is for sure: Jan Vermeer was a talented and influential painter who moves us today and will for years to come.

Vermeer's Life/Background

Jan Vermeer was born in 1632 in the city of Delft, Holland, to Reynier Jansz. Vos and Dymphna Balthasdr Vos. His father, later known as Van der Meer or Vermeer, was a member of the painter's guild, the guild of St. Luke. He was also an innkeeper and a weaver. Vermeer was baptized on October 31, 1632.

The year, 1653, was an important year for Vermeer. In April (the 5th or the 23rd), 1653, Vermeer wedded Catharina Bolnes in the Delft federal building. Catharina who was one to five years older than he, came from an upright and virtuous Gouda family. Also in 1653, Jan Vermeer was accepted into the Guild of St. Luke on December 29, 1653. As a master painter, Vermeer served on the board of governors for four terms and as vice-dean of the Guild. In 1662, Vermeer became dean of the Guild of Saint Luke. Vermeer was re-elected in 1663 and 1670.

Jan Vermeer and Catharina had at least eleven children and lived in the Mechelen house, which Vermeer inherited after his mother's death in 1670. Vermeer and his family could have lived with his mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Maria was a devout Catholic who swayed Vermeer to become Catholic also. Vermeer passed away on December 13th or 15th, 1675, leaving behind huge debt. His wife paid off debt by giving away a few of his paintings to the local baker and other creditors. The rest of the paintings were sold at auctions or given to trustworthy friends and family.

Vermeer's Training in Arts

It is uncertain who Jan Vermeer's teacher was, but signs hint at Karel Fabritius. Another possibility was that Vermeer studied in Italy under Felice Ficherelli before Vermeer wedded Catharina. Other painters who might have influenced Vermeer's paintings are Leonaert Bramer, Pieter de Hooch, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Rembrandt, Hendrick Terbrugghen, and Nicolaes Maes.

Vermeer was thought to have been an apprentice for six years to Karel Fabritius before Vermeer became a member of the Guild of St. Luke. Karel (Carel) Fabritius was a Dutch painter of portraits. He used optics and perspective much like Vermeer.

Scholars also suggest that Leonaert Bramer influenced Vermeer's paintings. Bramer was a witness at Vermeer's wedding to Catharina Bolnes, but Bramer's dark and exotic style is unlike Vermeer's style.

Vermeer's Style

Vermeer is a good example of a neoclassic painter. The Neoclassic period was a time of objectivity, balance, and reason. All of Vermeer's paintings were poised. His paintings showed people doing simple acts, everyday happenings in Dutch life drawn realistically. Jan Vermeer was a genre painter.

Thomas Bodkin describes Vermeer's style in The Paintings of Jan Vermeer:

His colour sense has an exquisite delicacy of taste that is quite unprecedented, and finds expression most frequently in cool schemes compounded with deep blues, lemon-yellows, olive-greens and clear dove-greys, linked and harmonized by vivid touches of bright red and golden brown. In his management of white pigment, no painter has ever surpassed him. He uses it to produce effects of crystalline purity and precision. … Vermeer had also a genius for composition. Our eyes are never tempted to roam beyond the limits, which he imposes with his frames. Every constituent element of his design flows easily and gracefully into one indivisible whole. His temperament was essentially aristocratic; violent gesture or anecdotal innuendo had no appeal for him. … His pictures are full of closely observed detail… (10-11).

Many of his paintings are not original ideas. "The Procuress" was probably conceived from Dirck van Baburen's "The Procuress." Gerard ter Borch's "Peasant Girl Reflecting on a Letter" shows a woman sitting thinking about the letter in her hand. Vermeer shows people thinking and doing things in almost all of his paintings including, but not limited to: "The Guitar Player," "The Lacemaker," "A Lady Writing," and "Mistress and Maid." Vermeer painted "Saint Praxedis" after Felice Fichelli's "Saint Praxedis." "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" is much like Erasmus Quellinus II's painting of the same name.

Vermeer's use of light and color and his great detail suggest that Vermeer might have used the camera obscura. The camera obscura is an instrument that is composed of lens in a box. Sunlit scenes were shown on a screen from the camera obscura. Vermeer might have used this on his famous painting, "View of Delft." It is uncertain whether Vermeer would trace pictures using the camera obscura. Some of his paintings, according to Steadman, "seemed 'to be "photographic"; he reproduces some real objects such as actual maps, and paintings by other artists, with great precision," he renders certain passages 'out of focus'" ("Vermeer's Camera").

Vermeer painted between thirty-five and forty paintings during his short lifetime. His paintings are only set in his house or in his hometown of Delft. Hans Koningsberger states, "his paintings portray the same people, mostly women. The women are seen doing simple, domestic tasks--working in the kitchen, making lace, playing a musical instrument, writing, primping." (14).

Roy Williams Clickery sums up Jan Vermeer's paintings quite well: Johannes Vermeer created luscious canvases of limited scope: generally women and men in seventeenth-century rooms, but also occasional outdoor scenes, allegory and religious themes. The fascination lies with the intricate combination of light, color, proportion and scale that enhances the moods and reality of the subjects. ("Paintings of Vermeer").

Vermeer's Influence after His Death

Jan Vermeer was forgotten after 1675, the time of his death. Then, in the nineteenth century, Vermeer finally became regarded as a talented painter. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. says:

While Vermeer's works were admired by a small group of discerning collectors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the enormous enthusiasm for his extraordinary achievement only developed in the late nineteenth century. The man responsible was Etienne-Joseph-Theophile Thore (1807-1869). Thore, who wrote under the pseudonym of William Burger, traveled across Europe to try to find all the paintings created by this long-neglected genius. His enthusiastic accounts brought Vermeer's name for the first time to a wide public, and helped establish the artist's international fame. (7).

During World War II, Vermeer's paintings were forged and sold to the Germans. One such case was of Han Van Meegeren. He sold a painting, "Christ and the Adulteress," to a German Nazi. Van Meegeren said it was a painting by Vermeer. When confronted by the Allies for dealing with a Nazi, Van Meegeren said he painted the artwork. No one knows for sure whether Van Meegeren really forged Vermeer or not.

In May 1996, Jan Vermeer's paintings were finally collected and shown at the Mauritshuis Museum in Holland. Later they were exhibited at the Hague Museum in Holland. The Vermeer paintings went on tour all around the world.

"Vermeer" or "Vermeers"?

Some art critics speculate whether Vermeer was one person, or if many painters named "Vermeer" were jumbled and lumped together into one person in history. Jan Vermeer I, Jan Vermeer II, another Jan Vermeer II, and Jan Vermeer III were all painters in Haarlem, Holland. Other painters with similar names were Jan van der Meer of Utrecht; Abraham van der Meer; Catharina Vermeer, a woman painter but not Vermeer's wife; and H. van der Meer.

Pierre Descarques inquires:

Did Vermeer really exist? … Accounts of him are contradictory and meager at best. There seems to be little connection between the notarial records relating to him and the pictures he painted-between the career of Vermeer the artist and the life of the modest burgher of Delft. (13).

So, what do you think? Was Vermeer ever really alive, or was one Vermeer picked to represent all of the Vermeer painters? Jan Vermeer of Delft might have been a man who married Catharina Bolnes and had eleven children, but no one knows for sure whether he should be credited for all thirty-five to forty paintings that art lovers credit him with. Facts about this extraordinary painter are vague and unspecific. One thing is for sure: the paintings of Vermeer (or the "Vermeers") are influential and moving and still will be for years to come.

Works Cited

This webpage was written by J.S., 3/31/99, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School, Park Forest, IL.

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