Vermeer: The Sphinx of Delft
Friday, March 17, 2017 1:18 PM
Adolf Hitler thought himself to be a master connoisseur of art and architecture, and as such, he kept three pictures with him at all times. One was portrait of Frederick the Great, another was a photograph of his mother and the last was “The Astronomer” by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. These were the people he most admired.
Herald Photo / Provided
VERMEER — Johannes Vermeer is a famous artist born in 1692. One of his most notable paintings is “The Astronomer.”
Vermeer was born in Delft, Dutch Republic, on Oct. 31, 1692, and his entire life was spent in that small town, working as an artist, art dealer, and innkeeper. He died there on Dec. 15, 1675, of unknown causes.
Vermeer was skilled at painting interior domestic scenes. He is known for painting individual female figures performing simple tasks before a mirror or window, such as quietly reading a letter or holding a pitcher of milk. Many of his subjects are caught in peaceful moments of quiet meditation. His pictures are usually illuminated by soft, golden, atmospheric light from an open window; his masterful use of light was a technique unique to his style. Almost all of his paintings are set in two small rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they portray the same people, mostly women.
Not much is known about Vermeer’s personal life. We know his birth date (1632), the date he married (1653), and the date of his death (1675), and for this reason, he was dubbed “The Sphinx of Delft.” There are no portraits of him so we know little of his physical appearance or physiognomy.
In April 1653, Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer, baptized a Protestant, married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes. Vermeer’s new mother-in law was very wealthy and she insisted Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the wedding. At some point the couple moved in with Catharina’s mother. Here the couple remained for the rest of their lives with their eleven children.
Vermeer was a moderately successful genre painter in his lifetime. He worked slowly and with great care and frequently used the most expensive pigments. He was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death. His financial plight was due in part to the Reformation when Holland threw off Catholic rule- a major source of traditional patronage.
Further complicating his legacy is the fact that during World War II, at which time Vermeer’s works were highly valued, his paintings were often forged and sold to the Nazis. His body of work today consists of only three dozen surviving paintings.
In 1672, the French, English, and Germans invaded the Netherlands causing a severe economic downturn. The art market crumbled, damaging Vermeer’s business as an artist and art dealer. It was five years before circumstances improved and Vermeer was forced to borrow money to support his family. In a petition to his creditors, his wife later described his death as follows, “As a result and owing to the great burden of his eleven children and having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.”
Catharina Bolnes Vermeer attributed her husband’s death to the stress of financial pressure. She petitioned the High Court to relieve her of the debts owed to Vermeer’s creditors. Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee. Everything in the house was itemized including ten canvases and sold. Catharina and her mother were bequeathed nineteen paintings, two of which were sold to pay off the remaining substantial debt.
Vermeer, during his lifetime, was recognized as an artist in his hometown but his modest celebrity was lost after his death. For two centuries he was forgotten but in 1866, he was rediscovered by Thore-Burger who published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him, although only 36 paintings are universally attributed to him today.
Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown and he is acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age and yet he has left the world a very small body of work.
“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” opened the middle of February and continues until the middle of May at the Louvre and it will travel to Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in October. The exhibition will bring together a dozen Vermeers, a third of his surviving works, and compares masterpieces like “The Milkmaid” and “The Lacemaker” with related works by contemporaries. Blaise Ducos, the Louvre’s curator of Dutch and Flemish painting tells us, “Everybody singles out Vermeer as the great genius of the period.”
Basta und damit!