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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful painter in his lifetime. However, he was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.

There are only thirty-four paintings by Vermeer, and they are challenging to date. Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes, and most of his pictures are set in the rooms of his house in Delft. There are similar furniture and decorations in various arrangements in his domestic scenes and his art often portray the same people.  He was not wealthy, as he left his family in debt after his death. He produced relatively few paintings compared to his contemporaries. Art historians mainly overlooked Vermeer’s works for several centuries after his death. However, his reputation has skyrocketed in the last few hundred years, and he is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

Vermeer’s Masterpieces

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring
    • “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer portrays a girl wearing an exotic dress, an Eastern turban, and an improbably large pearl earring. The work is signed “IVMeer” and is one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, but very little is known about the background story to this picture, plus the identity of the girl is also a mystery. Museum: Mauritshuis
  • The Concert
    • “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer depicts a man and two women playing music and singing. The young woman is sitting at a harpsichord, the man is playing the lute and a woman standing while singing. The harpsichord’s upturned lid is decorated with a landscape. A viola da gamba can be seen lying on the floor. This masterpiece belongs to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but was stolen in 1990 and remains missing. It is reputed to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting ever, with a value estimated at over $200 million. Museum: Stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
  • Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman
    • “Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman” or ‘The Music Lesson’ by Johannes Vermeer depicts a painting of young female pupil during a music lesson with a gentleman. Their relationship is no precise or clear from this painting. The composition uses perspective to draw the eye towards the back of the room where the figures are in front of the virginal. The virginal is a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family and was popular in Europe during the late Renaissance and early Baroque period. Museum: Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
  • Woman with a Pearl Necklace
    • “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” by Johannes Vermeer portrays a young Dutch woman, dressing with yellow ribbons, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. Vermeer depicted many women in similar circumstances in interior domestic scenes. The same woman also appears in The Love Letter and A Lady Writing a Letter. Museum: Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
  • The Milkmaid
    • “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer depicts a domestic kitchen maid, an indoor servant, and not a milkmaid who milks the cow. She is carefully pouring milk into an earthenware container, now commonly known as a “Dutch oven”. She is a young woman wearing a linen cap, a blue apron and work sleeves pushed up from the forearms. Various art commentators have pointed to the possibility of symbols in the painting that suggest amorous references, while others argue to the contrary and that the maid is treated in an empathetic and dignified way. Museum: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • The Little Street
    • View of Houses in Delft, known as ‘The Little Street’ by Johannes Vermeer depicts a quiet street, with four people conduction routine tasks in everyday life in a Dutch town. It is one of only three Vermeer paintings of views of Delft, and it captures a perspective that Vermeer knew well. The house on the right in this painting belonged to Vermeer’s aunt, and Vermeer’s mother and sister also lived on the same canal, diagonally opposite. Museum: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • The Allegory of Faith
    • “The Allegory of Faith” by Johannes Vermeer was painted about 1670 and depicts a woman in an elegant white and blue satin dress with gold trimmings. She is surrounded by iconography related to faith. She sits on a platform a step higher than the marble floor, her right foot on a terrestrial globe and her right hand on her heart as she looks up, adoringly, at a glass sphere hung from the ceiling by a blue ribbon. Vermeer’s iconography in the painting is mostly taken from an academic book of allegorical illustrations with accompanying morals or poems on a moral theme, which had been translated into Dutch in 1644. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
  • The Music Lesson
    • “Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman” or ‘The Music Lesson’ by Johannes Vermeer depicts a painting of young female pupil during a music lesson with a gentleman. Their relationship is no precise or clear from this painting. The composition uses perspective to draw the eye towards the back of the room where the figures are in front of the virginal. The virginal is a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family and was popular in Europe during the late Renaissance and early Baroque period.
  • The Lacemaker
    • “The Lacemaker” by Johannes Vermeer shows a young woman dressed in a yellow shawl, holding up a pair of bobbins in her left hand as she carefully places a pin in the pillow on which she is making her bobbin lace. The girl is set against a blank wall to eliminate any distractions from the image of concentration and focus. The techniques of lacemaking are portrayed in detail and accurately. Vermeer may have used a camera obscura while composing the work. Many of the optical effects that are typical of photography can be seen, particular the blurring of the foreground. By rendering areas of the canvas as out-of-focus, Vermeer can suggest a depth of field in a manner unusual of Dutch Baroque painting of the era. Museum: Louvre
  • The Geographer
    • “The Geographer” by Johannes Vermeer is dressed in a Japanese-style robe which was popular at the time with scholars. He is depicted deep in thought with his active and engaging stance, surrounded by maps, charts, a globe and books and the dividers which he holds in his hand. The geographer has measured distances on a map, and now he has paused for thought. Museum:  Städel Museum
  • Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
    • “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer depicts a young blonde girl standing in the light of an open window, reading a letter. A red drapery hangs over the top of the window, which has opened inward and which, in its lower right quadrant, reflects the girl’s mirror image. A tasselled ochre drapery in the foreground right, partially closed, covers part of the room in which she stands. Fruit in a tilted bowl, on the luxurious carpet that drapes table, and the peach which is cut in half, are all highlighted by the light from the window. Museum: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
  • A Young Woman standing at a Virginal
    • “A Young Woman standing at a Virginal” by Johannes Vermeer depicts a richly dressed woman playing the virginal. A virginal was a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family, which was popular in Europe during the late Renaissance to the 1700s. The setting for this composition is a home with a tiled floor, paintings on the wall and some of the locally manufactured Delftware blue and white tiles of a type that appears in other Vermeer works. Museum:    National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer

Questions about Vermeer and his Art

  • Where was Johannes Vermeer born?
    • Born in 1632 in Delft, he lived there most if not all of his life.
    • Delftware or Delft pottery is a general term now used for Dutch tin-glazed earthenware. Most of it is blue and white pottery, and the city of Delft in the Netherlands was the primary centre of production.
  • What was Vermeer’s faith?
    • Vermeer was born and raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism on the occasion of his marriage into a Catholic family.
  • What do we know about Vermeer’s parents?
    • His father was Reynier Janszoon, an inn-keeper, silk weaver and art trader and his mother was Dingenum Balthens.
  • What type of painter was Vermeer?
    • His long term interest in domestic genre scenes but his earliest known works, such as ‘Saint Praxedis’ (1655) were history paintings.
    • The motif of the woman by a window in a  domestic setting, or reading a letter, is a recurring element in Vermeer’s art.
    • Of his 36 paintings, 32 feature women in them, and 23 of the 36 feature only women.
    • Eleven of Vermeer’s 36 paintings have pearls in them. Pearls were a status symbol, and he painted them three-dimensionally, most famously in the famous “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.
  • What do we know about Vermeer’s wife?
    • He married Catharina Bolnes who came from a well-to-do family. She was from Gouda. She was slightly older than Vermeer and very devoted to preserving his work after he passed.
  • Did Vermeer have children?
    • Vermeer was the father of eleven children, but children do not appear in his paintings, except for the kneeling children with obstructed faces in ‘The Little Street’.
  • What are the critical dates in Vermeer’s life?
    • Baptised – 1632 in the Nieuwe Kerk
    • Married – 1653 to Catharina Bolnes in a clandestine church in Schipluiden
    • Admitted – 1653 to the Guild of St. Lucasguild as “Master” in
    • Buried – 1675 in the Oude Kerk
  • Which art museums have the most Vermeers?
    • Twelve of Vermeer’s approximately thirty-five extant paintings are housed within the U.S., mainly at the Metropolitan and Frick Museums of New York City, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
  • What technology did Vermeer use to help him in his visual effects?
    • Vermeer’s works suggest that he used the camera obscura, an optical device that reflects the subject onto the canvas, to achieve his close imitation of visual reality.
  • How old was Johannes Vermeer when he died?
    • 43

Explore the Artists and their Art

Reflections

  • Only 34 Vermeer paintings have survived. Which are your favourite?

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“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit: 1) Johannes Vermeer [Public domain]

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