Vermeer’s name instantly evokes the image of the young girl immortalized in the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring . And it is one of the most easily identifiable pictorial works by the general public. This piece is so important that it is called the Mona Lisa of the North.
The splendid interpretation of an ordinary girl by the Dutch master of the 17th century has become a universal icon. The painting shows the young woman, against a mysterious dark background, and highlights a pearl that shines on her earlobe.
Vermeer’s art became the canon of Dutch Golden Age artwork; his work is intimate and traditional. He devoted his masters to exploring moments of everyday life and documenting interior spaces, the epitome of the Baroque genre.
However, his mastery of pigment and light elevated the artist beyond the realm of his contemporaries. His talent gave an inimitable glimpse into the lifestyle of his time.
The youth of Jan Vermeer
For hundreds of years, people have been fascinated and inspired by the paintings of Johannes (aka Jan) Vermeer. This painter is often considered the most respected Dutch painter in history. However, his life and his art are shrouded in mystery.
Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, the Netherlands, although the exact date is not known. He was born into a lower middle class family. Johannes Vermeer van Delft is also known as Joannis ver Meer or Joannis van der Meer.
His father, Reijnier Jansz, was a silk-weaving artisan turned innkeeper and later art dealer. It was these commercial works that gave young Vermeer a taste for painting.
It is believed that her mother, Digna Baltus, was an illiterate housewife. This belief is due to the fact that Baltus signed an “X” instead of his name on his marriage certificate.
When Vermeer’s father died in 1652, young Johannes inherited both businesses from his father. Before this event, his first 20 years of life are barely documented. Despite extensive research, no clear answer has been found.
In 1653, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes and converted to Catholicism. The couple had 15 children, four of whom died. Interestingly, only two of Vermeer’s paintings directly depict children. On the contrary, his wife Catherine served as a model for many works.
Early labor and maturity
At the start of his career, the artist focused on producing paintings based on history. Also, around this time, he recreated many scenes from the Bible and classical mythology.
Thanks to his mother-in-law, Maria, Vermeer was able to have rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest citizens of Delft, such as Pieter van Ruijven. However, unlike most of his contemporaries, Vermeer never left his hometown and relied solely on local patronage for his commissions.
Johannes and Catherine are believed to have lived a happy married life until Vermeer’s untimely death in 1675. He is believed to have died of a stroke. The couple had been married for 22 years.
Catherine supported her husband’s work. Like most artists around this time, Vermeer also racked up a series of debts that remained with his family after his death.
Vermeer’s limited success was linked to the inability to find orders outside of Delft. In addition to the fact that he did not leave the city to market his works and his talent.
His limited success is also linked to the limitation of the materials he worked with. Vermeer, unlike Rembrandt, did not work with prints, which were extremely popular at the time.
The painter’s lack of success at this historic moment is also due to fortuitous circumstances. For example, the Franco-Dutch war. The constant invasions of the troops had repercussions on the development of the art market.
Death and mysteries of Vermeer
Master Vermeer fell ill and died in 1675. His burial was celebrated in Delft. Due to their debts, his wife was forced to give up her inheritance and, as a result, her property was confiscated by her creditors.
Vermeer was the head of the Delft Artists Guild, a group of artists who met to learn from each other. Although he was highly respected by his peers, he died poor and almost completely unknown for two hundred years. When his work was rediscovered by world art in the 19th century, the mysteries surrounding his life resurfaced.
How did Vermeer master the art of creating clarity in his paintings, many of which might, at first glance, be mistaken for photographs? How did he capture so much light and shadow when the creation of his paintings took several months? These questions remain unanswered.
There are those who argue that his mastery is unmatched. Others say that he created a first type of camera, “ camera obscura ”, which allowed him to “stop time” and study the effects of light. Still others find flaws in his paintings or attribute them to another artist.
Vermeer typically painted portraits or scenes of people doing their daily work. Only two landscapes are attributed to him. The painter understood the effect of light and reflection on a person or an object.
Art experts attribute the realism of his paintings to this fact. Essentially, Vermeer recognized that the eye does not see the entire object and its actual color, due to the effects of light and reflection.
The girl with the pearl
Looking closely at Vermeer’s paintings, we can see his undeniable signatures, his use of light, and his ability to capture real life. The Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of his most famous works.
The painting represents a young girl wearing an earring which reflects the light prodigiously, while her gaze is turned towards the painter. The painting inspired Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, and a movie a few years later.
Without a doubt, it is one of the most iconic paintings in the history of art. One of those symbols that although we are not experts in the field, we can recognize and appreciate.