The Jesuit Church on the Oude Langendijk in Delft
, 1700–1725, brush in gray ink, 13.2 × 20.2 cm, Delft, Archief Delft
Relatively little was known about Vermeer's life until recently. He seems to have been devoted exclusively to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft. Until the 19th century, the only sources of information were some registers, a few official documents, and comments by other artists; for this reason, Thoré-Bürger named him "The Sphinx of Delft". John Michael Montias added details on the family from the city archives of Delft in his Artists and Artisans in Delft: A Socio-Economic Study of the Seventeenth Century (1982).
Johannes Vermeer was baptized within the Reformed Church on 31 October 1632.[Note 1] His father Reijnier Janszoon was a middle-class worker of silk or caffa (a mixture of silk and cotton or wool).[Note 2] As an apprentice in Amsterdam, Reijnier lived on fashionable Sint Antoniesbreestraat, a street with many resident painters at the time. In 1615, he married Digna Baltus. The couple moved to Delft and had a daughter named Geertruy who was baptized in 1620.[Note 3] In 1625, Reijnier was involved in a fight with a soldier named Willem van Bylandt who died from his wounds five months later. Around this time, Reijnier began dealing in paintings. In 1631, he leased an inn, which he called "The Flying Fox". In 1635, he lived on Voldersgracht 25 or 26. In 1641, he bought a larger inn on the market square, named after the Flemish town "Mechelen". The acquisition of the inn constituted a considerable financial burden.[Huerta 1] When Vermeer's father died in October 1652, Vermeer took over the operation of the family's art business.
Marriage and family
In April 1653, Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes). The blessing took place in the quiet nearby village of Schipluiden. Vermeer's new mother-in-law Maria Thins was significantly wealthier than he, and it was probably she who insisted that Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage on 5 April.[Note 4] According to art historian Walter Liedtke, Vermeer's conversion seems to have been made with conviction. His painting The Allegory of Faith, made between 1670 and 1672, placed less emphasis on the artists' usual naturalistic concerns and more on symbolic religious applications, including the sacrament of the Eucharist. Walter Liedtke in Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that it was made for a learned and devout Catholic patron, perhaps for his schuilkerk, or "hidden church".[Liedtke 1] At some point, the couple moved in with Catharina's mother, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk, almost next to a hidden Jesuit church.[Note 5] Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. His wife gave birth to 15 children, four of whom were buried before being baptized, but were registered as "child of Johan Vermeer".[Montias 1] The names of 10 of Vermeer's children are known from wills written by relatives: Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius.[Montias 2] Several of these names carry a religious connotation, and the youngest (Ignatius) was likely named after the founder of the Jesuit order.[Note 6][Note 7]
Replica of the St. Luke Guildhouse on Voldersgracht in Delft
It is unclear where and with whom Vermeer apprenticed as a painter. There is some speculation that Carel Fabritius may have been his teacher, based upon a controversial interpretation of a text written in 1668 by printer Arnold Bon. Art historians have found no hard evidence to support this.[Montias 3] Local authority Leonaert Bramer acted as a friend, but their style of painting is rather different. Liedtke suggests that Vermeer taught himself, using information from one of his father's connections.[Liedtke 2] Some scholars think that Vermeer was trained under Catholic painter Abraham Bloemaert. Vermeer's style is similar to that of some of the Utrecht Caravaggists, whose works are depicted as paintings-within-paintings in the backgrounds of several of his compositions.[Note 8]
On 29 December 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make clear that Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee. It was a year of plague, war, and economic crisis; Vermeer was not alone in experiencing difficult financial circumstances. In 1654, the city suffered the terrible explosion known as the Delft Thunderclap, which destroyed a large section of the city. In 1657, he might have found a patron in local art collector Pieter van Ruijven, who lent him some money. It seems that Vermeer turned for inspiration to the art of the fijnschilders from Leiden. Vermeer was responding to the market of Gerard Dou's paintings, who sold his paintings for exorbitant prices. Dou may have influenced Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu, too. Vermeer also charged higher than average prices for his work, most of which were purchased by an unknown collector.
View of Delft
(1660–61): "He took a turbulent reality, and made it look like Heaven on earth."
The influence of Johannes Vermeer on Metsu is unmistakable: the light from the left, the marble floor. (A. Waiboer, however, suggests that Metsu requires more emotional involvement of the viewer.) Vermeer probably competed also with Nicolaes Maes, who produced genre works in a similar style. In 1662, Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he (like Bramer) was considered an established craftsman among his peers. Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year on order. Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663 to see some of his work, but Vermeer had no paintings to show. The diplomat and the two French clergymen who accompanied him were sent to Hendrick van Buyten, a baker who had a couple of his paintings as collateral.
In 1671, Gerrit van Uylenburgh organised the auction of Gerrit Reynst's collection and offered 13 paintings and some sculptures to Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. Frederick accused them of being counterfeits and had sent 12 back on the advice of Hendrick Fromantiou. Van Uylenburg then organized a counter-assessment, asking a total of 35 painters to pronounce on their authenticity, including Jan Lievens, Melchior de Hondecoeter, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and Johannes Vermeer.
Wars and death
Memorial (2007) of Johannes Vermeer in Oude Kerk. Delft, Netherlands
1st Memorial (1975) of Johannes Vermeer in Oude Kerk. Delft, Netherlands
In 1672, a severe economic downturn (the "Year of Disaster") struck the Netherlands, after Louis XIV and a French army invaded the Dutch Republic from the south (known as the Franco-Dutch War). During the Third Anglo-Dutch War, an English fleet and two allied German bishops attacked the country from the east, causing more destruction. Many people panicked; courts, theaters, shops and schools were closed. Five years passed before circumstances improved. In 1674, Vermeer was listed as a member of the civic guards. In the summer of 1675, Vermeer borrowed 1,000 guilders in Amsterdam from Jacob Romboutsz, an Amsterdam silk trader, using his mother-in-law's property as a surety.
In December 1675, Vermeer died after a short illness. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15 December 1675.[Note 9][Note 10] In a petition to her creditors, his wife later described his death as follows:
...during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children 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 attributed her husband's death to the stress of financial pressures. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer's business as both a painter and an art dealer. She had to raise 11 children and therefore asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer's creditors.[Montias 1] Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee. The house had eight rooms on the first floor and was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs, and beds. In his studio, there were two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, 10 canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers, and "rummage not worthy being itemized".[Montias 4] Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten to pay off a substantial debt.
Vermeer had been a respected artist in Delft, but he was almost unknown outside his hometown. A local patron named Pieter van Ruijven had purchased much of his output, which reduced the possibility of his fame spreading.[Note 11] Several factors contributed to his limited body of work. Vermeer never had any pupils, so there was no school of Vermeer. His family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time, as would acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses. His time spent serving as head of the guild and his extraordinary precision as a painter may have also limited his output.