In This Article Johannes Vermeer

  • Introduction
  • Posthumous Reputation

Renaissance and Reformation Johannes Vermeer
by
Wayne Franits
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0227

Introduction

Johannes Vermeer (b. 1632–d. 1675) is heralded as one of the greatest artists of the 17th century, the golden age of Dutch painting. His status is all the more remarkable given that only thirty-six paintings have come down to us today. Vermeer was born in Delft to Reformed Protestant parents of relatively modest means. His father’s activities as an innkeeper and art dealer provided him with many contacts among local artists and collectors, which probably facilitated Vermeer’s decision to become a painter. Be that as it may, the identity of his teacher or teachers remains a mystery. Vermeer enrolled as a master painter in Delft’s Guild of Saint Luke on 29 December 1653, and his first surviving canvases date to shortly thereafter. Several months prior, after having converted to Catholicism, he had married Catharina Bolnes, the daughter of Maria Thins, a wealthy Catholic woman in the city, an event that raised his financial and social standing. By the late 1650s, Vermeer became a specialist in the production of genre paintings, namely, scenes of everyday life. His paintings of this sort display an unprecedented level of artistic mastery in their consummate illusion of reality. They also frequently feature reticent female figures positioned within uncluttered domestic interiors that, like the women themselves, impart an evocative air of solemnity and mystery to his art. Over time, Vermeer became a seasoned professional, for example, serving two terms as one of the headmen (administrative overseers) of the Guild of St. Luke, a sure sign that he had earned the esteem of his colleagues. And his star rapidly rose among cultured circles of connoisseurs, both in Delft and beyond. In particular, he enjoyed the patronage of two of Delft’s most affluent citizens, Pieter van Ruijven and his wife, Maria de Knuijt. This couple eventually owned a sizeable percentage of Vermeer’s work. Their august level of patronage had a transformative effect upon his art and perhaps his very persona, as did his aforementioned marriage, which enabled him to gain entry into the upper strata of society. Tragically, the French-led invasion of the Netherlands in 1672 sent Vermeer (and many of his fellow artists) into dire straits, from which he would never fully recover. After his death in 1675, his name gradually lapsed into semiobscurity. It was only in the mid-19th century that he was “rediscovered.” Since then, his reputation has grown enormously, for he is now firmly ensconced within in the pantheon of the greatest artists of all time.

General Overviews

Although the first specialized studies of Vermeer’s art date back to the 1860s, it was only in the decades following World War II that the number of publications dedicated to the artist increased dramatically. In more recent years, a plethora of Comprehensive Monographs, Exhibition Catalogues, Essay Collections, and Data Sources addressing a wide variety of topics pertaining to Vermeer’s art have appeared. These studies, along with several novels and movies, have practically made the artist a household name today.

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