Monday, August 20, 2007

Artist Profile: Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter, born in Delft in 1632. He began his career in the arts when his father died and Vermeer inherited the family art dealing business. He continued to work as an art dealer even after he had become a respected painter because he needed the money.

Vermeer married a Catholic woman named Catharina Bolnes, even though he was a Protestant, and went to live with her and her mother in the “Papist corner.” Catholics in Delft lived in a separate neighborhood than the Protestants and the members of the two religions did not usually spend much time together.

Vermeer and his wife had fourteen children but not nearly enough money to support them all. Catharina’s mother gave them some money and let the family live with her but Vermeer still had to borrow money to feed his children.

In 1653, Vermeer joined the painters’ trade association, the Guild of Saint Luke. This allowed him to be taken seriously as an artist.

Later, Pieter van Ruijven, one of the richest men in town, became Vermeer’s patron. As patrons do, Ruijven bought many of Vermeer’s paintings and made sure he had canvas, paints, and brushes so he could work. Having a patron meant that Vermeer could use the color blue in his paintings, a very expensive color in the 1600s because it was made out of the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli. And use blue he did. Look at the headband on this famous painting, Girl with the Pearl Earring.

Today, we have given Vermeer credit for 66 paintings, though experts are only sure that 35 of them were actually painted by Vermeer. Another Dutch painter, Han van Mergeren, wanted to prove that he was a good artist so he painted in the style of Vermeer, making an unknown number of fakes.

Nearly all of Vermeer’s paintings show indoor scenes. One exception is View of Delft, shown below. Most have a single window on the left side of the painting which provides the light. (For example, The Milkmaid, picture to the left.) Vermeer created a smooth but thick painting by applying a thin layer of paint, letting it dry, then adding another thin layer of paint, and continuing until he was happy with the artwork. His subjects ranged from very poor workers to rich nobles.

EDITED TO ADD: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, book review

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