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Vermeer of DelftPainting and Illusionism
The Art of Painting  Technique and Conservation
Art and HistoryThe Painting's Afterlife

Vermeer of Delft

Considering the fame of Vermeer's works, surprisingly little is known about his life, and nothing at all about his decision to become an artist. The identity of his master(s), the nature of his training, and the period of apprenticeship remain a mystery. Born in Delft in 1632, he was christened in the Reformed Church, the Nieuwe Kerk, on 31 October, and raised a Protestant. His father, Reynier Jansz. Vermeer, a weaver who produced a fine satin fabric called caffa, was also active as an art dealer. By 1641, the family was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house with an inn, the "Mechelen," on the market square in Delft. Vermeer inherited both the inn and the art-dealing business at his father's death in 1652. By that time Vermeer must have already chosen a career as a painter, since only one year later, on 29 December 1653, he registered as a master painter in the Saint Luke's Guild.

Carel Fabritius, The Sentry, 1654, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin

That same year Vermeer was married to Catharina Bolnes, a young Catholic woman from the so-called Papenhoek, or Papists' Corner, of Delft. The alliance led him to convert to Catholicism. The bride's mother, Maria Thins, who was a distant relative of the Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemaert, owned a modest collection of paintings by artists of the Utrecht school. Vermeer was certainly familiar with these Utrecht paintings, as at least two of the works from her collection appear in the background of his own works.

Delft was an active and prosperous place, its wealth based on its thriving Delftware factories, tapestry weaving ateliers, and breweries. It was also a venerable city with a long and distinguished past. Its strong fortifications, the city walls and medieval gates that had protected the city for more than three centuries, had provided refuge for William the Silent, Prince of Orange, from 1572 until 1584 during the Dutch revolt against Spanish Habsburg control. Although the court and seat of government moved to The Hague at the end of the sixteenth century, Delft continued to enjoy special status within the province of Holland.

Unlike the nearby cities of Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Utrecht, Delft was not a major artistic center during the early decades of the seventeenth century. At the time Vermeer embarked upon his career, the most important artist in the city was Leonaert Bramer, who painted primarily small-scale history paintings, that is, depictions of biblical or mythological subjects. Perhaps because of Bramer's influence, or because of his own religious convictions, Vermeer began his career as a history painter. However, unlike Bramer's, his earliest works are large-scale paintings.

Pieter de Hooch, A Dutch Courtyard, 1658/1660, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

In the early 1650s, the city's artistic character began to change, and Vermeer adapted his subject matter accordingly. Architectural painters in Delft began creating dynamic, light-filled images of the interiors of Delft churches, often focusing their compositions on the imposing funerary monuments of William the Silent and other Dutch heroes. A particularly important painter working in the city during the early 1650s was Carel Fabritius, whose evocative, pensive genre scenes and innovative use of perspective appear to have profoundly influenced Vermeer. Pieter de Hooch, who arrived in Delft in 1654, and Gerard ter Borch, with whom Vermeer co-signed a document shortly after his marriage, were both genre painters who also influenced Vermeer's stylistic and thematic development. However, even as Vermeer shifted his subject matter to cityscapes and scenes of everyday life, he continued to imbue his works with the timelessness and dignity of history painting, a concern that is most fully realized in The Art of Painting.

During his lifetime Vermeer was renowned within his native city, and he eventually became head of the painter's guild on two separate occasions. Vermeer was also known as a connoisseur of painting: in May 1672, he was summoned to The Hague as an expert in Italian painting to comment on the quality of a collection of paintings offered for sale. Nevertheless, aside from the information garnered from his paintings, little is known about his opinions on art or his relationship to collectors. Although no commissions are documented, it does appear that his works were purchased by a small group of patrons, since twenty-one of his paintings were sold from the estate of a collector in 1696. The only contemporary comment on his work comes from one visitor to Delft who remarked on Vermeer's superb mastery of perspective.

Vermeer's fortunes deteriorated drastically toward the end of his life, mainly owing to the disastrous economic climate in Holland following the invasion by French troops in 1672. When Vermeer died in 1675, he left behind a wife, eight minor children, and enormous debts. His widow described the difficulties of the artist's final years in a petition of 1677: "during the ruinous and protracted war [Vermeer] not only was unable to sell his art, but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing with."

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