Johannes Vermeer is one of the most famous Dutch 17th-century artists. Although he is known worldwide today, his life and work are still veiled in mystery. Vermeer was almost entirely unknown for two hundred years after his death, leaving only 34 (confirmed) artworks behind him. He was one of the first painters in art history who started experimenting with the camera in his work. With Rijksmuseum preparing the largest-ever exhibition about Johannes Vermeer in spring 2023, it’s an excellent opportunity to learn more about that fascinating artist.
Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 and lived most of his life in the small Dutch town of Delft. He lived during the 17th century, the time when the economy, art and science flourished in the Netherlands.
Born in a Protestant family, after marrying Catharina Bolenes, who was a Catholic, he converted to Catholicism. His mother-in-law probably conditioned that to agree with the marriage. She was pretty wealthy, so Vermeer and his family eventually moved into her house in Delft. Catharina and Johannes had fifteen children.
After his father died, Vermeer took over the family inn and ran it until death. Although today is known as a painter, he was preoccupied with other jobs during his life. He ran an inn, worked as an art dealer and was a leader of the painters’ guild in Delft. On top of that, he was probably swamped raising his fifteen children.
A busy life was probably the reason he wasn’t painting that much. Today, we know of 34 confirmed paintings made by Vermeer. Scholars calculated that he painted up to three pictures in a year. Johannes Vermeer was also focused on details in his paintings, and the artistic process took a lot of his time. He probably used the tiniest brush to show all the details in the pictures. So creating the paintings was definitely time-consuming for him.
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Johannes Vermeer’s style
Johannes Vermeer is best known for the way he captured the light in his paintings. He made most of his artworks in only two rooms of his house. That’s why, in most of his paintings, the light comes through the window on the left. On some of them, we can actually see that window. He often played with the light, like on his ‘Milkmaid’. There, a small piece of a window is missing, and we can see stronger light coming through the crack. Because of the way he captured the light and shadow, Vermeer painted his models in such a realistic way.
His focus on details is evident in the interiors, with many paintings, furniture and different objects filling out the rooms. In his painting ‘The little street’, he painted every brick on a facade and iron detail in the windows.
Vermeer was probably supplied by the expensive pigments directly from his clients. One of the reasons he wasn’t so well known outside of Delft is that majority of his paintings were commissioned by one person.
He was also one of the first painters north of the Alps who used an expensive and luxurious lapis lazuli pigment on his paintings. You can see that blue colour pigment in his works, such as the ‘Milkmaid’ or ‘Woman in blue reading a letter’. Art historians are still trying to figure out how he got that pigment because it’s made of stone that can be found only in the mountains of today’s Afghanistan.
In his paintings, Vermeer was mostly painting domestic scenes. Their protagonists were mostly women busy with their everyday tasks. They read letters (many women in the 17th century Netherlands could read), did house chores, or play musical instruments.
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Usage of camera obscura
One of the reasons Vermeer was so good at creating realistic paintings was because he was probably using camera obsura when working on them. Camera obscura is a very simple early camera consisting of a box with two tiny halls and a mirror. He would place the camera in front of his motive and use the light to project the image on his canvas. That way, he could easily make the outlines of his painting.
It’s interesting to see how the Dutch Golden Age wasn’t golden for art but also for science. Many new devices were invented during that time. And many of them could be seen in Vermeer’s paintings. Good examples are the paintings ‘Astronomer’ and ‘Geographer’. We can see the instruments the astronomer uses in his work, but also a globe and numerous maps in his works.
Famous Vermeer paintings
Although all of Vermeer’s paintings are well-known, the most famous one among them is ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘. That artwork inspired numerous later images. Tracy Chevalier wrote a fictitious novel inspired by it in 1999. A few years later, a movie was filmed after it, as well.
Another famous Vermeer painting is his ‘Milkmaid’. Praised for how the painter captured the light on it, it’s one of the most famous artworks in art history. ‘The View of Delft’ and ‘A Little Street’ are famous Vermeer paintings because of their detailed depiction of the contemporary Dutch town of Delft.
Vermeer’s typical domestic scenes are also well-known and unique in art history.
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Where to see Johannes Vermeer paintings
As already mentioned, we know about 34 confirmed Johannes Vermeer paintings today. He may paint more, but probably at most fifty in total.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has the most extensive collection of his artworks – four paintings, including his ‘Milkmaid’. Another museum in the Netherlands with some of Vermeer’s masterpieces is Mauritshuis in Den Haag. It’s home to one of his most famous paintings, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and a ‘View of Delft’. The rest of his paintings are displayed in museums all over Europe, the USA and the Middle East (Louvre Abu Dhabi).
Another great place to learn more about this fantastic artist is a museum in Delft called the Vermeer’s house. It is located in a former painter’s guild house Vermeer was a member and a leader of during his life. There, you can learn about his life and see reproductions of all of his paintings.
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Johannes Vermeer exhibition in Rijksmuseum in 2023
In spring 2023, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will host the largest-ever exhibition organised about Johannes Vermeer. They are home to four of his paintings. However, for this occasion, Vermeer’s paintings will travel from other museums to be displayed at this special event. The exhibition will take place between February 10th and June 4th 2023. It’s definitely a great excuse to plan a trip to Amsterdam and Rijksmuseum during that time.
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Johannes Vermeer is one of the most famous Dutch painters of all time. Because of his tiny brushstrokes, numerous details and how he showed the light in his paintings, he’s absolutely one of the master painters.
Have you seen any of his paintings? Which ones were your favourite? Let me know in the comments!