Wednesday 25 April 2012

Johannes Vermeer - part 1

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch painter famous for his domestic interior scenes of middle class life, probably the second most famous Dutch painter of the 17th century after Rembranndt (a period which is better known as the Dutch Golden Age for its astonishing cultural and artistic achievements). His paintings are admired for their transparent colours, well thought out composition and brilliant use of light.

Vermeer was baptized in Delft in 1632, the son of a silk worker. He stayed in Delft all of his life and was buried in Oude Kerk (the Old Church) in Delft. Little is known about his life - he married Catharina Bolenes in 1653. In that same year he became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make it clear that Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee.

Register of the Guild of Saint Luke with Vermeer' name at number 78, Carl Fabritius at 75 and Pieter de Hooch at 80

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 - one of Delft's powder magazines exploded and devastated a large part of the city.

View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654 
by Egbert van der Poel 
oil on wood 36.2 x 49.5 cm

In 1657 he might have found a patron in the local art collector Pieter van Ruijven, who lent him some money. In 1662 Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was re-elected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he was considered an established craftsman among his peers. Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year, and on order.

Later, in 1662 and 1669, he was chosen to preside over the guild. Vermeer did earn a meagre income as an art dealer rather than through selling his paintings. Sometimes he even had to pay his debts to local food stores with a painting. 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 (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, theatres, shops and schools were closed. Five years passed before circumstances improved. In the summer of 1675 Vermeer borrowed money in Amsterdam, using his mother-in-law’s backing as a surety.

In December 1675 Vermeer fell into a ‘frenzy’ and died within two days. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church (Oude Kerk) in Delft on 15 December 1675. 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, having to raise 11 children, asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer's creditors.

The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs, and beds. In his atelier there were two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers and "rummage not worthy being itemized". Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten, the baker, in order to pay off a substantial debt for delivered bread.

Vermeer had been a respected artist in Delft, but almost unknown outside his home town. The fact that a local patron, Pieter van Ruijven, purchased much of his output reduced the possibility of his fame spreading. Several factors contributed to his limited oeuvre. Vermeer never had any pupils and therefore 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.

After his death Vermeer was soon forgotten. His paintings were sometimes sold bearing the name of another painter to raise their value. Only very recently has Vermeer been recognised as one of the great artists - in 1866 art historian Théophile Thoré made a statement to this effect, attributing 76 paintings to Vermeer, a number that was soon lowered by others. At the beginning of the twentieth century rumours ran rampant that there were yet undiscovered Vermeer paintings. Very few paintings of Vermeer are known today. Only 35 to 40 works that are attributed to him do exist (views on authencity of some works differ).

This is part 1 of a 2-part post on the works of Johannes Vermeer.

c1653-64 Diana and her Companions

c1654-55 Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 
oil on canvas 160 x 142 cm

1656 The Procuress 
oil on canvas 143 x 130 cm

c1656-57 A Maid Asleep 
oil on canvas 87.6 x 76.5 cm

1657 Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window 
oil on canvas 64.5 x 83 cm

c1657 Officer and Laughing Girl 
oil on canvas 46 x 50.5 cm

c1658-60 The Glass of Wine 
oil on canvas 66.3 x 76.5 cm

c1658-60 The Little Street 
oil on canvas 43.5 x 53.5 cm

c1658-61 Girl Interrupted at her Music 
oil on canvas 39.4 x 44.5 cm

c1659 A Lady and Two Gentlemen 
oil on canvas 78 x 68 cm

c1659 Saint Praxedis 
oil on canvas 68 x 78 cm

c1660-61 View on Delft 
oil on canvas 96.5 x 117.5 cm

c1660 The Milkmaid 
oil on canvas 41 x 45.5 cm

c1662-63 Woman reading a letter (Woman in Blue Reading a Letter)  
46.5 x 39 cm

c1662-64 Woman with a Lute 
oil on canvas 51.4 x 45.7 cm

c1662-65 The Music Lesson 
oil on canvas 64.5 x 73.3 cm

c1662-65 Young Woman with a Water Pitcher 
oil on canvas 45.7 x 40.6 cm

c1662 Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace 
oil on canvas 45 x 55 cm

c1664 The Concert 
oil on canvas 72.5 x 64.7 cm

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