Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime. He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt
After two hundred years of essential oblivion, Vermeer was literally rediscovered by the French eccentric, Etienne Joseph Theophile Thore […] Thore had happened to see a pairing entitled View of Delft during a visit to Holland in 1842. The painter was Vermeer, an unknown. Thore was dazzled, as was Kenneth Clark a century later, when he described it as the closets to a color photograph any paiting has ever come.
Vermeer used a "camera obscura" to aid his accuracy in drawing. This was a dark box with a pinhole opening that could project an image or scene to be traced on a sheet of paper. Yet Vermeer did not merely copy the outlines of a projeced scene. His handling of paint was also revolutionary. Although in reproduction the brushstrokes appear smooth and detailed, Vermeer often applied paint in dabs and pricks so that the raised surface of a point of paint reflected more light, giving vibrancy and a sense of rough, three-dimensional texture. His technique was close to the pointillism of the Impressionists. One critic described his paint surface as "crushed pearls melted together."
In almost all his pictures Vermeer is experimenting with light, radiant light comes from somewhere beside or behind the canvas. Jewelry gleams prettily in the light; wet lips, bright eyes catch the light; reflections from window glass, kitchen utensils fall on surrounding objects, creating an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Vermeer preferred cool tones of blue, white and yellow: Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665), The Milkmaid (c.1658-1660), The Lacemaker (c.1669-1670), Lady Seated at a Virginal (c.1673-1675) and many others.
Although Vermeer held nothing original in his artistic interpretation and subject matter, he was extremely skilled in creating superb pieces of art. He didn't create many self portraits, focusing instead on objects that took the viewer to an image as he saw it. Vermeer does not create a specific narrative in his works like his contemporaries did but instead focuses on the moment itself and the rest of the story is created by the viewer. Vermeer was a master in aspects of space and dimension and his ability to effectively use the color palette with all it limitations of the time demonstrates his talent and competency in overcoming obstacles and creating scenes of photographic quality with just a paint brush.
In the central part of his career (into which most of his work falls) Vermeer painted those serene and harmonious images of domestic life that for their beauty of composition, handling, and treatment of light raise him into a different class from any other Dutch genre painter. The majority show one or two figures in a room lit from the onlooker's left, engaged in domestic or recreational tasks. The predominant colours are yellow, blue, and grey, and the compositions have an abstract simplicity which confers on them an impact out of relation to their small size. In reproduction they can look quite smooth and detailed, but Vermeer often applies the paint broadly, with variations in texture suggesting the play of light with exquisite vibrancy - the critic Jan Veth aptly described his paint surface as looking like 'crushed pearls melted together'. From this period of Vermeer's greatest achievement also date his only landscape - the incomparable View of Delft (Mauritshuis), in which he surpassed even the greatest of his specialist contemporaries in lucidity and truth of atmosphere - and his much-loved Little Street (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
The moment in which Vermeer began to paint coincided with the explosion of the Dutch economy after the cessation of hostilities with Spain in 1648. Whether Vermeer's initial impulse to be a history painter was stimulated by his artistic training, his conversion to Catholicism or the hope that he would realize prestigious princely or civic commissions, he abruptly and dramatically changed his subject matter and style of painting a few years after becoming a master in the guild. Although the reason for which he began to focus on scenes such as A Woman Asleep, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, or The Little Street are not known, it may have been that the patronage he expected as a history painter was not forthcoming.
Vermeer is a very objective artist. As far as we can tell from his views of the inside and outside of houses in Delft where he lived, he paints what he sees. Furnishings and decorations – including maps and paintings that he hangs on the wall to introduce layers of symbolism – are all real, and painted with meticulous accuracy. Women pose for him, dressed presumably as they appear in his pictures. But through his almost scientific scrutiny of visible phenomena, he tells of invisible passions and secret selves.
Little is known for certain about Vermeer's career. His teacher may have been Leonaert Bramer, a Delft artist who was a witness at Vermeer's marriage in 1653. His earliest signed and dated painting, The Procuress (1656; Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), is thematically related to a Dirck van Baburen painting that Vermeer owned and that appears in the background of two of his own paintings. Another possible influence was that of Hendrick Terbrugghen, whose style anticipated the light color tonalities of Vermeer's later works.
These are the only three documents which have survived: his birth, his marriage and his death certificates. Some stories about [Vermeer's] family, inheritance, debts and that is all. This man's masters, models and companions are unknown to us. We do not have a single handwritten line or a self-portrait. Vermeer is not part of art history and has become a ghost which we can only glimpse fleetingly and guess at through the work he left us.
Dutch genre painter, Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, lived and worked in Delft. Though there are only some 35 to 40 paintings attributed to his hand they are some of the most superb paintings in the Western art world. Vermeer is among the greatest of Dutch artists of the 17th century, second only to Rembrandt. His paintings contain a poetic quality and mainly portray figures indoors.