The Artist Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, sometimes known as Jan Vermeer, was born in Delft, Holland in 1632 and is most commonly associated with the Baroque movement of art. Yet, although the Baroque style is famous for its religious painting, Vermeer is best known for works that capture a brief moment of everyday life. Thirty-five works are attributed to Vermeer and he is considered one of the great masters of Western art, yet his work did not achieve this stature for him until roughly two hundred years after his death.

During Vermeer’s era of history, Holland was living in a golden age of political, economic, and social progress. The town of Delft was growing in fame for its artistic pottery—blue and white or tin-glazed pottery known even today as Delft pottery. Artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt were beginning to turn away from painting the religious and mythic scenes so popular during the Renaissance, but instead began to paint intensely realistic scenes that captured a maid, a domestic scene, or even the back of a house. The objects and people of daily life were the subjects of Vermeer’s extraordinary body of work.

Although Vermeer was concerned with realistic depictions of common scenes, his fascination with light and its use in his paintings is generally viewed as the brilliance that sets his work apart. The infused light playing on the colorful tablecloth and the pitcher in Young Woman with a Water Jug seems to stop time in mid-action—it makes a perfectly common occurrence a scene of pure enchantment. In Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, even the subject is attracted to the light as revealed by the maid stealing a glance toward the sunlit window from behind her patron’s shoulder.

Other simple scenes of ordinary life that capture the artist’s genius for light include A Lady Weighing Gold, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, and The Milkmaid, one Vermeer’s signature paintings. Of course, he is also best known for his masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting that recently inspired a best-selling novel (The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier) and a film adaptation of the novel. Vermeer’s genius is also said to be evident in his use of underlying layers of color that produced dramatic results when another color is applied above it. While the artist sought to portray his work realistically, many critics believe the scenes he painted were rendered more beautifully than they would have truthfully existed.

Little is known about Vermeer’s life. In the art world he is known as “The Sphinx of Delft.” Records indicate precious few pieces of information, but he married Catherina Bolnes in 1653—a union that produced fourteen children (four are believed to have died before baptism). Vermeer died in 1675. Art historians argue about his possible use of a camera obscura to obtain his unusual perspectives, but no one denies his painting mastery.