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  • Johannes VermeerOct 31, 1632 - Dec 15, 1675
  • The Art of Painting - Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
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  • Johannes Vermeer
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  • c. 1662- 1668
    Oil on canvas
    47 1/4 x 39 3/8 in. (120 x 100 cm.)
    Kunsthistorisches Museum - Vienna, Austria.

    Text from Kenneth Clark.

    I SUPPOSE that the natural feeling of anyone looking at Vermeer's Painter in his Studio for the first time would be pleasure in the daylight which falls on the patient model and passes over the map of Holland on the wall, like an incoming tide over the sand. We enjoy a moment of heightened perception, a simple pleasure of the eye; and Vermeer's early admirers were thus deluded into thinking that he was a simple artist.

    Yet from the start all sorts of complicating factors have entered in. Before my eye can reach the peaceful figure in blue, with her yellow book, it has had to leap some curious obstacles, the swag of curtain, the bizarre silhouette of the painter and the objects on the table, foreshortened almost out of recognition. As I gradually become conscious of these details I begin to notice how curiously they are seen and related to one another. Each shape has that clearly defined identity which one sees in the drawings of children (or did before they were encouraged to express themselves). One still sees things in this way when one is half awake and looks with a sleepy eye at the knob of a bed or a lamp, without quite recognizing what it is. Vermeer has retained this early morning innocence of vision and united it with a most delicate perception of tone.

    At this point I begin to think what other painters dwelt with this kind of fascination on curious shapes, and the first two names that come to my mind are Uccello and Seurat. I remember in Uccello's battle pieces that there are foreshortened objects similar to the book and the plaster head on the table in front of the model; there are even trumpets, almost exactly like the one in her hand. The difference is, of course, that Uccello's method of uniting his flat shapes is based on geometry, not on tone. He relates them all to certain ideal geometric constructions - what Renaissance theorists called the regular bodies and this was all part of what he understood by the word 'perspective'. Vermeer was interested in perspective, too, and deduced from it many similar patterns; but he is not interested in regular bodies and, being a post-baroque artist, his shapes are more often irrational, as one can see by comparing the artist's bulbous breeches with the rump of one of Uccello's horses. Seurat shared Vermeer's interest in tone, but he was by instinct the organiser of large flat surfaces. He did not wish to take half the side off a hollow box, as Vermeer did; and the two only meet in the impersonal fascination which objects like the ends of parasols, and the knobs on chairs, had for them both.

    But these critical speculations have led me too far from the picture itself, and I must now look at it again to see what it can tell me about Vermeer. This is one of the rooms in which he painted. There seem to have been two, for window panes with two different kinds of leading are to be found in both early and late pictures; and they may have been one above the other, as the light always falls from the left, and has much the same quality. His perfect control of space makes them look big, but if one measures the squares of the floor they turn out to be quite small, which accounts for the objects in his foregrounds coming so close to the eye. Before beginning work on a picture he set the scene, arranging the furniture, looping the curtains. draping chairs and tables and hanging on the main wall a different map (we know four of them) or a painting from his collection. just as Poussin worked out the grouping of his figures on a model stage, so Vermeer perfected his compositions before he sat down to paint them. His father had been an art dealer, and on his father's death Jan took over the business. In consequence he had plenty of works of art with which to furnish his interiors and took a special interest in their presentation. Into this setting so carefully prepared he put a figure. He was happiest with only one, because in this way he could avoid any dramatic tension; but if, for the sake of variety, he introduced other figures he liked one of them to turn his back on us so that the disturbing impact of two glances was invisible. On the rare occasions when a human relationship is represented, as in a picture at Brunswick, it seems to have caused him disgust.

    During the long period of preparation for each work he evidently considered how a scene of everyday life could take on an allegorical significance, and he used to express this in an oblique way by the picture in the background or by some unremarkable detail. But in the Painter in his Studio, the subject itself is the painting of an allegory. The model represents Fame and her figure is going to fill the canvas on his easel. He has begun by painting her wreath of laurels. This very still and silent maiden, who would surely never distort the sweet oval of her face by blowing a trumpet, is an image of Fame which confirms what we know of Vermeer's character. Almost the only contemporary record which is in the least revealing is an entry in the diary of a French gentleman named Balthasar de Monconys in 1663: 'At Delft I saw the painter Vermeer who had none of his works to show me; but we found one at a baker's. He had paid six hundred pounds for it, although it is only one figure and I would have thought it overvalued at six pistoles.' Fame. Already in 1663 Vermeer was famous enough for this well known connoisseur to make a long detour. But he would not show the visitor a picture: for I think it is out of the question that none of his works was available. On the contrary, we have no evidence that his pictures ever left his studio (the one at the baker's was a deposit against the household bills), and in the sales after his death quite early works were included with late ones. His business as an art dealer brought in enough money to support his nine children; and allowed him to go on painting as he liked, undisturbed. No other great artist has had so fine a sense of withdrawal.

    Naturally the painter in the Vienna picture turns his back on us and his fluffed out hair does not even allow us to guess at the shape of his head. We cannot even be sure whether it is Vermeer himself or a model. But what about that costume! Here, for once, he may have given himself away; for this beribboned doublet is remarkably similar to the one worn by a young man on the left of the Dresden Procuress, painted over ten years before. Is it really possible that the grinning, youth in this early picture is our immaculate artist? Did this jack in the box once emerge, to be shut down and firmly suppressed for ever? If so, it would account for the obsessive character of the painter of Fame, crouched at his easel like a gigantic cockroach, which so disturbed Mr Salvador Dali that he has introduced him into his Freudian concoctions almost as often as Millet's Angelus.

    We may speculate about Vermeer's character: we know him as an eye. Mais quel oeil! For the first, and almost for the last, time in European painting, it is an eye which felt no need to confirm its sensations by touch. The belief that what we touch is more real than what we see is the basis of drawing. A firm outline denotes a tangible concept. Even Caravaggio, in his revolution against academic art, retained the concept of a form enclosed by an outline. Vermeer, the least Caravaggiesque of characters, was far more radical. When an area changed colour or tone he noted the fact without prejudice and without any indication that he knew what the object under scrutiny really was. Such visual innocence is almost unnatural, and one is tempted to look for a mechanical explanation. I think it almost certain that Vermeer used the device known as the camera obscura, by which the coloured image of a scene could be projected on to a white

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Johannes VermeerThe life and art of Johannes Vermeer are closely associated with the city of Delft. Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and lived there until his death in 1675. His father, Reynier Jansz., was a weaver who produced "caffa," a fine satin fabric. In 1631 he also registered in the Saint Luke's Guild in Delft as a master art dealer. By 1641 he was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house with an inn, the "Mechelen," on the market square in Delft, where he probably also sold paintings. When Reynier died in 1652 Johannes apparently inherited his father's business. By that time he must have already decided on a career as a painter. It is assumed that he trained in Delft, perhaps with Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), who seems to have had close associations with Vermeer's family, or with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). No documents, however, exist about his artistic training or apprenticeship, and he may have studied elsewhere, perhaps in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Vermeer, who was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft, was raised a Protestant. In April 1653 Vermeer married into a Catholic family and seems to have converted to Catholicism shortly before that date to placate his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Maria Thins lived in the so-called Papists' Corner ("Papenhoek") of Delft, adjacent to one of the two churches where Catholics could worship, the Jesuit church on the Oude Langendijck. Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved from the "Mechelen" into her house. They named their first daughter Maria, in honor of Maria Thins, and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit Order.

Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke's Guild on 29 December 1653. His aspiration at that time seems to have been to become a history painter, for his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he has become renowned. While Vermeer's subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he nevertheless continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods of his early history paintings.

Although very little is known about relationships with other painters who might have influenced the thematic and stylistic direction of his art, Vermeer apparently knew Gerard ter Borch II, with whom he co-signed a document in 1653. Another artist who may well have had an impact on his work during the 1650s was Pieter de Hooch, who painted comparable scenes in Delft during that period. Vermeer remained a respected artist in Delft throughout the rest of his life. He was named hoofdman of the Delft St. Luke's Guild in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671.

Vermeer's few works--they number only about thirty-five--were not well known outside of Delft, perhaps because many of them were concentrated in the collection of a patron in Delft who seems to have had a special relationship with the artist. When Vermeer died, however, he was heavily in debt, in part because his art dealing business had suffered during the difficult economic times following the French invasion of the Netherlands in the early 1670s. Vermeer was survived by his wife Catharina and eleven children, eight of whom were underage. His wife petitioned for bankruptcy the following year. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the famed Delft microscopist who was apparently a friend of Vermeer, was named trustee for the estate.