From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Johannes Vermeer or Jan Vermeer (baptized October 31 1632, died December 15 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of ordinary bourgeois life. His entire life was spent in the town of Delft. Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial painter in his lifetime. He seems to have never been particularly wealthy, perhaps due to the fact that he produced relatively few paintings, leaving his wife and eleven children in debt at his death.
Virtually forgotten for nearly two hundred years, in 1866 the art critic Thoré Bürger published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him (only 35 paintings are firmly attributed to him today). Since that time Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
Like most painters of his time, Vermeer probably first executed his paintings tonally, using either only shades of gray ("grisaille"), or a limited palette of browns and grays ("dead coloring"), over which more saturated colors (reds, yellows and blues) were applied in the form of glazes. Vermeer produced transparent colours by applying paint to the canvas in loosely granular layers, a technique called pointillé (not to be confused with pointillism). No drawings have been positively attributed to Vermeer, and his paintings offer few clues to preparatory methods. David Hockney, among other historians and advocates of the Hockney–Falco thesis, has speculated that Vermeer used a camera obscura to achieve precise positioning in his compositions, and this view seems to be supported by certain light and perspective effects. The often-discussed sparkling pearly highlights in Vermeer's paintings have been linked to this possible use of a camera obscura, the primitive lens of which would produce halation. Exaggerated perspective can be seen in Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (London, Royal Collection). Vermeer's interest in optics is also attested in this work by the accurately observed mirror reflection above the lady at the virginals.
However, the extent of Vermeer's dependence upon the camera obscura is disputed by historians. There is no historical evidence. The detailed inventory of the artist's belongings drawn up after his death does not include a camera obscura or any similar device. Scientific evidence is limited to inference. Philip Steadman has found six Vermeer paintings that are precisely the right size if they were inside a camera obscura where the back wall of his studio was where the images were projected.
There is no other seventeenth-century artist who early in his career employed, in the most lavish way, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, or natural ultramarine. Vermeer not only used this in elements that are naturally of this colour; the earth colours umber and ochre should be understood as warm light within a painting's strongly-lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall. In this way, he created a world more perfect than any he had witnessed. This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer’s understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object. This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour.
A comparable but even more remarkable, yet effectual, use of natural ultramarine is in The Girl with a Wineglass. The shadows of the red satin dress are underpainted in natural ultramarine, and, owing to this underlying blue paint layer, the red lake and vermilion mixture applied over it acquires a slightly purple, cool and crisp appearance that is most powerful.
Even after Vermeer’s supposed financial breakdown following the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672, he continued to employ natural ultramarine generously, such as in Lady Seated at a Virginal. This could suggest that Vermeer was supplied with materials by a collector, and would coincide with John Michael Montias’ theory of Pieter van Ruijven being Vermeer’s patron.
His works are largely genre pieces and portraits, with the exception of two cityscapes and two allegories. His subjects offer a cross-section of seventeenth-century Dutch society, ranging from the portrayal of a simple milkmaid at work, to the luxury and splendour of rich notables and merchantmen in their roomy houses. Besides these subjects, religious, poetical, musical, and scientific comments can also be found in his work.
- Vermeer's View of Delft features in a pivotal sequence of Marcel Proust's The Captive.
- The book Girl with a Pearl Earring and the film of the same name are named after the painting; they present a fictional account of its creation by Vermeer and his relationship with the model.
- Salvador Dalí, with great admiration for Vermeer, painted his own version of The Lacemaker and pitted large copies of the original against a rhinoceros in some now-famous surrealist experiments. Dali also immortalized the Dutch Master in The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table, 1934.
- Dutch composer Louis Andriessen based his opera, Writing to Vermeer (1997-98, libretto by Peter Greenaway), on the domestic life of Vermeer.
- Greenaway's own film A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) contains a plot line about an orthopedic surgeon named Van Meegeren who stages highly exact scenes from Vermeer paintings in order to paint copies of them.
- Han van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who worked in the classical tradition. Lured by the huge sums an authentic Vermeer would command, van Meegeren forged several works in Vermeer's style in several of his own paintings with the intention of selling them as works of Vermeer.
- Upon the rediscovery of Vermeer's work in the 19th century, several prominent Dutch artists, including Simon Duiker, modelled their style on his work.
- Susan Vreeland's novel Girl in Hyacinthe Blue follows eight individuals with a relataionship to a painting of Vermeer. The novel follows a reverse chronology from the current period to the time of Vermeer.
- The young adult novel Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett centers around the fictitious theft of Vermeer's A Lady Writing.