To all those who are ambitious and want to set out to write a biography of Johannes Vermeer, then read on because I am going to give you some tips.
First go to the refrigerator and get yourself a nice icy cold coke. Then find yourself a big comfy armchair and plop yourself down in it. Pick up a pad and pencil and put on your thinking cap. Then sit there.
Wait for inspiration to come.
Look out the window, watch the sunlight streaming in and dream because here is the honest truth: they ain’t got nothin’ on the dude!
I recently read a “biography” of Vermeer and I enjoyed it immensely. Yet I must say I had to laugh upon completion of the book at how much I had NOT learned about Vermeer. There are no known letters or writings by Vermeer. The only thing that remains is his signature on some of his paintings and a few legal declarations. Here are a some of the things we do not know about Vermeer:
- We know very little about his youth
- We do not know who he apprenticed under as a painter
- We do not for sure what his first painting was
- We do not know where Vermeer was when there was an explosion in his hometown of Delft
- We are not sure where he and his wife Catharina lived when they were first married
- We do not know for sure who the subjects in his paintings were
- We do not know for sure if he ever created a self portrait
- We do not know if Vermeer saw any action though he was listed as being in the city militia
- We do not know what Vermeer died of at the age of 43
There are some things of course we do know.
We know that Vermeer lived in Delft and that his father was an art dealer and owned an Inn called the “Flying Fox.” Later his father bought a larger inn called “Mechelen”.
Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes and together they had eleven children (they also had three children who died).
We know that Vermeer registered as a Master painter with the local art guild. We know Vermeer also was an art dealer and his brother-in-law a frame maker.
Pieter Claeszoon van Ruijven was to become Vermeer’s most stalwart patron, eventually owning twenty of his paintings (there are only thirty-five total paintings in Vermeer’s oeuvre).
We can see that the subject of most of Vermeer’s paintings were young women and that he liked to paint with beautiful hues of blue and yellow. Vermeer died young at the age of forty three, leaving his widow heavily in debt and with ten children still at home.
Though his paintings were sold, most of the profit did not benefit his family. In 2004, the first painting to come to auction in eighty years by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Seated At The Virginal”, was sold by Sotheby’s. They estimated it would fetch 5.4 million. It sold for 30 million dollars.
It seems appropriate that we do not know much about Vermeer.
His paintings have a lot of mysterious elements to them and they are more poetical in nature. They do not lead to a straight-forward interpretation. They seem to draw back a curtain and let us peer into the private reflective moments of people’s lives.
They make us wonder.
What is the woman reading that she holds her letter so tightly? Who is the woman looking for out the window while she tunes her lute? Are the couple in the painting lovers? What is the woman laughing about with the officer? Who is the beautiful girl with the pearl earring? Where does the geographer long to travel to? What knowledge of the heavenlies has the astronomer discovered? What is the lady thinking about as she works so intently on her lace making? Why does the woman at the table seem so despondent?
These and many more questions could be asked.
In “The Art Of Painting” Vermeer created one of his largest paintings. It is a painting of an artist painting. I think one of the reasons Vermeer is so masterful as a painter is because he realized that the true “art of painting” lies in creating mystery. We live in a culture where every detail of a celebrity or public figure’s life is scrutinized. A lot of famous artists painted self-portraits. Vermeer, if it is him in “The Art Of Painting”, turned his back to us. He understood intuitively that the less we know, the more intrigued we will be.
He was right and he has held our fascination ever since.