How To Write A Biography Of Vermeer or How to Make Lemon Pie with no Lemons

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.

Johannes Vermeer The Art of Painting
The Art of Painting: Vermeer paints us a mystery.

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.

The Art of Heist: What would Vermeer think of the greatest art robbery in history?

It is the year 1665.

The artists sits reflectively in front of his easel lost in thought. All is quiet in the house.

The light of the first streaks of dawn stream through the window. He picks up his brush. Quickly he paints in master strokes. He is placing the finishing touches on the painting.

He looks at his subjects. They are so lively, so lost in the enjoyment of music. One young woman is singing as she claps her hands to the beat. A young man, sword lashed to his side, holds what may be a cittern. Another young woman plays a clavecin.

On a nearby table lays a guitar, and on the floor possibly a double bass. The landscape of the painting on the wall is echoed in the the upraised lid of the instrument the woman is playing. The other painting framed in black is a copy of van Baburen’s “The Procuress.”

The artist muses then paints the back of the man’s chair with a beautiful bold orange color. He smiles at the way the sunlight perfectly illuminates the honey yellow of the woman’s blouse. He steps back. He hopes his patron will be pleased.

Downstairs he hears the stirrings of children. Life calls. The artist takes one last longing look at his creation. It is lovely.

It is the year 1990.

It is St Patrick’s day and while all of Boston is celebrating, two night shift guards stand watch over the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum.

That night two unknown males knocked on a side door of the museum. Dressed in police uniforms they told the guards they were responding to a call about a disturbance. They proceeded to tie up the guards and put them in the basement.

They spent the next two hours roughly cutting or ripping out artwork from their frames. One of the paintings taken was Johannes’ Vermeer “The Concert.” They also stole the only known seascape by Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” They made off with this and other priceless artwork which has never been recovered.

Johannes Vermeer The Concert
Vermeer's "The Concert" has never been recovered.

“The Concert” is not the only Vermeer which has been stolen.

The Love Letter” was stolen in 1971 from an exhibit in Brussels. It was found two weeks later under a bed. (A hotel waiter had stolen it).

The Guitar Player” disappeared in 1974 in London. It was later found, from a phone in tip, “wrapped up in a newspaper, leaning against a gate.”

The Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid” has the dubious honor of being the only Vermeer stolen twice. It was found both times, though the second time it was “unframed, and a bit damp; it also had a dent in the canvas but was otherwise unharmed.”

As mentioned “The Art of Painting” was taken by the Nazi’s as well as “The Astronomer.” “The Astronomer” in fact was “stamped with a swastika, put in a crate marked H (for Hitler) and sent on a special train to Germany.” These paintings were recovered.

One owner of a Vermeer, “A Lady Writing” was found murdered.

Vermeer also has been forged.

Bailey notes in his Biography, “A View of Delft” that “the art world was brought to it’s feet when in 1937 Abraham Bredius (an art historian who was an expert in Vermeer) wrote a piece in Burlington Magazine about the discovery of a new Vermeer entitled “The Supper At Emmaus.”

Eventually it was found to be a forgery by an artist named van Meegeren, who too had once lived in Delft and was an admirer of Vermeer. In a strange twist of fate van Meegeren sold his forgery of a Vermeer, “The Woman Taken In Adultery” to a Nazi who “paid” for the “Vermeer” with 200 other paintings the Nazis had looted.

Van Meegeren did have to serve a one year jail sentence for fraud, but he was seen as a hero because he saved so much artwork from potential destruction. These forgeries of van Meegeren became known as Van Vermeegerens.”

Vermeer only has thirty five known paintings in his oeuvre.

Though known in Delft as a Master painter, he died young, heavily in debt, and obscure to the wider known world. Even the sale of his paintings did not benefit his offspring.

I think about Vermeer.

I wonder how he would feel that his artwork would eventually become so valuable and so coveted that it would be at the center of one of the greatest art heists of all time.

Being that he was such a family man and much of the subjects of his paintings revolved around things he knew and loved, I wonder how he would feel about his art being ripped out of a frame and stored who knows where.

Would he feel pleased that is work was highly valued? Would he be pleased that others thought it so beautiful they would steal it? Or would it make him sad? Would it make him wish he had not shared his gift of painting with the world? I wonder what he would think of the fact that one of his painting was owned and enjoyed by Adolf Hitler for a time? (The Art Of Painting).

That Hitler in fact gave orders to destroy this painting and others the Nazi’s had confiscated, but fortunately for once his order was ignored. It is strange to think that what one creates so lovingly might one day be at the center of such intrigue, in the hands of evil people.

I would think as an artist that one would wish one’s art to be in the hands of people who care for it, value it and enjoy it. As one who enjoys looking at the beauty of Vermeer’s paintings, I for one feel sadness over the fact that this painting is lost to the world.

I feel the same for the loss of Rembrandt’s only seascape. It makes me want to tack up a simple sign to the robbers: Please give it back!

Though at various points it has been said that negotiations were in the works to recover the artwork from the Gardner heist, but so far the paintings remain hidden.

Apparently Gardner stipulated in her will that all the artwork should remain as she left it and not be moved. So if you visit the museum today you will see the empty frame where “The Concert” once hung.

Everyone who views the museum has to be struck by the beauty of what is there, and the ugliness of what is not. The empty frames hang as a testament to the greed, selfishness and ugliness of men.

As a side note, though “The Concert” has never been returned, it was spotted once on the wall of C. Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s boss. One can only hope that Homer Simpson might steal it for us and be a hero and return it to the world. Then again, he might trade it for a beer and a doughnut.

Such is the art of heist.