Genius Ignored, Chapter 3: Vermeer [Life/Biography]

[Summary: Vermeer was modestly successful as a painter/art dealer in Delft. After his death he was forgotten almost entirely.]

Rembrandt was underestimated; his contemporary Jan Vermeer of Delft was completely ignored. Vermeer was modestly successful as a painter/art dealer, well-respected in Delft, but never gained much of a reputation outside. After his death, he was forgotten almost entirely. In the nineteenth century he was “rediscovered” and since the beginning of the twentieth has been considered one of the finest painters ever.

Link back to Genius Ignored –Table of Contents

Johannes van der Meer was born on October 31, 1632. (In adulthood he shortened his last name to “Vermeer”, apparently to avoid confusion with numerous other “Jan van der Meer”s.) In 1653 he married Catharina Bolnes. He was received into the local Guild of St. Luke (the artists’ guild) that same year and by the age of 24 was an accomplished painter: “The Procuress” (Fig. V1), one of only three of his paintings with a date, is from the year 1656.

Over the next 20 years he produced at least 30 more paintings. In general, they can be characterized as “still-lifes with people”. He caught, very beautifully, the way light falls upon objects in a room. There is a general excellence of detail and a great stillness and quiet about them. The colors and tones are natural and subdued. {Note: The warning given in the Introductory Note to Chapter 2 (Rembrandt) applies equally to Vermeer: reproductions don’t begin to do his paintings justice.}

Almost all his paintings have interesting arrangements of figures and objects — the large, dark back of the soldier and the bright expression of the girl in “The Soldier and the Laughing Girl”, for instance. The paintings I love the most, however, are those in which the humans are most central.

The “Maidservant Pouring Milk”

is deservedly famous. She’s a very solid woman, with massive hips and big arms and shoulders — and yet how beautiful she is, how graceful and self-possessed. With her muscular forearms she holds the pitcher as though it were a feather. She looks down at the milk pouring from the pitcher into the bowl with a beautiful abstraction, perhaps thinking about linens which need to be washed or what she’ll buy at the market that afternoon.

The girl in “The Lacemaker”

is hunched over her work, utterly still except for the movement of her skilled, slightly stubby, fingers; perfectly relaxed, perfectly in tune with her needles and thread; her delicate work inevitably reminding us of the artist’s own delicate craft.

Girl with the Pearl Earring
The same with a black background.

“The Girl with the Pearl Earring” (“Head of a Girl”)

destroys any attempt to classify Vermeer as simply a painter of “still-lifes with people”. She has glanced over her shoulder and seen you. She knows you. She refuses to put on a mask or raise a defense. She is sensitive, vulnerable, dead-serious. What is it that she wants? . . .

So how could such wonderful paintings be sitting there in Delft and not attract attention? A few possibilities:

  • Vermeer had few or no students to spread the word about the prowess of their master.
  • Vermeer’s paintings were mostly “private” paintings, not high-profile public commissions or portraits of important society figures.
  • Maybe not that many people saw them. When Moncoyns visited Vermeer in Delft in 1663, the latter told him that he had no paintings for him to see; he took him to a nearby baker who had a painting he was willing to sell. (Moncoyns thought the price too high.) Thirty paintings is not that many to start with and a single patron, Pieter Claesz. van Ruyven (of Delft), bought twenty of them for his own collection. It may be that two-thirds of Vermeer’s work was unavailable for general viewing. (On the other hand, when, as described below, the paintings did become available and were sold at a public auction in 1696, they didn’t attract any special attention.)

Vermeer died in the 1675, leaving eleven children. He was 43 years old. His widow, writing two years later, had this to say about his death:

During the long and ruinous war with France, not only could [my husband] not sell his work, but in addition, at great loss to himself, the pictures by other masters which he bought and traded were left on his hands. In consequence of that and because of the large burden of his children, having no personal fortune, he fell into such a frenetic state and decline that in one day or a day and a half he passed from a state of good health unto death. [quoted in Blankert, p. 55]In 1696 Van Ruyven’s Vermeers which had been passed on to his daughter Magdalena and then to her husband Jacob Dissius were sold at an auction in Amsterdam. The “View of Delft” brought 200 guilders; “The Milkmaid”, 175; “Woman Holding a Balance”, 155; and a picture of “A Young Lady doing neeedlework” (probably the Louvre’s “The Lacemaker”), only 28. ” . . . these were on the whole perfectly respectable sums, . . . although they did not begin to compare with the amounts fetched by painters in vogue such as Gerard Dou or Frans van Mieris, whose paintings sold for 800 to 1,000 guilders, . . .” [Blankert, p. 65]

In the years following, people started selling his paintings under other artists’ names in order to get higher prices — though he continued to be recognized and appreciated by a small number of connoisseurs. In the 1850s Vermeer’s genius began to be more generally recognized and an effort was made to locate paintings incorrectly attributed to other artists.


Blankert, Albert; John Michael Montias; and Gilles Aillaud. Vermeer. New York: Rizzoli, 1988. ISBN: 0-8478-0957-9.

Vermeer on the Web:

WebMuseum –Vermeer; 16 paintings.

The Essential Vermeer More than 100(!) links; with annotations and ratings.

Roy Williams’ Paintings of Vermeer (Caltech) 35 paintings; excellent links … [Link not working, Dec 22, 2011] –Vermeer; 14 links, with annotations.


Copyright © Lucius Furius 1997;
Link to “The Lacemaker” fixed, July, 2011;
Page reformatted, July 2017
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