Johannes Vermeer (or Jan) (1632–1675)
Dutch painter, born in Delft. He spent all his life in his birthplace where, in 1653 he joined the Guild of St Luke as a master painter.
Except for a famous View of Delft (1658–60) and a very few portraits and other pictures, he painted mainly interiors, where a single wall and a tiled floor provide backgrounds for the harmoniously composed figures in the soft serene light pouring through tall windows, lighting effects over which he gained a supreme mastery.
The figures, mostly young women, appear singly or in very small groups and confirm by their attitudes and occupations the pictures’ moods. It is likely that he used a camera obscura to assist with proportions and to capture tonal changes. Vermeer was popular in his own day but was then almost forgotten until the 19th-century revival after 1866 by the art historian Theophile Thoré. A slow worker, only about 35 of his paintings survive. Proust thought View of Delft ‘the most beautiful painting in the world’ and other masterpieces include The Milkmaid (c.1658), The Little Street (1658), Girl with a pearl earring (1665) and Girl with the red hat (c.1665).
Vermeer can be recognised by the monumental and spacious effect he gives to small rooms by sitting close to the model, by his characteristic dark blues and warm yellows and by the occurrence in picture after picture of the same small objects painted with the same meticulous detail. Such idiosyncrasies provided an opportunity for the forger Hans van *Meegeren in World War II (although as Vermeer’s work has become better known, it is hard to see how the forgeries could have fooled anybody).
Vermeer cared little for commercialism. At his death his baker held two of his paintings for unpaid bills, and his wife, declared bankrupt, could not retrieve them. The microscopist Leeuwenhoek, an exact contemporary, was his executor but it is uncertain if they were friends.