Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

Genre paintings, also known as petit genre, depict scenes of everyday life. These artworks show ordinary people performing ordinary tasks. Unlike portraits, which were usually commissioned, and history paintings, which depicted well-known scenes, genre artists painted life as it truly was. This type of art gained popularity in the Low Countries, i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium, during the 17th and 18th century but many of the artists’ fame and reputations have dimmed over the years. That is, all except Johannes Vermeer, the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

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A Lady Writing (1665)

Admittedly, Vermeer did go off the radar for a hundred years or so but was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions about his paintings have taken place all over the world. It is estimated that one of his paintings, A Lady Writing (1659), has travelled a total of 250,000 kilometres. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to travelling around the circumference of the earth five times or halfway to the moon. Today, Vermeer can be found in several galleries, including the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Mauritshuis (The Hague), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Dresden), and The Frick Collection (New York City).

Relatively little was known about Vermeer’s personal life other than where he had lived, which earned him the nickname “The Sphinx of Delft” from French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69). In more recent years, art historians have been able to piece together some semblance of a biography using documents in the city archives of Delft. Records reveal Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, was born in October 1632 and baptised within the Reformed Church on All Hallow’s Eve.

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View of Delft (1660)

Vermeer’s father has been identified as Reijnier Janszoon (1591-1652) and was a middle-class silk worker. Vermeer’s mother was likely Digna Baltus (1594-1670), who Janszoon married in 1615. By 1620, the couple were living in Delft with their daughter Gertruy (1620-70). It is not known whether there were any other children within the 12 years between Gertruy and Johannes. By the time Johannes was born, Janszoon was an art dealer and proprietor of the inn The Flying Fox. Ten years later, Janszoon bought a larger Inn called Mechelen, from which he conducted his art sales. When he died in 1652, his son took over the family business.

It is unknown where and when Vermeer learnt to paint. Art critics have suggested several names of artists who may have trained the young painter but there is no written evidence. Another suggestion is he taught himself using the paintings his father sold, however, this is unlikely. If it were not for Vermeer’s baptismal records, it would seem as though he suddenly appeared, fully formed, in 1653 when he joined the Guild of Saint Luke and married his wife, Catharina Bolnes (1631-88).

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The Allegory of Faith (1670-72)

Catharina Bolnes was a Catholic and Vermeer likely had to convert from Protestantism before the wedding. Whilst there is no written record to prove this, a later painting suggests he had fully immersed himself in the religion. The Allegory of Faith, painted in the early 1670s, contains several examples of Catholic iconographies, such as a crucifix, crown of thorns, a chalice and a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

At some point after marriage, Vermeer and his wife moved in with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (1593-1680), where he lived for the rest of his life. Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of whom died before they could be baptised. Ten of the remaining children have been named Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius in wills written by relatives, therefore, it can be assumed they survived infancy.

Life was hard in the Netherlands during the mid-17th century. Delft, in particular, suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague, which coincided with the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), leading to an economic crisis. Evidence reveals Vermeer was unable to pay the usual admission fee for the Guild of Saint Luke but neither were several other artists. To add to the city’s hardship, half the city was destroyed in 1654 by the “Delft Thunderclap”, an explosion at a gunpowder store that killed 1200 people.

Vermeer may have been kept financially afloat by a patron, perhaps art collector Pieter van Ruijven (1624-74) who purchased twenty of his paintings. This money allowed Vermeer to remain a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was elected head of the guild in 1662 and reelected in 1670. From this honour, it can be ascertained that Vermeer was a respected artist amongst his peers and some art critics say his method of showing light in his paintings was an inspiration to other artists. Nevertheless, Vermeer was a slow painter, producing an average of three paintings a year.

Despite never earning much money, the 1660s were the highlight of Vermeer’s career. Unfortunately, life was about to get much harder. In 1672, King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France invaded the Dutch Republic, sparking the Franco-Dutch War. This worsened the economic conditions in Delft, especially as the Third Anglo-Dutch War was taking place at the same time. Theatres, shops and schools were closed in the ensuing panic, making it even harder for artists to earn money.

In 1674, Vermeer was enlisted as a member of the (voluntary) civic guard who was responsible for guarding the city against attack. As a result, his painting career suffered and Vermeer ended up borrowing money (1,000 guilders) from Jacob Romboutsz, a silk trader from Amsterdam. To do this, Vermeer had to use his mother-in-law’s house as a surety. Unfortunately, Vermeer was never able to pay back the loan. In December 1675, 43-year-old Vermeer fell ill and passed away. Despite having converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Protestant Oude Kirk (Old Church) on 15th December.

…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.
– Catharina Vermeer (Bolnes)

Vermeer left his family with severe debts and Catharina had to ask the High Court for help to raise her eleven living children. In Vermeer’s will, 19 paintings had been bequeathed to Catharina and her mother, which they sold out of desperation. Two of the paintings were purchased by the baker Hendrik van Buyten (1632-1701) for 617 guilders, which was the same amount of money Catharina owed him for bread. He struck a deal that if she could pay back the money, he would return the paintings.

Despite the sale of his paintings, Vermeer remained unknown outside of Delft. He had only ever left the city to visit Amsterdam, therefore, never had an opportunity to make artistic connections. Over time, many of his paintings were misattributed to other artists, which almost erased Vermeer from history.

Vermeer had been a relatively slow painter and only produced between 50 and 60 oil paintings. Only 36 of the paintings survive today and are comparatively small to the majority of paintings in galleries. The frame that holds Rembrandt’s Night Watch (3.6 x 4.4 metres) could contain nearly all Vermeer’s paintings grouped together. In fact, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays a few of Vermeer’s paintings in the vicinity of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

It has been difficult for historians to make a chronological list all of Vermeer’s paintings because he only included his signature and date on three. These were The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Vermeer has become known for his use of colours, particularly lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, both of which can be seen in The Procuress. His use of ultramarine is rather surprising given his low financial status. The colour was one of the most expensive to buy and was made by grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder.

The Procuress, which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, features four figures, one of whom is looking out of the canvas at the viewer. It is believed by many that this is a self-portrait of Vermeer. Rather than depicting himself as an artist, Vermeer portrayed himself as a musician. It has been suggested the procuress was modelled on his wife, which may explain why the painting once hung in Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s home. The same woman has been identified in four of Vermeer’s paintings, however, he had many models, painting a total of 42 women and 13 men throughout his career.

The Astronomer and The Geographer feature the same male model who has been identified as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), “the Father of Microbiology”. Science was a popular topic for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. People were beginning to learn about the world and universe they lived in, although religion was still of great importance, hence the painting of the Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Of all Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel, 1665) is the most recognised. Now hanging in the Mauritshuis, the 44.5 cm × 39 cm canvas has had many names and only received its current title in the 20th century. More recently, however, the “pearl” earring has been contested by those who think it looks more like polished tin.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a “tronie”, which is Dutch slang for a painting of a head that is not meant to be a portrait. The unknown model, whose colouring suggests she is European, wears an oriental dress and turban. The story behind the painting, however, is unknown.

The painting’s fame is largely a result of Tracy Chevalier’s (b.1962) novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) in the title role. Chevalier imagined the girl was a maid in the Vermeer household who had an eye for art. The author also expertly described the situation in Delft where people were suffering from an epidemic.

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The Milkmaid (1657-58)

Although Vermeer was growing in popularity before the publication of Chevalier’s book, the media attention increased his fame and drew attention to his other works, for instance, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Curators of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is displayed, claim The Milkmaid is “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions”.

Despite its title, the lady in the painting is a kitchen maid who is pouring milk into an earthenware bowl. She wears Vermeer’s favourite colours: lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, and goes about her work as though unaware she is being painted.

According to Walter Liedtke (1945-2015), a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this genre painting has a “Mona Lisa” effect. “There’s a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is ‘What is she thinking?'” (Liedtke, 2009)

Whilst not as famous, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-59) and Woman Reading a Letter (1663) evoke a similar reaction. What are they reading? Is it good or bad news? Who is it from? It is generally assumed the younger girl has received a letter from a lover, perhaps an illicit one. The open window may be symbolic of the girl’s desire to experience the world outside, away from the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window was initially mistaken as a Rembrandt and it was not until 1880 that it was identified as a Vermeer. Recent x-rays of the painting reveal Vermeer had originally included an image of a putto – perhaps Cupid – which is another indication the girl’s letter is from a lover.

Woman Reading a Letter is very similar in composition, however, it is almost unique among Vermeer’s paintings of interiors. Unlike the others, there is no fragment of either corner, ceiling or floor. There are, however, other features common to Vermeer’s art: a table, a pearl necklace (on the table) and a wall hanging. The map is of Holland, which suggests the letter could be from her husband or a male relative who is either travelling or taking part in the various Dutch wars.

Today, people think the woman is pregnant due to the shape of her figure, however, it was very rare for a pregnant woman to be depicted in art. Some suggest the loose clothing, which was popular in the Netherlands at the time, makes the woman appear larger than she really is.

The Wine Glass (1660) is considered to be one of Vermeer’s first mature works. The brushwork is much smoother and the colours brighter. These qualities are obvious when comparing the painting to an earlier work set in the same room, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-60).

Since genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life, it is not always possible to decipher exactly what is going on. In The Wine Glass, the woman is finishing a glass of wine while a man waits to refill her glass. There is no way of knowing the relationship between the two figures but many assume some form of courtship is being played out. The man almost seems impatient for the woman to finish her drink so that he can pour more, suggesting he is trying to make her drunk.

There are many similarities between The Wine Glass and The Girl with the Wine Glass, most notably the colours of the dresses. The woman and the girl wear a similar style of dress and are both holding wine glasses. The girl, however, looks out of the painting as though aware of the artist’s presence. The floor, walls and window reveal the scenes were painted in the same room, however, there are small differences, such as the position of the table and the picture on the wall.

The Girl with the Wine Glass is just as hard to decipher as The Wine Glass. One of the men, who are similarly dressed, looks interested in the girl, suggesting there is a courtship or illicit romance between them. The other man, however, looks bored in comparison, which begs the question of his identity and purpose in the scene. Without Vermeer around to reveal what is going on, it is up to the viewer to use their imagination.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings only contain one figure, however, when there is more than one person, they are always interacting. Officer and a Girl Laughing (1657) show a couple conversing at a table. The girl, possibly modelled by Vermeer’s wife, is holding a glass of white wine, which was an expensive drink at the time. If the officer has a drink, it is hidden by his body, which has its back to the viewer.

The officer, a military man, is wearing a red coat and expensive hat, suggesting both power and passion. Many have interpreted the painting as an innocent courtship between two respectable people, however, others have read ulterior motives in the girl’s smile. Once again, it is impossible to understand the true nature of the painting.

To paint the room, Vermeer used a camera obscura, as he did in the majority of his work. The camera obscura, whose technology inspired the photographic camera, was a drawing device that became popular in the mid-16th century. The device consisted of a box with a small hole in one side through which light could travel. Inside the box, the light would transfer an upside-down version of the outside scene onto a surface. If the surface was a mirror, the image would then be reflected onto another surface, such as an artist’s canvas, this time the right way up. This technology was based upon the human eye: pupil, lens and retina. Vermeer used the reflected image to trace a geometrically correct perspective.

The camera obscura may not have been needed for Mistress and Maid (1667), which shows the interaction of the titular roles. Although the direction of light suggests the mistress is sat in front of a window, the painting is too dark to see any physical features of the room. The scene depicts two classes of Dutch society: the mistress, who is brightly lit and dressed in yellow, and the maid, whose brown dress blends into the dark background. The mistress’s wealth is emphasised by her fur-lined clothing, silk table cloth and a pearl earring.

Despite their difference in class, the two women are both interested in a letter the mistress has received. It has been assumed the message is a love letter and the maid is advising her mistress on the appropriate response. Although she would have been considered no more than household staff, the maid may have known many of her mistresses secrets and was thus treated as a trusted confidant.

Vermeer would have made good use of the camera obscura in The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1666-68), which shows two different artistic professions. The former, also known as A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, shows a young girl receiving a music lesson by a male tutor. The tutor, whose mouth is parted, is either singing along to the music or giving instruction to his pupil.

Vermeer’s geometric perspective aided by the camera obscura emphasises the depth and height of the room. Part of the room is obscured by a rug-covered table upon which a familiar jug sits. Vermeer often reused props in his paintings. Although the floor pattern is different, the room has a similar appearance to the setting of The Art of Painting.

The Art of Painting is the second largest of all Vermeer’s works and is the one that most closely resembles a scene in his own life. In fact, many assume the artist figure is a self-portrait, albeit from the back, and the girl, one of his daughters. This, of course, cannot be proven.

Thoré-Bürger, who gave Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft” nickname, regarded The Art of Painting as the artist’s most interesting painting. Also known as The Allegory of Painting, art critics believe there to be far more to it than a typical genre painting. The model is presumed to represent Clio, the Greek Muse of History. She wears a laurel leaf and holds a trumpet and a book, which matches the description of Clio in the book Iconologia (1593) by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1560-1622).

There is thought to be political symbols hidden within The Art of Painting, such as a double-headed eagle within the design of the chandelier, which was the symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the former ruler of the Low Countries. The map on the wall also refers to earlier political divisions.

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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)

Vermeer’s largest painting, which is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655). Religion was not a common theme in Vermeer’s work, however, he did occasionally incorporate religious icons into his work, for instance in The Allegory of Faith. This large painting, however, fully embraces Christianity and depicts a scene from the Bible.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:38-39, NIV)

Although Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is a religious painting, it does not leave the concept of genre painting far behind. Despite the halo and choice of clothing, the three characters could be anyone going about their daily life. The man (Jesus) is talking while one woman (Mary) listens. The other woman (Martha) is making preparations for a meal.

Given the size of the painting, it is likely it was a commission, which may explain Vermeer’s deviation from his usual style. On the other hand, when Vermeer first appeared on the artist scene, his paintings were larger and, on two other occasions, featured mythical scenes.

Diana and her Companions (1653-56) is believed by some to be Vermeer’s earliest known painting, although others think it was painted after Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting shows the Roman goddess Diana having her feet washed by her attendants. Critics have commented on the serious mood of the scene and the contemporary style of clothing, which is unusual for a mythological painting.

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Saint Praxedis by Felice Ficherelli

Saint Praxedis (1655) is similar in style to Diana and her Companions, however, it is obviously a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli (1605-60). Saint Praxedis or Práxedes was a second-century Christian saint, about which very little is known. It is possible Vermeer came across this painting on the walls of his father’s inn and copied it for practice. He did, however, change a few details, such as the colour of the saint’s dress and added a crucifix in her hand.

With this copy of a painting in mind, Diana and her Companions may have also been inspired by an existing artwork. If this is the case, the style of clothing is likely Vermeer’s addition.

It is a shame so little is known about Vermeer’s life and that he never experienced the fame his paintings have earned. He had no apprentices, therefore his style of painting died with him. We are lucky that many of his paintings have been discovered, especially as some were signed by other artists to try and sell them for more money. Today, Vermeer’s paintings are some of the most popular attractions in art galleries and there are several online exhibitions about his works. The Sphinx of Delft is definitely the most loved, if not the greatest genre master the world has seen.

Online Exhibitions about Vermeer:
12 Things You Didn’t know about Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Life and Work
Rediscovering Vermeer
Basics of Technical Research
The Painting’s Journey to its Present Appearance
Vermeer’s Contemporaries in Delft
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

All images used are in the Public Domain.

2 thoughts on “Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

  1. Another brilliant article, I knew so little about Vermeer and now I could answer questions on mastermind. Really interesting, and sad to think he never received the recognition his work deserved. A good investment of time reading your blog, I’ve never been let down. Thank you for sharing your talent.

  2. Thank you for another very interesting expose of a little understood and until recently unknown artist. He certainly lives up to the nickname of Sphinx that was later given to him. Makes one wish one could travel back in time to meet him and ask all those questions we,d like answered. However I do love his paintings so maybe that,s what,s important. Thank you once again Hazel for shining a light on another interesting artist.

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