Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David and Art - Vermeer in Person

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

World famous now, the painter Vermeer was all but unknown during his lifetime.

Recently we talked about the big—literally, the once in a lifetime—exhibition of Vermeer’s paintings now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. That it’s sold out entirely only hints at the wildly enthusiastic reception it’s already been given.

To take a step back from the buzz surrounding the exhibit is to meet an artist who was anything but a celebrity in his own day. Johannes Vermeer was Dutch and born in the little town of Delft in October 1632. Just for comparison, his countryman Rembrandt was born in the nearby university town of Leiden about 25 years earlier. And he spent most of his professional career in the bustling city of Amsterdam. Vermeer stayed put in Delft where his father was a dealer in patterned satins—he sold fabric. He also bought and sold paintings. In April 1653, Vermeer married a woman named Catherina. His death, really the only other date of his life that we know with certainty, came in December 1675.

An artist in the Netherlands in the mid 1600s—the “Dutch Golden Age” as it’s called—could make a very comfortable and respected living. The primacy of Dutch world trade, notes historian Jonathan Israel, was the central factor creating a situation in which many artists could have very prosperous careers. As he put it, with “merchant town houses and country villas going up on all sides, demand for high-quality pictures was almost insatiable.”

In Amsterdam, just with his portrait painting alone, Rembrandt made far more than a prominent university professor could expect to be paid. From a historian-detective point of view, such wealth and social standing usually leaves abundant trails of documentation. But such is not the case with Vermeer. He wasn’t wealthy and he died in debt. Most of his paintings stayed in Delft during his lifetime, primarily in the holdings of his one main local patron. He was well known there, but virtually unknown everywhere else.

In 1672, France’s invasion of the Netherlands, along with the English declaration of war at the same time brought the golden age to a sudden end. Vermeer’s widow said that her husband earned almost nothing from art after the war started and that before he died, to feed his children he had had to sell off paintings he himself had collected.

Vermeer wasn’t prolific by any means. Only 34-37 paintings are universally attributed to him. By contrast Rembrandt has about 300 painting attributed to him. But that's part of what makes seeing just one Vermeer special. And for a short time, they're almost all together.