Johannes Vermeer; October 1632 – December 1675 was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.
Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women.
Vermeer may have first executed his paintings tonally like most painters of his time, using either monochrome shades of grey (“grisaille”) or a limited palette of browns and greys (“dead colouring”), over which he would apply more saturated colours (reds, yellows and blues) in the form of transparent glazes. No drawings have been positively attributed to Vermeer, and his paintings offer few clues to preparatory methods.
There is no other 17th-century artist who employed the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) either so lavishly or so early in his career. Vermeer used this in not just elements that are naturally of this colour; the earth colours umber and ochre should be understood as warm light within a painting’s strongly lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall. In this way, he created a world more perfect than any he had witnessed. This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer’s understanding of Leonardo da Vinci’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object. This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour.
A comparable but even more remarkable, yet effectual, use of natural ultramarine is in The Girl with a Wineglass. The shadows of the red satin dress are under painted in natural ultramarine and owing to this underlying blue paint layer, the red lake and vermilion mixture applied over it acquires a slightly purple, cool and crisp appearance that is most powerful.
Vermeer produced a total of fewer than 50 paintings, of which 34 have survived. Several factors contributed to his limited body of work. Vermeer never had any pupils, so there was no school of Vermeer. His family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time, as would acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses. His time spent serving as head of the guild and his extraordinary precision as a painter may have also limited his output.
In December 1675, Vermeer died after a short illness. In a petition to her creditors, his wife later described his death as follows:
…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.