The mysteries of Johannes Vermeer

As an artist, he's hailed as a master for his use of light, rich pigments, and the serenity of his interior scenes; as a man, however, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is very much still a mystery.

His body of work – just about three-dozen paintings – hold some of the only clues to this once virtually forgotten 17th century artist. Today, even one of his masterpieces can be a museum centerpiece, which is what makes the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam extraordinary.

Twenty-eight of Vermeer's paintings, the majority of his life's work, have been assembled in what co-curator Gregor Weber calls a once-in-a-lifetime show.

Doane asked, "Have there ever been this many Vermeers together at any point?"

"No, no," he replied. "I think also Vermeer never saw himself such an amount of his own paintings together."

Weber said he'd dreamed of such an exhibition, and the dream came true once he heard that the Frick Collection in New York City, which owns three Vermeers, was going to close for remodeling. "And if you get them, then of course you can continue collecting all the other ones," he said.

List of Vermeer paintings in the exhibition

The Rijksmuseum already had four. Others are on loan from around the world: New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin. And what may be Vermeer's most familiar painting, "Girl With a Pearl Earring," has traveled from the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Weber likens "Girl With a Pearl Earring" to the "Mona Lisa" for her captivating gaze. She inspired a book, which became a movie. But her celebrity came late: "The painting was forgotten – forgotten, forgotten, forgotten, forgotten," he said. "And it turned up at the end of the 19th century. A man living in The Hague bought the painting for a little bit more than two guilders (about $40 today). This is nothing!"

How Vermeer was nearly lost to history is a story which traces back to his hometown of Delft in the Netherlands.

Art historian David de Haan notes that, during Vermeer's lifetime, neither the artist nor his art ever really left Delft; his main patron was there. "That didn't do much good to his fame, the fact that he had just a small body of work and that most of the paintings stayed in Delft," he said. "But then, they moved into different private collections."

Vermeer painted slowly, just about two pieces a year. One of them was "The Little Street." To find the location of the building, a researcher used tax records.

Johannes Vermeer's painting
Johannes Vermeer's painting

Marriage and death records are also on display at the Prinsenhof Museum, where de Haan is curator. "From that, we have to sort of pieced together a little bit of insight into how his life was," he said. "It's a bit of a puzzle."

There are no known self-portraits, though some suggest a figure on the left in "The Procuress" could be the enigmatic painter who fathered 15 children and died in 1675 at just 43.

Detail from
Detail from

His widow wrote that Vermeer was "unable to sell any of his art," "lapsed into such decay and decadence," and "as if he had fallen into a frenzy," suddenly died. Documents reveal she traded Vermeer's art to pay for bread.

"So, the local baker had these, what would wind up being, priceless artworks?" asked Doane.

"Yeah," de Haan said. "It's weird that you imagine now having a baker owning three paintings by Vermeer? But that was actually the case."

"View of Delft" may have saved Vermeer from obscurity. Nearly two centuries after the artist's death, a French art critic, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, came across the painting, describing it as "superb and most unusual." He became obsessed with the then-obscure artist, and helped establish Vermeer as a master of the Dutch Golden Age.

Ige Verslype is one of the researchers using new technologies to analyze Vermeer's paintings. She told Doane, "Vermeer's doing some things that we don't see with other 17th century painters – the very unusual buildup of paint layers, unusual use of certain pigments. So, he's really experimenting in his paintings, and that's what really amazes me."

Art experts use modern technology to analyze the work of the 17th century artist - here, his
Art experts use modern technology to analyze the work of the 17th century artist - here, his

With such precious few works, and never so many in one place, this show sold out in two days. The exhibit only runs until June. No surprise, the other museums want their Vermeers back.

Doane asked, "Where does Vermeer sit in the pantheon of great painters?"

Weber replied, "This depends on your artistic feeling. For me? At the top."

For more info:

"Vermeer" at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (through June 4)Art historian David de HaanMuseum Prinsenhof, Delft

Story produce by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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Vermeer and the Dutch Masters who influenced him ("Sunday Morning")

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