Johannes Vermeer, the second child of Reynier Jansz Vos (also known as Vermeer) and Digna Baltens, was baptized in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft on 31 October 1632. Reynier Jansz initially earned a living as a weaver of a fine satin fabric called caffa.1 In addition, from 1629 he is mentioned as the innkeeper of De Vliegende Vos. He was also an art dealer, registering as such in the Delft Guild of Saint Luke in 1631. On 1 May 1641, when Vermeer was nine-and-a-half years old, the family moved from the Voldersgracht to a house and inn called Mechelen, on the Marktveld, where Reynier Jansz actively continued to buy and sell paintings. Following his father’s death in 1652, Vermeer took over the business while his mother continued to run the inn.2 Digna Baltens tried to sell the property in 1663, but when it failed to fetch the desired price, she put it up for rent. Vermeer inherited the inn after her death in 1670, and he continued to rent it out.
On 20 April 1653 Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes (ca. 1631–87), whose parents were Reynier Bolnes, the owner of a brickworks, and Maria Thins (1592–1680). Catharina’s mother, who came from a distinguished Gouda family, refused to sign the customary deed of consent after the marriage banns were posted. She did promise, however, that she would not impede or prevent the marriage. Her reservations could have been prompted by Vermeer’s relatively humble origins, but as a devout Catholic she may well have objected as well to his Protestant faith.3 In any case, Vermeer seems to have promised that he would quickly convert to Catholicism.4 The Delft painter Leonaert Bramer (1596–1674) witnessed the agreement Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes had drawn up before a notary prior to their marriage.
Where Vermeer and his wife settled in Delft just after their betrothal is not known. By 27 December 1660, however, they had moved in with Maria Thins in her home on the Oude Langendijk.5 Vermeer must have had a good relationship with his mother-in-law. For example, in 1656 she loaned the artist 300 guilders, which, as she stipulated in her will a year later, he did not have to repay.6 Other deeds reveal that Vermeer and his family lived with his mother-in-law until his death.
Vermeer registered as a master painter in the Guild of Saint Luke on 29 December 1653.7 It is not known who taught him to paint. A few days after his marriage, Vermeer cosigned a document with the painter Gerard ter Borch (1617–81) in Delft, but it is unlikely that Ter Borch was his teacher. Ter Borch, who resided in The Hague at the time, might have made a special trip to Delft to attend Vermeer’s wedding.8 Vermeer may have received his first drawing lessons from his neighbour Cornelis Rietwijck, when he was living on the Voldersgracht. Rietwijck was a portrait painter and ran a school where subjects other than drawing were also taught.9 Bramer, who was probably a family friend, is regularly proposed as being Vermeer’s second teacher, even though his manner of painting and subject matter differ from those of Vermeer’s early work.10 It has also been suggested that Carel Fabritius (1622–54), who joined the Guild of Saint Luke in October 1652, was Vermeer’s teacher.11This proposal, however, is unlikely considering that Fabritius’s profound interest in perspective did not leave a mark on Vermeer’s style and subject matter until later in his career. Nevertheless, the connections of these two great talents resound in a poem written by Arnold Bon, published in Dirck van Bleyswijck’s Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (1667), that concludes with a stanza on Fabritius’s tragic death: “But happily there rose from his fire / Vermeer, who, masterlike, was able to emulate him.”12
Taking Vermeer’s family into account, an apprenticeship with the Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) is a credible alternative. Bloemaert was an uncle by marriage of Jan Geenz Thins (ca. 1580–1647), a cousin of Maria Thins who served as her guardian after her father’s untimely death.13 An apprenticeship in Utrecht could explain the influence of the Caravaggists on Vermeer’s early work. Artists from Amsterdam seem to have left their mark on him as well. Vermeer was familiar with the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), and Jacob van Loo (1614–70), so it is possible that he trained there as well.14
Vermeer began his career in 1653 as a history painter. Two early pictures can be securely attributed to him: Diana and Her Companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary; a third painting, Saint Praxedis, signed and dated 1655, is likely also to be by the young master.15 Vermeer’s first genre painting, The Procuress, is dated 1656.16 Aside from two city views and two allegories, he devoted the rest of his career to depicting genre scenes.17 Vermeer’s production was decidedly modest. At present, only thirty-six paintings by him are known (meaning that he would have produced at most forty-five between 1657 and his death in 1675, thus an average of two to three a year). It is tempting to attribute this low production to Vermeer’s precise and laborious painting style. This explanation, however, is not entirely satisfactory, if only because other painters known for their meticulous manner of painting, such as Gerrit Dou (1613–75) and Jan van der Heyden (1637–1712), left behind much larger oeuvres. In principle, anyone painting so few pictures annually could only make a living from his art if he had one or more regular patrons prepared to pay high sums for his work.18 Yet, as noted above, Vermeer was not only a painter, but also an art dealer, which would have provided him with an additional source of income.
It has been argued that Vermeer had one important patron in Delft, Pieter van Ruijven (1624–74), a fellow townsman and the wealthy son of a brewer.19 There are no documents making direct reference to Van Ruijven’s patronage, and the loan Van Ruijven made to Vermeer in 1657 cannot be seen in this light. The assumption that it was a veiled payment for a painting he had ordered is not very convincing.20 A more obvious explanation is that Vermeer accepted the loan to replenish his stock.21 Nevertheless, even though not a single commission from Van Ruijven to Vermeer is known, it is likely that many of the twenty-one paintings by Vermeer in the estate of the Delft printer Jacob Dissius (1653–95) had formerly belonged to Van Ruijven. Dissius was married to Van Ruijven’s only daughter, Magdalena, who upon her death in 1682 left twenty paintings by Vermeer to her husband and his father, Abraham Dissius.22 She probably came into possession of these works through the estate of her mother, Maria de Knuijt, who had died in 1681, seven years after her husband. That a special bond between the Van Ruijven family and Vermeer existed is evidenced by the fact that Maria de Knuijt bequeathed the painter 500 guilders in her testament of 1665.23
Pieter van Ruijven was a distant cousin of Pieter Spiering, Dou’s famous patron.24 As is known, Spiering paid Dou an annual sum of 500 guilders for the right of first refusal,25 and it has been suggested that a comparable contract existed between Van Ruijven and Vermeer. There is, however, no evidence to support this hypothesis.26 Those assuming the existence of such a relationship underestimate the uniqueness of Dou and Spiering’s agreement and the extent to which it contributed to Dou’s celebrity among his contemporaries.27 If there were such a contract between Van Ruijven and Vermeer, it would definitely have been known in Delft and also probably far beyond this city. Such an arrangement would hardly have escaped the notice of Houbraken, who did not devote a single word to Vermeer in his treatise on seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
Although Van Ruijven may have been Vermeer’s most important patron, he was certainly not his only one. Vermeer’s work was appreciated by other art lovers as well, particularly fellow townsmen, including the baker Hendrik van Buyten, who owned at least three paintings by the artist.28 Vermeer also enjoyed renown outside of Delft, particularly in The Hague. In the summer of 1663 the French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys, residing in The Hague, visited Vermeer’s studio.29 In 1669 the wealthy Pieter Teding van Berkhout (1643–1713) traveled two times from The Hague to visit Vermeer, who showed him several pictures, “the most extraordinary and most curious of which consists in the perspective.”30 The summons that Vermeer received to determine the authenticity of a group of Italian paintings in the spring of 1672 also stemmed from The Hague. The organizer of the evaluation probably asked Vermeer to come to The Hague through the mediation of Pieter van Ruijven, who, together with Vermeer, deemed the paintings inauthentic.31 Van Ruijven resided in The Hague prior to his death in 1674, and he may have already moved there in 1672.
Vermeer, who fathered eleven children, made his living both as an artist and an art dealer. Never wealthy, he faced true poverty after 1672, when the Dutch Republic became embroiled in war with France and England, with disastrous consequences for the art trade. When, in April 1676, two months after Vermeer’s death, Catharina Bolnes petitioned the High Court for a transfer of debt, she blamed the war as the reason why her husband “had been able to earn very little or hardly anything at all, but also [because] the [works of] art that he had bought and with which he was trading had to be sold at great loss.”32 The court granted her request, and a notary went to her house on the Oude Langedijk to inventory the bankrupt estate on 29 February 1676.
The inventory would seem to validate Catharina Bolnes’s request. For example, no unfinished paintings are listed, suggesting that Vermeer was not working on anything in the period prior to his death. Whether the fifty-eight paintings spread throughout the house, however, are indicative of a moribund art business remains to be seen. This number was not exceptionally high, and a number of the works may have belonged to the family’s private collection. Among these were presumably twelve family portraits and five paintings mentioned by an artist’s name (including ones by Carel Fabritius and Samuel van Hoogstraten).33 A few of the descriptions sound like unsold paintings Vermeer had made, for instance “een schilderij vertonende een vrou met een ketting aen” (a painting depicting a woman wearing a necklace). Pictures by him may also have been among the tronies, such as the two “geschildert op sijn Turx” (painted in Turkish manner).34
On 30 September 1676, the eminent Delft microbiologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) was appointed executor of the bankrupt estate on behalf of the creditors. Fortunately, Vermeer was spared this humiliation for he had died a few months earlier. Vermeer was buried on 15 December 1675 in a grave in the Oude Kerk that his mother-in-law had previously bought.