Johannes Vermeer: The Enigmatic Painter of the Dutch Golden Age

Read along to discover some interesting facts about the Dutch Golden Age master, Johannes Vermeer.

Aug 12, 2023By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
johannes vermeer painter dutch


The life of Johannes Vermeer, the most iconic representative of the Dutch Golden Age, has been the subject of numerous studies. Some of his paintings, like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, or The Milkmaid, are among the most famous art pieces worldwide. Like other painters of his time, Vermeer thrived at genre painting; he depicted ordinary scenes of daily life. His painting technique and his use of light and shadow, used to call attention to his subjects gives a uniqueness to Vermeer’s work.


Who Was Johannes Vermeer?

johannes vermeer the procuress painting
The Procuress, by Johannes Vermeer, 1656, via Dresden State Art Museums


Thanks to historians and experts’ research since the 19th century, we know much about Vermeer’s life, his fortune, his family, and even the time when he moved in with his step-family. The Dutch painter was a renowned artist of his time; he had secured the support of wealthy patrons. Yet, his fame did not spread much during his lifetime outside his hometown of Delft.


On December 29, 1653, aged 21, Johannes Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke of Delft, a strictly regulated corporation of artists in the 17th century. Only a few months earlier, he had married Catharina Bolnes, a catholic woman from a family of wealthy merchants. Although he was born into a protestant family and lived in a reformed country, Vermeer eventually converted to Catholicism. His catholic step-family imposed this choice.


To date, we lack specific information regarding where Vermeer studied painting and with whom. Maybe outside of Delft? In Utrecht or Amsterdam? He must have had a solid artistic upbringing with a renowned teacher, for he became a Guild of Saint Luke member and, eventually, took its lead for the first time in 1662 at the young age of 30.


Vermeer: The Master Of Genre Painting

johannes vermeer view of houses in delft painting
View of Houses in Delft, by Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1658, via the Rijksmuseum

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Johannes Vermeer was part of a group of skilled artists. As other painters did, he borrowed the subjects of his paintings from an established repertoire of themes. Yet, he achieved novelty with his technique and exploration of his subjects.


About thirty-five paintings are attributed to Vermeer. His masterpieces include a mythological painting, several religious paintings, landscapes, and portraits. However, the Dutch painter is mainly famous for his scènes de genre.


The denomination “genre painting” was first used to name this kind of painting by the French architect and art critic Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy in 1791, an entire century after Vermeer’s existence. As genre paintings depict scenes of daily life in a realistic manner, it is opposed to religious, mythological, or historical painting.


johannes vermeer the milkmaid painting
The Milkmaid, by Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1660, via the Rijksmuseum


Vermeer’s favorite subjects were portraits of young women, with attributes referencing music, writing, or alcohol. His scenes are set in bourgeois interiors, with light walls, few decorative elements, and paved floors.


johannes vermeer the love letter painting
The Love Letter, by Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1669-70, via the Rijksmuseum


The light becomes the central element of Vermeer’s paintings. It usually comes from the left-hand side of the canvas and is filtrated through paneled windows and light curtains. In Vermeer’s painting, the light is not depicted in a fully rational way. Unlike other painters of his time, who tried to render reality more precisely, Vermeer provides a personal interpretation.


A Hidden Message?

johannes vermeer the lacemaker detail painting
The Lacemaker, by Johannes Vermeer, 1669-70, via the Louvre


Is there some hidden message in Vermeer’s art? Maybe nothing like we have the pleasure of imagining. Instead of filling his paintings with symbols so the viewer could guess the hidden message lying behind his paintings, Vermeer simplified his work. When studying the underlying sketches, we can observe that the painter included elements he chose not to paint in the final piece.


In the reformed Low Countries, the arts showed and criticized what went against the principles of morality. Vermeer’s art was no exception. For example, in his 1669 Lacemaker painting, a Bible sits next to the woman, which signifies the adequacy of needlework as an activity well-suited for women.


johannes vermeer the astronomer detail painting
The Astronomer, by Johannes Vermeer, 1668, via the Louvre


There is an enigma in Vermeer’s work and some of the other Dutch Golden Age painters. They did not compose their paintings as riddles but in a way to get the viewer’s imagination working. Johannes Vermeer did not name his paintings. Others later attributed names to his work. For example, in Vermeer’s Astronomer painting, a man touches a celestial globe with his finger. Elements such as books suggest that he is a scholar. These were real books from Vermeer’s time.


In the background, there is a painting of The Finding of Moses, probably a painting that was in Vermeer’s collection. Moses is considered in Christian culture as the first astronomer. Did Vermeer place it there to link the scholar’s activity to religion? Maybe the light flooding the room comes from heaven and God. On the other hand, we could also interpret the scene as the Christian tradition relegated at the back, while the astronomer is a scientist, with the light representing the light of Reason.


Besides the enigmatic aspect of Vermeer’s work, he was also the master of ordinary-life depiction. Vermeer presents something that the viewer already knows. He shows us things to which we usually pay little attention. He illustrates the beauty of simple objects or gestures.


Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

camera obscura illustration sketchbook on military art
Illustration of a camera obscura, in the Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics, 17th century, via the Library of Congress, Washington D. C.


It is highly plausible that Vermeer and numerous other painters from the Renaissance onward used the camera obscura to compose their paintings. A camera obscura is an optical instrument, the camera’s ancestor, which can project a real-life image onto a surface.


johannes vermeer girl with a pearl earring detail painting
Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), by Johannes Vermeer, 1665, via the Mauritushuis


It is possible that the Jesuits introduced Vermeer to the use of the camera obscura. Gregor Weber, Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Rijksmuseum, explained recently that: “the order (Jesuits) regarded the camera obscura as a tool for the observation of God’s divine light.” The blurred contours of the figures and objects and the chiaroscuro effect in Vermeer’s paintings are clues that have led some to think that he used a camera obscura to compose them. Also, due to the size of the tiny hole through which the light enters the camera obscura, the image focuses on one element, leaving the foreground and background blurry.


Yet, not every expert agrees, and we may never be sure of the veracity of this theory. In any case, the use of a camera obscura does not remove the artist’s genius.  Curiously, we can see a tiny hole in the canvas at the exact position of the painting’s vanishing point. We may suppose that Vermeer pinned a chalk-coated straw on the vanishing point to print a line on the canvas and build the composition following the rules of perspective.


The Girl With the Pearl Earring

johannes vermeer girl with a pearl earring painting
Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer, 1665, via the Mauritushuis


Who has not been fascinated by the portrait of this ingenuous girl? She looks directly into the viewer’s eyes, her lips slightly parted. What secrets is she hiding?


The Girl With The Pearl Earring is a singular painting in Vermeer’s work. What is today Vermeer’s most famous work had once long been forgotten. The oil on canvas was only rediscovered in 1881 when art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe bought it at an auction and donated the portrait to the Mauritshuis in the Hague after his death.


Vermeer painted this very simple portrait around 1665. It is not really a portrait but a tronie, a depiction of a character instead of a real person. Vermeer intended to generate attraction and love. Who is she? Vermeer universalized the young woman, not giving any indication of who she might be. What is she thinking? Why is she looking at us this way? Vermeer left room for interpretation. Are we intruders, or is she interested in us?


This painting perfectly illustrates a key element in Vermeer’s painting technique: the blurred treatment of edges. As previously mentioned, the blurred effect probably comes from the artist’s observations using the camera obscura. Vermeer focused on one element, and the rest of the painting was done using a blurry effect on the shape’s outlines. It has the effect of focusing the viewer’s gaze on one element. In this case, Vermeer did not paint the girl’s nose bridge in order to focus on her eyes.


Johannes Vermeer: From Oblivion To Superstardom

johannes vermeer view of delft painting
View of Delft, by Johannes Vermeer, 1660-01, via the Mauritushuis


Though Johannes Vermeer had a successful career and was a renowned artist during his lifetime, his fame was mostly limited to his own city, Delft. His work was obliterated after he died in 1675; 18th-century Dutch taste preferred Italian or French fashion and forgot all about Vermeer’s genre paintings.


It all changed at the end of the 19th century, when the artist, who always had been one among many others, was erected as a superstar artist of the Dutch Golden Age. In 1822, the View of Delft, one of the few landscapes painted by the artist, entered the Dutch national collections. It was not so much for Vermeer’s talent as for the subject depicted. However, this event may have been decisive in Vermeer’s renewed fame at the end of the 19th century.


my girl with a pearl vermeer exhibition mauritushuis
My Girl With A Pearl exhibition, Mauritushuis, The Hague, via Julian van Dieken


There was another decisive turn in 1866 when French art critic and journalist Théophile Thoré-Bürger wrote three articles about Johannes Vermeer in the Gazette des beaux-arts magazine. Thoré-Bürger discovered the artist’s work in 1842 when visiting the museum in the Hague exhibiting the View of Delft. He nicknamed the artist the “Sphinx of Delft,” as little was known about his life. Thoré-Bürger devoted all his efforts to creating the first inventory of Vermeer’s work.


While Thoré-Bürger shed light on Vermeer’s work, experts and the public acknowledged the Dutch painter’s genius. A frenzy took over cultural circles, and the end of the 19th century turned into a treasure hunt to find all of Vermeer’s lost paintings. Several pieces were wrongly attributed to the painter. It is likely that some canvases disappeared or were destroyed over the years, yet Vermeer also painted fewer toiles compared to other artists.


julian van dieken girl with a glowing earrings a.i
A Girl With Glowing Earrings, A.I. art, by Julian van Dieken, in the My Girl With A Pearl exhibition, via Julian van Dieken


Since then, Johannes Vermeer has become a superstar. Several historians studied his work and life in the 20th century. Scientific examinations of his paintings have helped to identify which ones were made by the hand of the Master of the Dutch Golden Age.


Besides ancient paintings rightly or wrongly attributed to Vermeer, fakes, painted only to fool experts and the public, flourished. As Vermeer’s fame grew, so did the number of fakes popping up here and there. Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren is perhaps Vermeer’s most famous art forger. He was so skilled at imitating Vermeer’s technique and style that some of his paintings made it to the collections of renowned museums.


Next to art forgers, Johannes Vermeer’s art inspired the work of many contemporary artists. The Girl With the Pearl Earring‘s silhouette is so famous and recognizable that an entire exhibition at the Mauritshuis was dedicated to an artists’ interpretation of one of the most famous paintings in the world.

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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.