Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque period artist born in the town of Delft, Netherlands in 1632. He created some of the most beloved and admired paintings in art history, which only about thirty-six of his pieces are known to still be surviving today. His career is known to have begun in the early 1650s, where he painted large-scale biblical and mythical scenes. Although beautiful, these paintings didn't receive the same fame his later work did.
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Around when Vermeer was born, the Dutch nation had just declared itself as one of Europe's great powers. This golden age spanned through most of the 17th Century, and is when Vermeer created majority of his wonderful works of art. He changed his style to portraits and/or glimpses of daily life living in the late 1600s. Vermeer's work was full of expression, giving the world an insight as to who he was as a person, since when he was alive, he remained for the most part undisclosed. "Few important artists have produced such a modest harvest of paintings for a lifetime of work and surely none has been virtually unknown for so long after his death. And yet few painters have left such a glowing legacy of genius as did Jan Vermeer" (Koningsberger, 9).
The Golden Age came to an end around the same time as Vermeer did. He died at a young age of 43 in 1675, remaining still little known. He wasn't recognized until about 200 years later, where his paintings were rated among the best masterpieces of Western art.
Dutch art in the 17th Century was unique for many reasons. The previous period of Renaissance art tended to focus on religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects, which is similar to what Vermeer's first paintings consisted of. It then shifted to superb craftsmanship and sharp realism, demonstrating the first artists to view in clarity the world around them but without affection or exaggeration.
This change in the artist's interests was actually not coincidental. The age that saw Vermeer was the age that first saw logic and reason as a guiding mechanism for scientists and philosophers of Europe. People were now inspired to examine the physical world around them and to discover its laws. Observation and examination had replaced superstition, and Holland played a role of leadership in this. "The versatile physicist, astronomer and mathematician, Christian Huygens, developed the wave theory of light and also invented the pendulum clock. Leiden University built one of the first astronomical observatories. A scientific approach to the practice of medicine was pioneered by Dutch physicians. In the science of optics the Dutch were preeminent…" (Koningsberger, 10).
The rise of interest in the real world inspired man to become fascinated with the concept of light as well. Light and shadow were a couple of the key elements that made Vermeer's work so admirable.
Vermeer's paintings typically consisted of two different kinds: those directed on one single person or object, or those describing a social situation. One of the most beloved single-figured paintings that he made was titled Young Woman with a Water Jug (1664-1665). This painting is known to be one of Vermeer's most subtle work. The subject of this painting is very simple. There is a woman standing in the corner of a room, with one hand appearing to be opening a window, and the other hand clasping a gilt-silver water jug. She is wearing a black and gold dress, topped with a white bonnet, indicating an elevated social class. The table holding the water jug and its basin is dressed in a red fabric with floral-like designs in different shades of blues, yellows, and browns. Lit up by the window, the woman appears to be happy and eager to allow the sunlight to touch her skin. It seems as though the viewers get to see her private life before she is exposed to the outdoor world. Nothing in the painting looks out of the ordinary or out of place.
Vermeer used the principles and elements of design uniquely throughout his entire career of being an artist, rewarding him with the fame he has today, even though he was never able to see it in his lifetime.
Vermeer uses all natural, earthy tones throughout the entire painting while also maintaining thoughtful portrayal of light. His excellent use of negative space and light allowed for the subject to be emphasized and created large contrast between the women and the wall behind her. The detail in the wall exposes some patchy areas where there was probably ripped paint and rough edges. To the left of the women, the vast detail of the window also indicates this was a house belonging to someone with a higher income.
Vermeer also used a different style of painting for the Young Woman with a Water Jug. "Instead of using thick impastos as he did in the 1650s, Vermeer integrated opaque areas of paint with thin glazes. His layering of paint became more complex as he sought to enhance the richness of his image by creating a variety of transparent effects" (Wheelock, 90). His lines are softer and his shapes are more organic than various of his other pieces. The painting has balance with the woman standing in the center, the window to the left of her, and the table and painting on the wall to the right of her. The blue hue in the window compliments the red hue of the tablecloth. The woman is correctly proportioned, her arms, hands, and face all appearing to be a realistic size. But this is not the only one of Vermeer's paintings that draws attention.
Another one of Vermeer's highly admired paintings is the Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Composed of oil, this is a painting of a girl wearing a blue and yellow turbin, and a large pearl earring. She is covered by a light orange sweater, with a white undershirt. Her lips are a deep pink, glistening as if they are moist, and her eyes glow an electrifying green. The emphasis takes place between the deep green of her iris and the white surrounding them, making her eyes appear real and as if they could move.
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Unlike in his other paintings, Vermeer placed this girl in front of a plain black background, instead of a lit wall with other objects. This intense contrast and use of negative space highlights the girl, allowing one's eye to only focus on her and her details. It also creates a 3-D effect, making her appear as though she could reach out of the painting.
Vermeer's sense of proportion is fairly accurate in the majority of his work, including the Girl with a Pearl Earring. He seems to have used thin lines through the girl's face, but more thick lines throughout her clothing and turbin. Her face almost appears to have no lines at all, all of her features flowing into one another. This gave her a soft, vulnerable look, also making her appear more youthful and unrealistic. Contradictory to that, the color choices are organic and earthy, which gives off a lifelike feel. Vermeer also uses the two-thirds rule where the girl and her garments take up majority of the painting, and the other third is negative space. This is a little offset by the girls face being placed directly in the center of the painting.
Johannes Vermeer will forever be known for his unique art. It is unfortunate he wasn't able to be recognized while he remained alive, or maybe he purposely made it that way. He was still able to inspire centuries of artists after him, and fascinate millions of people interested in art history. Vermeer will forever be introduced as one of the Baroque period's most reputable artists.
Koningsberger, Hans and the Editors of Time-Life Books. The World of Vermeer, 1632-1675, 1967.
Wheelock, Arthur K. Jan Vermeer. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981.
Liedtke, Walter. "Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)." Metmuseum.org, Oct. 2003, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/verm/hd_verm.htm.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring.
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