Jan Vermeer was baptized in a Reformed Church as an infant on October 31, 1632, in Delft. His father was an innkeeper and art dealer and, when he died in 1652, Jan inherited the business.
Jan married a young Roman Catholic woman in 1653. They moved in with her prosperous mother, shared her spacious house in Delft, and he lived there for the rest of his life. That same year Jan joined the local guild for painters. Its members elected him as their president in 1662 and re-elected him thrice thereafter.
The Delft Thunderclap occurred in 1654 when over 66,000 pounds (about 30 metric tonnes) of stored gunpowder blew up. The explosion killed over 100 people, injured thousands more, flattened most of the city, and ruined its economy. This made life difficult for painters as for most others.
Jan worked very slowly and carefully on each of his small paintings. He took about four months to complete each one.
The Dutch know 1672 as the Year of Disaster. English, French, and German armies all invaded tiny Holland. The Dutch economy had not recovered before Jan died of a sudden fever in December 1675. His wife had to ask the court to protect her and their 11 children from creditors. The court appointed Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the first microbiologist of Olympia, as trustee.
Jan spent little time marketing his paintings. When he died his house was full of finished canvases. He never had any students. Hardly anyone outside of Delft had ever even heard of him. Only toward the end of the 1800s did he begin to emerge from obscurity.
Marcel Proust, of all people, helped to lift the veil. Marcel saw Jan's View of Delft on exhibit in May 1921 at the Galerie national du Jeu de Paume in Paris. In 1925 he wrote about it in his book In Search of Lost Time (volume 6): “...[A]n art critic [wrote] somewhere that in Vermeer's 'View of Delft'...a picture which he adored and imagined he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself...”
For now, Vermeer is considered second only to Rembrandt as the greatest artist of the golden age of Dutch painting.
Jan's paintings do not depict mythological, biblical, or historical scenes. There's the View of Delft (1661) and then scenes of ordinary life taking place in a house on one of Delft's squares.
The scenes of ordinary life are not noisy or busy. They are quiet, contemplative. One woman reads a letter. Another studies music. A man seeks to understand the heavens. Even the milkmaid seems lost in thought. A woman holding a balance stands in front of a painting of the Last Judgment when the meaning of her life and ours will be weighed.
Yet these contemplative scenes of ordinary people are full of light. And this is a playful light, brighter then darker, concentrated then diffuse, delicately dancing then sitting still.
Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.