Vermeer's life, work and reputation

Vermeer lived all his life in the small Dutch market town of Delft. He was much admired by his fellow painters, and became headman of their professional guild, the Guild Of Saint Luke, at the age of just 29. His reputation survived after his death among the small group of collectors who had acquired his works. But partly because his output was small - only some three dozen paintings are attributed to him today - his name largely disappeared from view in the 18th and early 19th centuries. His works were still praised as exceptionally fine on the rare occasions when they were offered for sale. But otherwise Vermeer tended to be forgotten as a historical personality, and many of his pictures were attributed to more prolific contemporaries such as Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu. His modern reputation dates effectively from the 1860s when the critic Théophile Thoré (writing under the pseudonym William Bürger) published documents, photographs and a catalogue. Even so, Vermeer's biography and personality remained elusive. Thoré/ Bürger dubbed him 'The Sphinx of Delft'. Modern scholarship has revealed a few more facts about Vermeer's life, culled from legal and official records.

Vermeer, 'The Procuress', 1656 oil on canvas, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemaldedalerie Alte Meister. It is sometimes suggested that the shadowy figure at the left is a self-portrait.

His family owned an inn called Mechelen on the Market Square in Delft. His father worked as a weaver as well as an inn-keeper. In 1653 Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes (despite the fact that she was a Catholic and his family was Protestant); and they moved in some time in the late 1650s with Catherina's mother Maria Thins, who had a large house on the Oude Langendijk. The couple were to have fifteen children. Although he does not seem to have had financial problems for much of his life, Vermeer died seriously in debt, as a result of Holland's war with France and England, and its effects on the economy in general and the art market in particular. Despite extensive research however, we have no documents to show who Vermeer might have studied under or who might have been his pupils - if indeed he had any. No drawing by his hand is known. The only sources of information about his methods and technique are the paintings themselves.

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