With Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Vermeer ranks among the most admired of all Dutch artists, but he was much less well known in his own day and remained relatively obscure until the end of the nineteenth century. The main reason for this is that he produced a small number of pictures, perhaps about forty-five (of which thirty-six are known today), primarily for a small circle of patrons in Delft. Indeed, as much as half of Vermeer’s output was acquired by the local collector Pieter van Ruijven. Although Vermeer’s work was known to other connoisseurs in Delft and the neighboring court city of The Hague, and a few of his paintings sold to individuals farther afield (Antwerp and Amsterdam), most Dutch painters turned out hundreds of pictures for a much broader market. Adding to his image as an isolated figure are the fact that Vermeer’s teacher is unknown, and that he evidently had no pupils. However, the artist was a respected member of the painters’ guild in Delft, and he exchanged pictorial ideas with painters active in that city (especially Pieter de Hooch in the 1650s) and in the region (for example, Frans van Mieris in Leiden).
Vermeer’s father trained as a weaver of fine material but by about 1630 had become an innkeeper and art dealer. The latter business may have helped Vermeer develop his remarkable ability to assimilate formal conventions from past and current masters. On the other hand, his father’s debts and death in 1652 probably explain why Vermeer had to essentially train himself rather than study with an important master. In 1653, he married the daughter of a wealthy Catholic divorcée; the painter converted to their religion and moved into their house in the heart of Delft. During most of his short career—he died at forty-three, leaving his wife with eleven children—Vermeer’s paintings commanded high prices and he was able to support his large family, but the dismal Dutch economy of the early 1670s made his last few years miserable.
In his earliest paintings, Vermeer surveyed the styles of various seventeenth-century artists. For example, in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (ca. 1654–55; Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), he achieved an unlikely mixture of Anthony van Dyck and Hendrick ter Brugghen. The Procuress (1656; Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) recalls Caravaggesque works by the court painter Gerrit van Honthorst, except for the apparent self-portrait which in its handling of light and soft focus resembles a moment caught in a mirror. Similar effects had been achieved in Delft by the short-lived Rembrandt disciple Carel Fabritius, who is often credited with encouraging Vermeer’s later perspective skills. However, Vermeer’s mature interest in naturalistic effects, his carefully balanced compositions, and his domestic subjects derive from numerous sources in Delft and the south Holland area. As the painter worked on a picture, the world of art was constantly tested against direct observation. Vermeer was intensely preoccupied with the behavior of light and other optical effects such as sudden recessions and changes of focus. These qualities in Vermeer’s work may have been inspired by an interest in the camera obscura (which projects actual images), but its importance to the artist has been greatly exaggerated. His compositions are mostly invented and exhibit the most discriminating formal relationships, including those of color. In addition, Vermeer’s application of paint reveals extraordinary technical ability and time-consuming care.
In his best works, these qualities suit the subject matter exceedingly well. Vermeer idealized a domestic world occupied (if not animated) mostly by women, whose postures, behavior, and in some cases expressions suggest close study and sympathy (in this the artist resembles Gerard ter Borch, the Younger, whose work he knew). He often suggests some connection between a figure and the viewer, subtly casting the latter in the role of a spellbound voyeur.
A Maid Asleep (14.40.611) of about 1657 is probably Vermeer’s earliest scene of modern manners, recalling slightly earlier pictures by Nicolaes Maes. Over the next few years, between works such as The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (89.15.21), Vermeer developed his mature style, which involved a delicate balance between observation and arbitrary design. The few famous exceptions to his interior scenes include The Little Street (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague), and the late Allegory of the Faith (32.100.18). A few bust-length studies of figures, like the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis), must be based on live models but were not intended as portraits. Such tronies (“faces”) were collector’s items, in which intriguing characters, curious costumes, and superb painting combine.