Called “the largest Johannes Vermeer exhibition ever,” the Rijksmuseum’s revelatory window on the Dutch master’s world allows rare glimpse into mystery and meaning.
Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is easily one of the most iconic, most reproduced, most beloved paintings of all time. The artwork vacillates between great intimacy, curiosity, and even mystery. (Perhaps these qualities are what earned it the nickname the “Mona Lisa of the North”?) The girl in the painting, who looks at us so familiarly, defies recognition. She glances knowingly over her left shoulder, comfortable enough to be addressed by us, yet we have no idea who she is. We cannot even deduce her hair color.
In a certain way, Girl with a Pearl Earring has become an appropriate symbol for Vermeer himself. The 17th-century painter left behind a relatively small oeuvre, with only 37 works presently attributed to him. He left no letters or diaries; any potential self-portraits are only tentatively identifiable. Yet the incredible vivacity, clarity, and interiority within his works have driven art historians to uncover his biography, to close the gap between what we have wanted to know and what we can only speculate.
“Vermeer,” an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 10–June 4, 2023), provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get closer to the artist. In collaboration with the Frick Collection in New York, “Vermeer” is the first monographic exhibition of the artist in almost thirty years, bringing together masterpieces from France, Japan, Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States. Vermeer’s paintings are considered treasures in museum collections worldwide. Moreover, because his work is almost never lent from home institutions, the bringing together in Amsterdam of these 28 masterpieces by Vermeer provides a rare opportunity to conduct extensive technical and historical research into the mysteries they hold. As Taco Dibbits, General Director of the Rijksmuseum, writes in the catalogue’s foreword, “Closer to Vermeer could be the motto of this exhibition: gaining a better understanding of his art, his considerations, his decisions.”
Johannes Vermeer, baptized Joannis, was born in October 1632 in Delft, a lively town built around canals. (In Dutch, a canal can be called a delf.) Scholars believe he was the youngest child of Digna Baltens and Reynier Jansz, who lived a modest, middle-class life. Digna came from a family of artisans hailing from the Northern Netherlands, and Reynier seems to have been involved in a number of professions. Indeed, Vermeer’s father worked as a weaver in the textile industry, and he ran an inn called “De Vliegende Vos” (“The Flying Fox”) with his wife; in 1631, he enrolled to become a master art dealer in Delft.
In the exhibition catalogue, Pieter Roelofs, Head of Paintings and Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, explains how Johannes’s childhood was infused with art. Because of Reynier’s involvement with the art market, Johannes likely interacted with many of the artists in Delft, such as Pieter Steenwijck, Evert van Aelst, Pieter Anthonisz van Groenewegen, and Leonaert Bramer—all of whom worked in a variety of genres, including still-life, landscape, and history paintings. Roelofs also points out that, since Reynier conducted his business from the inn, Johannes may have had additional exposure. Inns were meeting places, where artists and their circles would gather, and paintings would often be displayed there, as sales were being arranged.
Vermeer’s formal artistic training is undocumented, making it unclear as to when or how he studied as an artist. One biographer has suggested that Vermeer first studied with Cornelis Daemen Rietwijck, a portraitist who lived down the street. From Rietwijck, young Johannes would have been introduced to basic techniques. Johannes would have also had access to Rietwijck’s library, which included key works of literature such as Karel van Mander’s Het schilderboeck (The Book of Painters). In this vein, scholars have noted that Vermeer’s long-held interest in tronies (studies of the “typical” human character) can potentially be traced back to the collections in Rietwijck’s studio. There are other theories—for example, that Vermeer studied with some of the family friends who were artists—but there is no conclusive evidence.
His further education remains a guessing game as well. Vermeer must have left Delft to find more training, likely apprenticing in Utrecht or Amsterdam, the latter being the artistic center of the Netherlands. In any case, by 1652, the year his father died, Vermeer had returned home to Delft. He helped his mother with the inn and took over his father’s art dealings. A year after his return, in April 1653, he married Catharina Bolnes, a descendent of a prominent Catholic family and someone he may have known since childhood.
By this time, Vermeer had made contact with several leading painters, had apprenticed with at least one prominent artist, and by the end of 1653 was registered as a meester schilder (master painter) with the Guild of Saint Luke. He became established in Delft, where he was able to make a decent living.
Vermeer’s early works, like Sint Praxedis (1655), reflect his adherence to contemporary hierarchies that favored biblical and classical subjects. By the mid-1650s, he swapped the large-format history paintings for intimately scaled, highly finished works focused on the private sphere. He began depicting everyday subject matter, such as townscapes and domestic figures, in a naturalistic style. Contemporaries such as Gerard ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch also moved into this newer genre of painting that prioritized quiet moments and showed off the artists’ virtuosic ability to capture the known world, its people, and their possessions.
One of Vermeer’s earliest surviving works in this mature style is Officer and Laughing Girl (1657–1658). In it, a young woman smiles at her companion, an officer who sits confidently with his back to us, silhouetted against the scene. The sparsely but carefully decorated room is filled with sunlight coming in from the window—a motif familiar from many of Vermeer’s works. As Gregor Weber, Head of Fine Arts at the Rijksmuseum, discusses in his catalogue essay, it is an image that plays with the notion of “making contact.” Between the map, the window, and the visitor, the painting “brings the outer world inside.” Vermeer played with a popular theme in Dutch art—courting rituals—but in Officer and Laughing Girl makes the viewer feel like a participant in the conversation. Vermeer involves the viewer through a deliberate use of perspective that makes the officer appear much larger than the woman. “If the viewer is only a short distance away,” notes Weber, “people or objects in the foreground appear much larger than they would if they were further away.”
In the next few years, Vermeer’s reputation and his family grew. (His wife ultimately gave birth to 15 children.) He was elected the head of the Guild of Saint Luke, and his reputation beyond Delft was also growing. When the prominent painter Carel Fabritius died in a tragic explosion of gunpowder in 1654, a poet and publisher wrote that Vermeer was the phoenix rising from Fabritius’s ashes: “But happily there arose out of his fire, Vermeer, who, masterfully trod in his path.” Connoisseurs from other cities came to meet with the painter, leaving written records of their exchanges. One such message read: “Having arrived in Delft, I saw an excellent painter named Vermeer.”
Vermeer continued to work on interior scenes in his highly technical, precise style. In his c. 1662–1664 painting, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, we see several features repeated from Officer and Laughing Girl: a young woman, the decorative map on the wall, the light coming into the room (though in this painting the window is not visible). Here, however, the woman is dressed in a beddejak (a padded jacket typically worn to sleep), suggesting the woman has not yet readied herself for the day. She is completely rapt in thought by the letter she grasps tightly in her hand. The map, which is being ignored, highlights the subject’s total absorption in something that we cannot see or access. We have caught a glimpse of a deeply private moment, an intensity that is made possible by Vermeer’s skill. As Weber points out in his essay, “Vermeer renders space and light in such a way as to isolate the figure of the woman.”
The seemingly upward trajectory of Vermeer’s personal and professional lives unfortunately came to an end in the early 1670s. Vermeer and his wife experienced the deaths of close family members, including multiple young children, Vermeer’s mother, and his sister. Due to ongoing wars with English, French, and German forces, the Dutch Republic experienced a severe economic crisis. (Because of such turmoil, 1672 is sometimes called the Rampjaar or “Disaster Year.”) Vermeer had trouble selling paintings, even though he was recognized for his expertise and had a second tenure as head of the Guild of Saint Luke. During the war, he joined the Delft militia, but it was not long after that he died in 1675. Unfortunately, he left his wife and their 11 surviving children virtually penniless.
Although Vermeer’s name had begun to spread during his lifetime, by the end of the 17th century he was only known in niche circles. It was not until the 19th century that his reputation was revived. In 1833, a British art dealer attributed Vermeer’s loss of standing to the artist’s comparatively small output, writing, “This painter is so little known, by reason of the scarcity of his works, that it is quite inexplicable how he attained the excellence many of them exhibit.”
In the conclusion of his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Roelofs argues that, in part, the enigmatic nature of Vermeer’s legacy has been contrived and reproduced over time. Although we are missing key information about the artist, it has been possible to reconstruct his life through other archival materials, more so than is possible for many of his contemporaries, especially the women artists from the period. “This cultivated aura of mystery,” writes Roelofs, “over time became an essential part of Vermeer’s identity and fame.”
Even if the mysteries of Vermeer’s life have been exaggerated, it seems that this feeling of not knowing is essential to appreciating his oeuvre. His paintings’ magic resides in the tension between their visual clarity and their narrative ambiguity. We know so little of the girl with the pearl earring; we cannot know what the officer discusses with the girl; we cannot see what is in the letter that has pulled a young woman from her bed. Vermeer’s details ask you to keep looking, thinking, imagining, and second-guessing. As in life, we can never really be sure; that is the paintings’ mystery, but it is also their truth.