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Who was... Vermeer?

THAT IS a question that is not easily answered. For apart from his birth, marriage and death certificates and a small corpus of paintings (36), there is practically nothing known of this Dutch master who is now spoken of as being as great or greater than Rembrandt. Johannes Vermeer van Delft, was born on October 31, 1632 and died on December 16, 1675. He married Catharina Bolnes on April 23, 1653. Of the 15 children Catharina bore him, four died in infancy.

In a petition to the State for funds to bring up her children, Catharina describes Vermeer's demise, "during the long and ruinous war with France not only had he been unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."

Thus we have the ultimate dead author (Thank you Roland Barthes) and all that we know is his work, which in the case of this mysterious self-effacing artist is more than enough. After Vermeer's death, the last of his paintings were sold and he was forgotten. In 1842 art historian and critic Joseph Théophile Thoré (he took on the nom de plume of William Bürger) discovered the magnificent View of Delft and he devoted 20 years of his life to uncovering the real Vermeer and is responsible for Vermeer claiming his rightful place in the world of art.

While only three of Vermeer's paintings are dated, it is possible to identify three phases in his work. The early phase has two paintings Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and Diana and her Companions. The second phase is marked by the recognisable Vermeer - with the serene and harmonious images of domestic life, and the brilliant use of light, colour and composition. Most paintings are set indoors with the source of light from the onlooker's left.

The predominant use of yellow, blue and grey and broad applications of paint with variations in texture to suggest the variations of light created the effect of "crushed pearls melted together," in critic Jan Veth's words. The third phase reveals a harder sensibility.

Camera obscura

Antony Van Leeuwenhoek - who is better known for his work with microscopes, was the executor of Vermeer's estate and it is quite possible that an interest in optics brought them together. Whether Vermeer used camera obscura - literally meaning darkened room - is a matter of much debate.

There are those that feel the exaggerated perspective and the way in which sparkling highlights sometimes appear out of focus can only be achieved with lenses.

Vermeer has a spiritual connection with cinema. His paintings are often used in film school to illustrate how to light a frame. The book and movie, Girl Interrupted, takes its title from the painting Girl Interrupted at her Music. Girl with a Pearl Earring takes its name from another Vermeer painting and imagines the circumstances that went into the creation of the picture.

The movie version has Scarlett Johansson playing Griet a maid in Vermeer's (played by Colin Firth) house. For a man that we scarcely know anything about, his influence on the art scene has been immeasurable.


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