Who Was Johannes Vermeer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Johannes or Jan Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter. He is probably most well known for the painting titled Girl with a Pearl Earring, and produced around 35 confirmed paintings during his lifetime. Despite this relatively small output, Vermeer is considered a major figure in the history of Dutch painting. Modern viewers are often struck by how photorealistic and compelling Vermeer's paintings are; the images almost seem to demand the attention of the viewer with their unique qualities.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Although Vermeer is a major figure in the history of art, very little is known about him. During his lifetime, Vermeer was poor, and his artwork was not widely appreciated. Many critics viewed his work unfavorably, because his style was markedly different than that used by other artists of the time. For almost 200 years, the work of Vermeer remained obscure and largely unwanted, until a study of his work was published in the late 1800s and interest in his work exploded.

What is known about Vermeer is that he lived and worked in the city of Delft. Despite the fact that he was a Protestant, he had a Catholic wife and 11 children. As an artist, he belonged to the artist's guild, although the details of his training as a painter are unknown. It is estimated that Vermeer was around 42 when he died, using available records from the period.

Several characteristics distinguish the work of Vermeer from his contemporaries. One was an extraordinary use of color and shading. Vermeer often layered multiple colors over each other to achieve a particular look, and his scenes were vivid with bright colors, light, and dark shadows. Most of Vermeer's work takes the form of people frozen at a moment in time. Despite the stillness of his work, his paintings are are very realistic, alive, and visually interesting.

Some art historians have suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscura or pinhole camera in the composition of his paintings. This seems highly probable, since his images do have tricks of light and perspective which can be attributed to the use of a camera obscura. If he did, in fact, use this tool, it in no way detracts from his artistry, as Vermeer displayed a superb mastery of composition, color, and style.

Several major museums have paintings by Vermeer on display, for people who are interested in seeing his work in person. Vermeer's work can also be found in numerous art history books, and reproductions of his work are available in the form of prints and posters as well. Although the details of his life may be obscure, his work will probably endure for centuries.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Of course, everyone knows Vermeer now from the painting Girl with a pearl earring and the book and movie written about it! I don't know any of his other work, but I love that painting - it is really beautiful in a haunting way.

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