Jan Vermeer (also variously Johann or Johannes) painted during the “Dutch Golden Age” of the 1600s. Although he was highly esteemed during his lifetime, his work soon fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1800s. Since then, Vermeer has become one of the pillars of composition, style, and technique.
Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, Netherlands. He has been dubbed the “Sphinx of Delft” for his confounding obscurity. Unlike many of the Old Masters, there is little documentation of his life, his training, or his work. He produced relatively few paintings during his lifetime; never traveled far beyond his hometown; left behind no drawings or studies to show his method; and worked with a guild but never had students to pass on his techniques.
Most of his paintings portray the industry and accomplishment of the privileged Dutch middle class, despite the fact that he worked during a period of war and economic depression. In fact many of his original works were sold off after his death in 1675 to relieve his widow and children of debts he had accrued in trying to support his large family. While he did not lead a lavish lifestyle, he must have been dependent to a large extent on wealthy patrons.
Although little is known of his painting process, an apparent signature of his work is the underpainting technique which he used to imitate the subtleties of refracted and diffused light. His portrayals of undertones, shadows and reflections are considered the most accurate and precise of all the great artists.
Another Vermeer signature is the consistently cool color palette and the particular combination of complementary yellows and blues. This is a prominent feature in his most famous works, and appears in some form in nearly all of his paintings. He especially favored blue midtones such as cornflower and made unparalleled use of the rare and expensive lapis lazuli pigment with striking effect.
The Geographer and The Astronomer. I love the way the geographer gazes out of the window – very typical of Vermeer. Another artist might have chosen to depict this scholar immersed in his charts; but here Vermeer captures the soul of imagination and exploration.
VERMEER AND REMBRANDT: A comparison
Vermeer’s caliber ranks him in a class with another great Dutch painter, Rembrandt, whose careers slightly overlapped (Rembrandt lived 1606-1679). Like Rembrandt, his style depends on strong chiaroscuro effects and solid, detailed composition. But there are several notable features separating the two great artists.
Rembrandt favored warm, heavy tones; Vermeer worked in cool colors with a marked preference for blues. His style of underpainting helped him to achieve remarkable crispness and transparency.
Among Rembrandt’s favorite subjects were biblical scenes, while Vermeer painted almost exclusively in genre and avoided the common religious and mythological themes.
Rembrandt’s pieces have a strong sense of motion and and a flair for the ostentatious and exotic (although this tone changed decidedly in his later works). Vermeer’s subjects are pensive, tranquil – almost existential in quality. It’s worth noting how many paintings out of Vermeer’s entire output show individuals gazing out of windows. This is a distinctive characteristic that crops up repeatedly in his work.
Contrast this with a strong trend in Rembrandt’s paintings: his penchant for self-depiction. Vermeer is not known to have painted a single self-portrait.
Virtual Vermeer – very good site dedicated to exploring Vermeer’s work, his life and times