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VERMEER Biography and Painting

Jan Vermeer

Jan Vermeer


Jan Vermeer

Vermeer, Jan (1632-1675), Dutch painter, who excelled in portraying interior scenes that are composed with mathematical precision and suffused with cool, silvery light (see Baroque Painting).

Vermeer, also called Jan van der Meer van Delft, was born in Delft. After serving an apprenticeship, he was admitted in 1653 to the guild of Saint Luke of Delft as a master painter. An important member of the guild, he served four terms on its board of governors and is believed to have been well known to his contemporaries. He made a modest living as an art dealer rather than as a painter.

Only 35 of Vermeer's paintings have survived, although few of his paintings are believed to have disappeared: The number of extant works is close to the number of works for which some documentation exists. Their small number is the result of Vermeer's deliberate, methodical work habits and his comparatively short life. None of his paintings appear to have been sold during his lifetime, and at his death, in Delft, he left many debts to his impoverished wife and their 11 children. Little is known of Vermeer's life or working habits.

With a few exceptions, including some landscapes, street scenes, and portraits, Vermeer painted sunlit domestic interiors in which one or two figures are shown engaged in reading, writing, performing domestic tasks,or playing musical instruments. These objectively observed, precisely executed genre paintings of 17th-century Dutch life are characterized by a geometrical sense of order. The skewed perspective evident in some works (in which the nearest objects are disproportionately large) and the out-of-focus impression conveyed by sections of his paintings indicate that he may have experimented with a camera obscura, a precursor to the modern camera.

Vermeer was a master of composition and in the representation of space. He arranged neutral, muted hues over the foreground, into the middle ground, and farther into the distance to provide a natural perspective in such works as Girl Asleep at a Table (1656?, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City). In Maidservant Pouring Milk (1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Woman with a Water Jug (1663, Metropolitan Museum of Art), View of Delft (1660?, Mauritshuis, The Hague), and other works, he recorded the effects of light with a subtlety, delicacy, and purity of color that have probably never been surpassed. His other paintings include Soldier and Laughing Girl (1657, Frick Collection, New York City) and Girl with a Red Hat (1667, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

After his death Vermeer did not receive attention until the late 19th century. His reputation steadily increased thereafter, and today he is considered one of the greatest Dutch painters. His work was forged in the early 20th century and sold to the Germans during World War II (1939-1945).


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