Sunday, 29 June 2014


“I equate inspiration with desire – the desire that moves us to be artists in the first place. To attempt to make a painting without this motivation is a waste of time.” - Nita Engle

Johannes (Jan) Vermeer was baptised October 31, 1632, in Delft, the Netherlands and buried December 16, 1675, in Delft. He was a Dutch artist who created paintings that are among the most beloved and well-known images in the history of art. Only about 36 of his paintings survive, and these rare works are among the greatest treasures in the world’s finest museums. Vermeer began his career in the early 1650s by painting large-scale biblical and mythological scenes, but most of his later paintings (the ones for which he is most famous) depict scenes of daily life in interior settings. These works are remarkable for their purity of light and form, qualities that convey a serene, timeless sense of dignity. Vermeer also painted cityscapes and allegorical scenes.

Vermeer’s fame was not widespread during his lifetime, largely because his paintings were collected by local patrons and because his output was small. After his death the paintings continued to be admired by a small group of connoisseurs, primarily in Delft and Amsterdam. By the 19th century a number of Vermeer’s paintings had been attributed to other, more prolific Dutch artists, among them de Hooch. Later, studies of his work led to a rediscovery of this artist and as private collectors and public museums actively sought to acquire his rare paintings during the early years of the 20th century, prices for his work skyrocketed

The “View of Delft” (c. 1660–61) above, is a painting of the artist’s native city, Delft, which was an active and prosperous place in the mid-17th century, its wealth based on its thriving Delftware (pottery) factories, tapestry-weaving ateliers, and breweries. Within Delft's city walls were picturesque canals and a large market square, which was flanked by the imposing town hall and the soaring steeple of the Nieuwe Kerk (“New Church”). It was also a venerable city with a long and distinguished past. It still retains its picturesqueness and when I visited it for the first time it was difficult when seeing it not to be transported back to Vermeer’s time.

The Art of Painting (c. 1665–66) is a very important painting in Vermeer’s oeuvre. With a large curtain, drawn back as though revealing a stage setting, Vermeer creates an allegory for his art. An elegantly dressed artist is in the midst of painting Clio, the muse of history (recognisable through her attributes: a laurel wreath symbolising honour and glory, the trumpet of fame, and a large book signifying history). Vermeer juxtaposed Clio and a large wall map of the Netherlands to show that the artist, through his awareness of history and his ability to paint elevated subjects, brings fame to his native city and country. This painting was so important to Vermeer that his widow tried to keep it from creditors even when the family was destitute.

Girl with the Red Hat (1665–66) is one of my favourites, both in terms of its subject matter, but also in its technique. The colours shine and the light gleams in the highlights. The expression of the richly attired woman is half-surprised, half-haughty. The parted lips and wide-open eyes express a blasé attitude perhaps, but there is also an impression of several glasses of wine having been consumed… The busy background is an intricate tapestry-like backdrop, but through the clever use of soft-focussing and aerial perspective where the colours are dulled it is not intrusive. The finials of the chair in the foreground are wonderfully three-dimensional and the dots of colour in the highlights make them project outwards.

In The Love Note (c. 1666), Vermeer uses some clever techniques to convey a sense of intimacy but also a voyeuristic feel to the whole scene. As the maid interrupts the playing of her mistress in order to deliver the billet-doux, we sense a foreboding as we suspect that perhaps this message is to arrange a secret tryst, or a to reveal illicit feelings of love, or to announce a love long held back. The clogs in the foreground are symbolic of the erotic overtones of the painting. The large dark masses of the drapery, the furniture and the door that take up most of the area of the painting serve as mechanisms whereby the artist heightens the emotional impact of the scene depicted and focus our attention to the brightly lit scene in centre stage. I have always sensed an immense theatricality in Vermeer’s work that makes his paintings appealing to me. There are stories waiting to be told in these paintings.

The marvellous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s works that has generated a story, as is told by Tracy Chevalier’s novel and the beautiful 2003 film of the same name by Peter Webber. The painting is currently housed at The Mauritshuis in The Hague. It is sometimes referred to as “the Mona Lisa of the North” or “the Dutch Mona Lisa”. It is a masterpiece in technique, use of colour, composition and subject matter.

Although Vermeer and the painting both are real historic figures, the screenplay is based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel and therefore largely fictional or hypothetical. As only 36 Vermeer paintings are known to exist today, and none of the models have ever been positively identified. A poster of the painting in her bedroom inspired Chevalier to write her own version of how it came to exist based on the framework of Vermeer’s known history. Chevalier sold the film rights and opted not to have any involvement in the film or screenplay, although after its release said she was pleased with the results.


  1. Very rarely do I enjoy fictional books or films of a historical person I know well. It always seems rude of authors/film makers to take my Vermeer or my Rembrandt and alter the real people. That being said, Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring was a fun read. What did you think of Susan Vreeland's book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue?

    1. Hello Hels. I agree with you regarding historical fiction - rarely is it well done... I have not read Vreeland's book but after reading this review on Amazon, I would rather like to read it, thanks for the suggestion:

      "This luminous story begins in the present day, when a professor invites a colleague to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeer—but why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work's inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner's hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Susan Vreeland's characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable."

  2. I just watched an interesting film called 'Tim's Vermeer' about a brilliant inventor/engineer from Nevada who theorized that vermeer used lenses and mirrors to paint his pieces. The film makes a compelling case for this gentleman's theory. Check it out !

    1. I also have seen this, Susan. It is an exceedingly believable theory. One of my physics lecturers at University was discussing optics and the camera obscura and he mentioned Vermeer as a possible user of such a device when painting his works. See this article:

    2. Yes! I've read about this theory too! The timing fits well, as the use of lenses and the beginning applications for using lenses to create the microscope were happening about the same time that Vermeer was actively producing art ...

  3. I saw a film by David Hockney illustrating this theory. It made sense and explains the complete accuracy of detail in many paintings. One of the things I bought with my first pay cheque was a Vemeer print of the "Milkmaid"It cost me $5. It has lived in mymany kitchens every since. I think I will write a poem about it.:)