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Vermeer Paintings

Vermeer may have been a student of Leonaert Bramer or Carel Fabritius, however, it is uncertain. In 1653 Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke to which he was appointed as headman in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671. Vermeer most likely worked slowly creating only a few paintings each year. The majority of his income probably came from the business he inherited from his father, dealing art as well as from his more wealthy mother-in-law. With so few paintings produced only about 35 are still known about today yet his artistic legacy is significant.

Only three of Vermeer’s paintings were dated so his growth and development of style is difficult to assess. The three dated paintings are The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668), and The Geographer (1668). The remaining works are hard to put in a credible chronology however there do seem to be three different phases to his work.

Vermeer’s early works were large in scale, warm in tone, and featured subjects taken from Biblical scenes and classical mythology. The painting techniques in these early works also seem somewhat awkward. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, and Diana and her Companions are both examples of works completed during this phase. Both were probably painted before The Procuress which seems to be a transitional work between the historical paintings and interior genre paintings that Vermeer is more popularly known for.

Just as many of his contemporaries Vermeer began painting scenes from everyday life, images of domestic settings which frequently focus on a woman participating in a household activity. We are not certain who modeled for Vermeer but it is believed that the paintings were probably all painted in a studio room in his mother-in-law’s house. The studio had three windows which allowed the light to come in from the northwest. The majority of his paintings show the light coming in from the left.

In these genre paintings Vermeer used a smaller format than the larger historical paintings. He also used the thickly applied paints less frequently and instead chose a cooler palette giving preference to cornflower blue, and yellow. Vermeer was able to manipulate the lighting and color in his paintings to produce drama on the canvas. He painted broad strokes in a variety of textures using a technique called pointille.

No credible drawings or preparations for paintings have been found so there are few clues about Vermeer’s methods. Some believe that he may have used an optical device called a camera obscura. The pearly look in Vermeer’s paintings, due to the light and colors, point to the possible use of this device. Camera obscura, a relative of the modern camera, creates an image when light entering a darkened box through a small hole is focused on the opposite interior surface with a convex lens. This type of camera was helpful in understanding the natural play of light for the human eye. It intensified colors and made some objects focused while others were more blurred. The contrasts of light and dark are very sharp and brittle strokes and impasto were used to show the sparkle of light as well as the textures.

We see in some of Vermeer’s paintings that he blurred some of the forefront details for example in A Girl Sleeping the Chair is out of focus. Another painting that may have possible effects from the use of camera obscura is Lady at the Virginals With a Gentlemen. Also attributed to this central period of his paintings are two of his townscapes, View of Delft and A Street in Delft.

In the last phase of Vermeer’s painting his work is said to have become ‘harder’ in manner. His paint was applied in such thin layers that in some spots the underlying canvas can be seen. From this phase came paintings such as The Allegory of Faith and The Letter. Though Vermeer experimented with a range of techniques his primary methods and materials were equivalent to his contemporaries.