Understanding Vermeer’s Mysteries, beyond “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

Alina Cohen
Jul 19, 2019 6:28PM

Only about 34 canvases survive from Johannes Vermeer’s enigmatic oeuvre (a 35th is disputed). The Dutch artist’s most famous work is undoubtedly Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665), which features a “tronie,” or stock character. The girl in the portrait has fair, clear skin; her head is covered with a turban, her body sheathed in an oversized yellow robe. She looks out at the viewer, but her gaze is paradoxical—soft and direct, intimate and withholding. Light pools on her red, parted lower lip before bouncing off her oversized earring and gathering in her clothing. The dark background offers little context for who the girl is or where she was painted.

Such mystery shrouds Vermeer’s subjects, as well as his creative process, to such an extent that history has nicknamed him “the Sphinx of Delft.” “It seems that the greatness of Vermeer’s stature is almost equal to the dearth of knowledge about him,” writes painter Jane Jelley in her 2017 book Traces of Vermeer. It’s still uncertain who posed for his predominantly domestic scenes, though some suspect that his daughter Maria is the girl with a pearl earring (whether her jewel is actually a pearl remains up for debate).

Myriad theories circle the artist, from suppositions about his technique toguesses about his influences. Despite the uncertainty, Vermeer’s rendering of light and shadow remain undeniably masterful. Over the centuries, figures from Adolf Hitler to Marcel Proust to David Hockney have all obsessed over the artist’s work. Here, we investigate the intrigues surrounding his legacy.

Who taught Vermeer to paint?

Johannes Vermeer, Diana and Her Companions, 1655–56. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft in the Netherlands. His father was a silkworker, inn-keeper, and art dealer. Vermeer may have interacted with Dutch painters who cycled through the tavern where his father sold art, perhaps inspiring him in his own aesthetic endeavors.

Records show that his father died in 1652. The young Vermeer entered the city’s artistic community when he joined the Delft Guild of Saint Luke just over a year later. Yet “one of the problems of Vermeer biography,” Lawrence Gowing has observed, “has always been that there is no record of the apprenticeship which was required for membership of his guild.”

Historians have based their guesses on the artists working during Vermeer’s time whose paintings might have influenced his style. Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt van Rijn and the creator of The Goldfinch (1654)—a painting made famous by Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel of the same name—may have instructed Vermeer. Leonaert Bramer, Abraham Bloemaert, and Jacob van Loo have been cited as other possibilities. Bramer was certainly friendly with Vermeer; he served as a witness when Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, drew up a notarized agreement before their wedding.

Vermeer began his career as a history painter, depicting scenes from ancient Greek and Catholic lore. Among his earliest surviving canvases are Diana and her Companions (1655–56) and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654–56). From the outset, Vermeer trained his eye on women. The former work focuses on the goddess of the hunt at rest, while the latter depicts two female disciples with Jesus.

For unknown reasons, the painter quickly shifted to the genre scenes of domestic life that made him famous. Scholars consider A Maid Asleep (1656–57) to be his first effort in this new direction. The picture features a woman snoozing at a table covered with a patterned Turkish carpet, her hand propping up her head. Behind her, a door left ajar reveals a dimly lit floor and a shadowy wall.

How did Vermeer make his masterpieces?

Vermeer’s work has inspired obsessive study. The 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer follows inventor Tim Jenison’s efforts to scientifically explain how Vermeer achieved near-photorealism with a paintbrush, almost two centuries before the invention of the camera. Jelley’s book, Traces of Vermeer, attempts to solve the mystery of how the painter made his work so true to life. She believes that Vermeer worked out of the most light-filled room in his home, allowing the natural glow to inform his work.

Many of Vermeer’s best-loved works, in fact, seem to be set in the same few rooms, and almost always feature a window on the left side of the canvas: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (ca. 1657–59), Officer and Laughing Girl (1657), The Milkmaid (ca. 1657–58), and The Music Lesson (ca. 1662–63), among many others.

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, ca. 1668. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The window is obstructed by a hanging curtain in The Art of Painting (ca. 1666–68), but is implied by the similar light source. The allegorical canvas depicts a painter sitting at his easel with his back to the viewer as he looks at his subject, a young model dressed in blue to resemble Clio, the Muse of history.

As Edward Rothstein has written, the masterpiece features a “luminous flow of light,” while “the sculpturing of interior space and the scene’s introspective intimacy seem a consummation of Vermeer’s ambitions and Delftian preoccupations.” The psychological content—the voyeuristic perspective; the model looking away from the painter—suggests that the artist was interested in capturing “flashes of consciousness” and “the evanescent all-too-human moment.” Rothstein asserts that Vermeer’s lifetime project was “an almost metaphysical quest for the precariously poised instant, an ideal we would now consider photographic.”

Many scholars and artists, including Hockney, have explicitly connected Vermeer with photography. They assert that he used a camera obscura, an early lens-based device, to project images onto his canvases and trace his compositions. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the first scientists to use a microscope, was born in Delft within a week of Vermeer; new ideas about lenses and light widely circulated throughout the Netherlands in the painter’s era. While some historians have suggested that the men met or were even friends, Jelley simply notes Vermeer’s interest in science, especially evidenced by two works: The Astronomer (ca. 1668) and The Geographer (1669).

Did Vermeer really make all his paintings?

John Michael Montias, who authored a 1989 book entitled Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, asserts that Vermeer’s “obsessions” were “the intimate urgings that prompted him to paint with exquisite precision pensive women pent up in shallow spaces.”

Yet at least one writer believes that Vermeer wasn’t just preoccupied with women, but that it was a woman who created much of his oeuvre. In Vermeer’s Family Secrets (2009), Benjamin Binstock suggests that Vermeer’s daughter Maria actually helped him complete many of his paintings. As evidence, he cites Vermeer’s significant stylistic shifts. In paintings such as The Girl with a Red Hat (1665–67) and Young Girl with a Flute (1665–70), the brushwork is looser and the perspective more head-on than in many of his other works. Binstock posits that Maria became an apprentice to her father around 1672 and created many studies for self-portraits. She relinquished her practice, he alleges, when she left home to get married, at age 20.

Binstock believes this phenomenon was not unique to Vermeer, but common throughout his era. “These circumstances were in keeping with the majority of women artists during this period, who studied with their fathers in unrecorded apprenticeships and gave up painting when they married, so their works remain largely unrecognized,” he writes. Fabritius’s sister-in-law made paintings, and Jan van Eyck reportedly had a painter sister.

How did Vermeer die?

Johannes Vermeer, A View of Delft, 1660–61. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vermeer died, broke, in 1675. Three years before his death, the French had invaded the Netherlands, leading to worsening economic conditions for the Dutch. A low production rate couldn’t have been easy on Vermeer’s rate, either. Records show that the painter’s wife went to the authorities shortly after, describing how her husband’s death was caused by “a frenzy,” and that he had succumbed to “decadence and decay” as his finances and career fell into ruin. Montias posits that Vermeer became “frantic over his inability to support his large family and to repay his debts,” had a stroke or a heart attack, and died a couple of days later.

Since his death, Vermeer’s legacy has been defined by an eccentric array of fans. French writer Marcel Proust turned A View of Delft (1660–61), one of Vermeer’s rare landscapes, into a potent literary symbol. In his novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–27), a terminally ill character decides that he must see the painting—then drops dead in its presence. Just years later, Adolf Hitler became enamored with the painter. He ordered the Nazis to steal one of his favorite Vermeers, The Astronomer, from the wealthy, Jewish Rothschild family. He hoped that it would become a key work in the museum he planned to build. It was returned to the family after the war with a sinister new line on its provenance.

In 1999, Tracy Chevalier published Girl With a Pearl Earring, a novel that imagines an intense flirtation between Vermeer and the subject of his famed painting—a maid named Griet, in Chevalier’s tale. In 2003, director Peter Webber turned it into a Hollywood film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

Such wide-ranging appreciation of Vermeer suggests the power of his oeuvre to inspire new stories. The mysteries that still characterize his paintings and biography allow artists of all disciplines to generate fresh narratives. For viewers and storytellers alike, Vermeer’s work is a gift that keeps giving.

Alina Cohen