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.