Friday in the atelier: "The Milkmaid" by Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 and died 43 years later. His wife, Catherina Bolnes, attributed his death to stress due to finances.

Little is known about Vermeer, including the exact number of paintings that he created.

He was born in the Netherlands, in the city of Delft. His father was an art dealer and a silk weaver and probably introduced Johannes to painting. His father also owned an inn and worked as an innkeeper while buying and selling art.

Vermeer converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Catherina in 1653. All of Vermeer’s children were named after Catholic saints, and Catholicism influenced his paintings.

No one really seems to know to whom Vermeer apprenticed in order to learn his trade. And painting was considered a ‘trade’ in the Netherlands, much like carpentry. He didn’t make much money and he had a large family, so he had financial difficulties – he followed his father and worked as an art dealer.

It seems that Vermeer never left Delft, but in his city he was respected. The paintings he made were mostly sold to a rich patron in town. He became head of the town’s trade association for painters, “Saint Luke’s Guild.”

Demand for his paintings, and for his work as an art dealer diminished when the French invaded the Netherlands after 1672. Vermeer went broke, and started to borrow money – the pressures became too great and he died 3 years later leaving his wife and children with an estate, but no money. Catherina asked the city council to assume ownership of the Vermeer estate in exchange for relief of their debts.

Vermeer’s works sank into anonymity afterwards; until they were rediscovered in 1866 by Thore Burger, an art critic who pubished an essay about Vermeer, and who attributed (incorrectly) 66 paintings to the artist. (Actual Vermeer artworks are disputed, but 34 are firmly attributed to Vermeer.)

I’m displaying a section of the painting, “The Milkmaid” which was painted sometime in 1658. (Click on the painting to see it in full.) This is an earlier work by Vermeer, and is just as famous as his painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” This painting demonstrates Vermeer’s masterful use of light and color. It also shows incredible detail. I love how vibrant and alive this painting is! I love the touches that, to me, tell little stories, like the foot warming stove on the floor, the figures on the tiles, the bread prepared for breakfast, and the broken window pane.

Other artists, including William Paxton, have studied Vermeer’s use of light and focus; so even though Vermeer’s life was brief, his legacy lives on in traditional ateliers.

1 comment:

DPH Eaton said...

There is a new novel about Vermeer’s early years as an apprentice called FAITH.

In April of 1653, Joannis Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes. He was twenty and she just twenty-one. The marriage had been opposed for numerous reasons: He was still an apprentice; He had no money; He came from a social class which was beneath hers and he was not a Catholic. Still, their marriage endured until his untimely death at the age of forty-three. FAITH is the story of three winter months before his marriage, the most important months of his life. It was a time when his ideas about art, technique and 'reality' were being formed, ideas that would be developed and reflected in all his later work. FAITH is also a love story, a 'probable' love story since nothing is known about the artist's life during this period. The people and events around him in this story are real. There is nothing in this book that could not have happened. Most of it must have.

Available at