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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jan Vermeer

In a day when any artist worth talking about has his complete biography available on the Internet, it's difficult for us to imagine an artist about whom very little is known. That would be the case, however, in looking at the life of Jan Vermeer. He lived in the first half of the seventeenth century in Delft, Holland, the son of an Innkeeper. He died at the age of 43, bankrupt, leaving behind a wife, eleven children, and no more than forty known paintings, all of which would go a long way in explaining his chronic money problems. He seems to have been well thought of by his fellow artists in that they twice chose him as president of the local artists' guild. Beyond that, we know little about the man.

Allegory of Painting (The Artist's Studio),
1665-67, Jan Vermeer

Characteristically, the one painting that appears to be a self-portrait depicts the artist's back to the viewer. The painting, titled Allegory of Painting (the Artist in his Studio), is also one of his best. Vermeer paints himself seated at his easel in a cluttered, well-lit studio, apparently working on a portrait of a well-dressed young woman bearing an over sized volume, her face and figure lit by his trademark window on the left. The actual light source is obscured from view by a massive, patterned draper. The tiled floor gives evidence of an interest in perspective, and the whole of the composition is marked by a crisscrossing pattern of vertical and horizontal lines with an occasional diagonal to avoid monotony. Nearly all of Vermeer's paintings follow this basic formula--a middle-class woman involved in some routine, female duty lit by natural light from the left with exquisite attention to minute detail, color, composition, and texture.

View of Delft, 1660-61, Jan Vermeer
Every one of Vermeer's works are interiors. Even the two urban "landscapes" he painted are seen through a window. One is titled The Little Street, painted in 1658, and is remarkable in that it crops the facade of a building on the right while using only minimal linear perspective. Like his other paintings, the three female figures in the otherwise deserted street scene are engaged in simple domestic chores. His other landscape, a View of Delft, painted around 1660, is considered one of the best-loved landscapes ever. Even during his lifetime, perhaps even by the artist himself, his works were considered experimental, which would probably explain why, when he died, he was largely forgotten as an artist for nearly 200 years.

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