New Light on Vermeer

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

A new book by Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine and Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum, makes new claims about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Only Rembrandt is more acclaimed than Vermeer among Dutch Golden Age painters but very little is known about Vermeer, whose surviving output consists of 37 paintings and no drawings. We know that at least five of paintings were lost before modern times, but, because how slowly Vermeer painted meant that in his 23-year career, he did not have the opportunity to make many more.

No letters, diaries or contracts survive, so indirect circumstantial evidence is often the best we can get for this elusive figure. Every so often research sheds new light – for example, when a historian discovered the exact location for the painting Little Street – but there have been no big discoveries. This book contains no big revelations. It comes ahead of a large retrospective exhibition of Vermeer’s painting at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (10 February-4 June).

Vermeer was born into a Protestant family in Delft and had one sister, who married a picture framer. Vermeer probably converted to Catholicism to marry Catherina Bolnes in 1653. Baptismal records are absent for the period, so confirmation for his conversion is lacking. The couple lived with her mother and a rapidly growing number of children (ten surviving at the time of his death). The one fragment of testimony we have is that the strain of supporting his family following the economic depression of 1672 drove him into “a frenzy” and a sudden death. (Commentators have speculated about alcoholism and depression, associating it with a drop off in quality of the last paintings.) The painter joined the minority community of Catholics around a Jesuit centre in Protestant northern Holland, trading pictures (like his father) but also painting his own. Weber’s case is that the Jesuits played more of a part in Vermeer’s working practice and iconography than hitherto recognised.

The lavishly illustrated book shows the art that Vermeer made, the art he owned and pictures he would have seen and sold as picture merchant. Pictures by contemporaries show how close Vermeer was to his contemporaries. Work by the Utrecht Caravaggisti were a formative influence and one at least appears as a background of a Vermeer picture. Weber cannot confirm whether Vermeer trained with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who died in a massive gunpowder explosion that devastated Delft, so it is still unclear who Vermeer’s master was. Art owned by Jesuits may have been accessible to the young Vermeer, who made a copy of an Italian painting of saint.

Weber goes on to give examples of where the Catholic order produced theory and practical devices that explored the power and nature of light. Vermeer worked meticulously, using an optical device called a camera obscura (which uses a lens to project light on to a flat surface) to design his paintings. The author suggests that the artist was introduced to this machine by the Jesuits, perhaps inheriting one in 1656. Weber writes that Vermeer’s painting Allegory of Faith (c. 1670-4) follows Jesuit iconography. Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) – a painter personally known to Vermeer – painted an allegory of faith similar to Vermeer’s, produced a few years earlier. There is a resemblance but the treatment and iconography is quite different.    

More Jesuit influence is detected in paintings of women with jewellery. Again, this is plausible, without being more than a possibility. Vermeer’s art has sufficient depth and ambiguity to leave it open to more lines of interpretation than more obvious paintings by his contemporaries, Gerrit Dou, Metsu, Pieter der Hooch and others. Certainly, Weber’s case should be entertained, though one would need to be very well versed in Dutch theology and iconography to make a decisive case pro or contra.

Gregor J.M. Weber, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, Rijksmuseum, 2023, 168pp, fully illus., paperback, €25, ISBN 978 94 6208 758 3