While Vermeer’s personality eludes us, a look at his professional attitude brings a bit more satisfaction.
The portrait that historians have painted of Vermeer has varied according to the interpretation of the scant. A century ago, historians like Bredius and Hofstede de Groot tended to cast Vermeer in a tragic light: they believed he lived in poverty and died in distress, at the same time, ignored by his contemporaries. During another period, historians perceived him as an artist totally lacking in ambition. And during a third period, more recently, exemplified by P. T. A. Swillens and John Michael Montias, they see Vermeer as a man dedicated to his art but somewhat a recluse, with the major cultural events of the United Provinces.
In order to define Vermeer’s art and understand it within the context of Dutch painting, every known fact of his life, no matter how insignificant was, has been passed through a fine comb. Recent scholarship tends to focus on the relations that the painter entertained with members of the Dutch cultural elite, even though some of these relationships are probable but unproven. The artist’s “elitist“ subjects and refined facture of his canvases, together with his ambitious artistic agenda and even the upward direction of his marriage, have convinced art historians that Vermeer was a sort of good courtier who conversed his work at the highest social level.
For example, one of the richest citizens of Delft, called Pieter van Ruijven, had collected almost half of Vermeer’s output, an extraordinary painter/client relationship in any age. We know that the artist received visits from well-heeled gentlemen: like, for example, the French connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys and Pieter Teding van Berckhout.
During his life, one of Vermeer’s compositions found its way into the hands of Diego Duarte, an immensely rich Antwerp jeweler, once more, a friend of Huygens. Duarte’s inventory reports a “Young Lady playing the clavecin, with accessories” (perhaps the” Lady Seated at a Virginal”). To give some sort of idea of the stature of Duarte’s collection, it is enough to know that he possessed more than two hundred paintings by masters such as Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck. Duarte was an accomplished musician and also a composer.
Even if Vermeer had gained access to the circles of elite collectors, he died in poverty. In part, his demise was his own doing. Having sold the good part of his slim production (truly slim by any standard) to one single collector in his native Delft, his fame was destined to remain substantially within the city walls of Delft. In a sense, a single work of art, no matter what its artistic worth may be, has very short legs. In those times, there existed no commercial art galleries and no museums where the public lined up to see paintings and specialized art publications were unheard of. If an artist wished to diffuse his images, the most efficient channel was through engraving and etching techniques.
The other cause of Vermeer’s premature downfall was beyond his control. In his last years, the French army had repeatedly invaded the United Provinces bringing the Dutch economy to its knees. The art market, which is historically is the first to take the brunt of bad news, had all but collapsed.
Another recent view has also been put forth. Robert D. Huerta underlines the conceptual and methodological links between the Delft painter Vermeer and his near neighbor and exact contemporary, the microscopic Antony van Leeuwenhoek. Huerta’s study considers the close connections between painting and science during the seventeenth century. He argues that Vermeer’s use of the “camera obscura” parallels Van Leeuwenhoek’s pursuit of the “optical way,” and embodies a profound philosophical connection between these investigators. Thus, Vermeer’s informed observations enabled him to confront the same issues as other natural philosophers regarding the interpretation of unfamiliar images presented by instrumental systems (viz, the telescope, microscope, “camera obscura”).