After Vermeer’s death his widow Catharina undertook a series of legal and financial actions, probably to prevent bankruptcy. These are recorded in extensive documents. On 27 January 1676, she pledged two paintings by her late husband to the baker Hendrik van Buyten, in lieu of payment of ‘the sum of 6 I 6 guilder and 6 stuivers …owed to van Buyten far delivered bread.’
Two weeks later, on 10 February, Catharina contracted to sell ’26 pieces, large paintings and small, far the sum of 500 guilders’ in order to satisfy another of her shopping bills. It has often been maintained that these twenty- six paintings must have been works by Vermeer. It seems most unlikely, however, that Catharina would have sold twenty-six of her late husband’s works for the sum of 500 guilders, when only two weeks earlier the mere pledge of two of them satisfied a creditor with a 600 guilder claim. The documents suggest that she owned only a very few paintings by Vermeer, and that she took every measure possible to retain ownership of them. This would explain why, on 24 February, she sold ‘a painting by …her late husband, representing the Art of Painting’ to her own mother, Maria Thin, ‘in partial settlement of her debt’.
A few days later, on 29 February, an inventory was made of the contents of the house on the Oude Langedijk, probably because of a threatening bankruptcy. Catharina’s property was listed separately from her mother’s. It included some framed drawings, and twenty-four paintings-among them heads by Fabritius and Hoogstraten, ‘a large painting of Christ on the cross’, ‘alle containing a bass fiddle with a death’s-head’, and another representing ‘Cupid’. The last three are surely the same paintings Vermeer depicted in the background of some of his own works. Significantly, no paintings by Vermeer himself are mentioned. ”
None of these measures were effective: on 30 April the High Court of Delft declared Catharina bankrupt. She stated that she was ‘charged with the care of eleven living children. Her husband, having been able to earn little or nothing in the years since the war with the King of France, was forced ‘to sell at a great loss the paintings he had bought and in which he traded, in order to feed the aforementioned children, thereby falling so deeply into debt that she was unable to satisfy all her creditors (who are not willing to take into consideration her great losses and bad luck caused by the war).’
In the autumn the biologist Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, not yet famous for his work with the microscope, was appointed trustee ofher estate. Angry objections were voiced to Catharina’s prior disposal of paintings to certain creditors, such as her mother, which was interpreted as prejudicial to the interests of the other creditors. Despite strong protest, her mother was instructed to relinquish The Art of Painting for sale at auction.
by Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632-1675, London, 1978, pp. 10-11