It is difficult to imagine that the father of 11 children was not in some way or another influenced by their presence. Many critics have noticed the apparent difference between Vermeer’s perfectly-ordered interiors and what may have been the artist’s daily life with a brood of children. Where are the cradles, beds and chairs, according to the inventory taken after his death, spread out over the house?
Contrary to many Dutch genre painters such as Jan Steen, Nicolaes Maes and Gabriel Metsu whose pictures literally overflow with children, Vermeer gave them only two small, but poetic parts to some of his plays.
The problem is not as difficult as it may seem. Simply put, Vermeer’s paintings were not intended biographical statements. Even though they do represent contemporary settings and modes, they were not meant to reflect the conditions of his personal life. Vermeer worked within established and well defined genre categories and some critics believe that the artist wished to express the arrogant values associated with traditional history painting.
Vermeer’s principle biographer was John Michael Montias. He maintains that even though the lack of disorder represented by such a large family may seem conspicuous; he says about the artist’s that the “subjects and the way he handled them are rooted in much earlier experience and were invariant to the things that happened to him in his adult years.”
Curiously enough, Vermeer directly portrayed children only two times in 35 paintings, once in The Little Street (picture) and another time in The View of Delft (picture) where a young girl can be seen with an infant in her arms to the extreme left of the foreground. There are however, more than a few indirect representations of children in other paintings. A painting-within-a-painting of Cupid appears either partially or entirely in three other works and we can also see that children are represented on the tile baseboards in The Milkmaid , A Woman Standing at a Spinet and A Lady Seated at a Spinet.
These decorated baseboards, fabricated in Delft, were commonly found in Dutch houses and were widely exported. They protected the lower part of the white-washed walls from passing mops. However, even if Vermeer’s miniscule renditions of the children that populate them do express something of the children’s naive simplicity; they were most likely included as a comment on the principle theme of the picture. In the case of the Lady Standing at a Spinet, the little Cupid on the tile directly to the left of the lower portion of the woman’s silk gown, subtly reinforces the representation of the large-scale painting of a Cupid which hangs on the back wall in an ebony frame.
The figure just to the left of the woman’s gown is similar to the fishing Cupid in a print from Hooft’s Emblemata amatoria. “Hooft’s emblem plays on the conventional comparison of courtship to fishing. In Vermeer’s Cupid tile, the fishing rod is visible, the proportions of the figure are consistent with Cupid, and the dark shape on his back can only be his stubby wings. (The same figure may be repeated on a tile to the right, partially obscured by the virginal’s leg.) Prints like that from Hooft’s book often served as patterns for tiles. Contemporary viewers who were familiar with these recurring designs on their own walls would readily have identified the Cupid in Vermeer’s tile.”