id Vermeer ever paint his wife Catharina Bolnes? Were his sitters professional models, friends or relatives? Although no evidence survives that would connect any Vermeer’s sitters to known individuals, the artist’s style of living and working habits suggests he may have used his wife, daughters, even a maid to pose for some of his paintings. Gerrit ter Borch, a fellow Dutch artist whose discreet genre interiors probably inspired some of Vermeer’s own compositions, frequently employed members of his own family as models, in particular his step-sister Gesina. Alejandro Vergara, who curated the Vermeer and the Dutch Interior exhibition (2003, Madrid) feels that “the tenderness with which Ter Borch portrays this woman on numerous occasions indicates his fondness for her.” From a practical point of view, not having to pay models for long hours of posing may have represented a significant economic advantage.
Critics have dedicated only passing comments about the identity of Vermeer’s sitters. Other than the lack of historical evidence, the scarcity of in-depth inquiry in regards may be due to the fact that it is generally believed that Vermeer’s interiors are not biographical statements: that is, they are not portraits. Consequentially, the eventual individual identity of the sitters is of little importance to our understanding of Vermeer’s art since it was irrelevant to Vermeer’s artistic intentions.
In any case, critics have seen Catharina’s likeness in one painting or another. The most frequent candidates are the Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, and Woman Holding a Balance (see images below). She has the same high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes and also appears to be pregnant in two of the pictures. In less than two decades, Catharina is know to have bore Johannes 15 children, a few of which did not survive infancy. However, modern scholarship has not come to agreement to the fact that these, or any other women in Vermeer’s paintings, were portrayed while they were carrying children. (see Were Some of the Women in Vermeer’s Paintings Pregnant?) Pregnant women were probably not considered beautiful from a an esthetic point of view and pregnant women in Dutch 17th c. painting occur only rarely. Would Vermeer, who seemed entirely content to work within the established framework of contemporary themes and compositions, have addressed such an unconventional theme such as that of a pregnant women?
Another candidate is the young woman dressed in the characteristic lemon yellow morning jacket who looks out directly at the viewer from A Lady Writing. It has been noted that the painting, more than others, “possesses a singularity and mood that points to it being a portrait.”1 Arthur Wheelock, in the Johannes Vermeer catalogue, wrote: “The problem of identifying the sitter, however, seems insurmountable. The most likely candidate is that she is his wife, Catharina Bolnes, who, having been born in 1631, would have been in her early-to-mid thirties when Vermeer painted the work. While it is difficult to judge the age of models in painting, such an age does seem appropriate for this figure. Little else, however, confirms this hypothesis.”
Woman Holding a Balance
Woman in Blue reading a Letter.
Woman reading a letter by an open window
Catharina Bolnes and Johannes Vermeer
Even though we know nothing of Catharina’s character, we do some facts about her childhood, her troubled family life and her marriage with Vermeer which have been gathered from documents drawn up by contemporary notaries. Recently, the novel and film Girl with a Pearl Earring has portrayed Catharina in an very unpleasant light. She is characterized as a jealous, selfish, superficial and spoiled young woman. Perhaps worse, she is sadly incapable of understanding her husband’s art to the point that she attempts to destroy one of her husband’s finest paintings in a hysterical fit of envy. However, in a recent interview Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque Painting of the National Gallery, organizer of the historic 1995/1996 Vermeer exhibition as well as author of important publications on the Delft master has noted: “the film was quite beautiful, but I had a hard time with the characterization of Mrs. Vermeer. She was portrayed as a very unpleasant individual. And there’s nothing at all remotely to suggest that in what we know about her. She was a model for a lot of his work. I don’t think the picture is fair to her memory.” (to read Mr. Wheelock’s interview, click here). 2
Writer and London Times columnist Simon Jenkins has penned a strongly critical article entitled Johannes Vermeer, you’ve been framed (to read Jenkin’s article, click here) in which he attempts to picked apart the premise of the novel and film. Jenkins is extremely unsatisfied with both the portrayal of Vermeer and his wife as well as with the idea that Griet, the author’s fictitious young maid, had posed for Vermeer’s masterwork Girl with a Pearl Earring. He argues that the negative images of Catharina and Johannes Vermeer “are doomed to be forever fixed in the public imagination as the ‘true’ Vermeer.” According to Jenkins that is wholly at odds with all that scholars have gleaned of Vermeer’s home life…” and that “there is not a shred of evidence that Johannes and Catharina were unhappily married.” Jenkins is convinced that Vermeer’s youngest daughter, Maria, posed for the Mauritshuis masterpiece.
In effect, even though there is no historical evidence that speak directly of the nature of Vermeer’s relationship with his wife, surviving archival documents would on the contrary seem to suggest that Johannes and Catharina had been a reasonably good, if not finely matched couple. The had 15 children (some of them did not survive infancy) a rare occurrence in 17th c. Netherlands where most couples had only two or three children. While the burden of so many children may have certainly made itself felt, their choice to have an unusually large family must have been taken mutually since other couples who desired so evidently managed to keep their families within limits. Simon Schama3 has shown family planning was avidly practiced by the 17th-century Dutch, Catholics included. When questioning himself on the singularity of Vermeer’s marriage to Catharina, John Michael Montias, in his seminal study of Vermeer’s extended family Vermeer and His Milieu, suggests that it was love which attracted the two and goes on to note that ” ‘ Romantic love ‘ was not unknown in mid-seventeenth century Holland. Indeed, it was thought to be a source of artistic aspiration.”
If the public were to come to believe that the portrayal of Catharina as an antagonist to her husband’s life and work was accurate, a deep injustice will have been dealt to both of their memories. Unfortunately, archival documents indicate quite clearly that Catharina had suffered a great deal before her marriage and after the death of Johannes. Her childhood memories were “full of violence, fits of temper and tears. Her father, after 13 years of being married, had become an ogre. Maria’s (Catharina’s mother) relatives and neighbors were to testify that they saw him insulting his wife, kicking her, pulling her naked from her bed by her hair when she was sick, attacking her with a stick when she was pregnant, and chasing her out of the house. On one occasion, Catharina aged nine, ran to some neighbors in fright, yelling that her father was about to kill her sister Cornelia.”3
After childhood, her tragedy did not end. Johannes died leaving her an enormous debt and numerous children to care for with no one to help except for her mother Maria Thins. Notary documents offer us another glimpse into her hardships as she later struggled desperately to keep her husband’s masterpiece, The Art of Painting and another work, from the hands of her creditors. One would at least suspect that she had acted so because of her love of her husband and her pride in his work. Perhaps the brief years with Johannes were the most happy ones.