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A Magical Domesticity Captured: The Paintings of Johannes Vermeer

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A Magical Domesticity Captured: The Paintings of Johannes Vermeer

By Denise Trull

I once had a professor in college who always insisted we read the introductions to books. I never quite took that admonition to heart, alas. I always blithely skipped over them to get to the "good stuff." But never underestimate the power of a warm blanket and a pot of hot coffee brewing on a snowy day for bringing out the best in introductions. I have owned this large, well-worn volume of Vermeer paintings for many years now, and I confess I have never read one word of the introduction written there. As I settled into my second cup of coffee and wrapped myself like a cocoon against the cold, I decided to mend my ways, turned to page one, and delved.

Jan Vermeer hailed from a providential period in history that was quite fortunate for his countrymen, the Dutch. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch had discovered within themselves a great knack for trade. Being natural sea farers and fishermen, they began to put this talent to good use and set their sites on the trade routes of the Baltic Sea, the English Channel, and the North Sea. They  became the dominant leaders in transporting goods between Russia and Western Europe. This led them to found the Dutch East and West India companies. Great wealth began to pour in from their success. And with this success, a wealthy and thriving merchant class began to blossom. Education and culture grew like happy flowers from their burgeoning society. The Dutch were eager to show off this, their new clout, on the world stage and to impress the French and English especially with their own acquisitions of art painted by their own countrymen. It was a good time to be a painter.

Curiously, however, since there was a long history of Calvinism within the Dutch culture, their idea of success was tempered by the ideals of their religion: thrift, family life, simplicity, sound business. This was in stark contrast to France and England, whose art patrons hailed from the Catholic hierarchy, the royals, and the upper class nobility. The art preferred by these countries consisted in gold, jewels, gaudy, risqué dresses, wigs a mile high, strutting within rich and exotic backgrounds on golden, ostentatious furniture, and sporting a great smattering of tassels, platters of food, and large bouquets of cascading flowers. Decadent might be the word for it.

The Dutch were having none of it; success in their eyes was charmingly portrayed in painted scenes commissioned to reveal serene, well-appointed spaces in their actual homes. These were scenes showing off their modest but pretty furnishings, their tidy thrift, with wives and children plump and healthy inhabiting that scene and doing quite homey things. I found this quite delightful: a whole genre of art emerging that celebrated the home and family and all that is beautiful within it, and that this life would have been the ultimate subject for a wealthy, Dutch “domestic art.”  They desired most of all “realistic portrayals of everyday life.” Many well known Dutch artists stood center stage during this era: Rembrandt, Hals, and Carel Fabritius. Johannes Vermeer was not to be like them in this. 

Jan was born in 1632, and baptized in the city of Delft within the Dutch Reform Church. His father was a skilled weaver of silk and became wealthy doing so. He eventually invested in an inn, prominently placed near a market. Like almost anyone who had wealth to invest at that time, he became an avid art dealer and appraiser. So, his son grew up surrounded by art and artists coming and going. He probably learned techniques from looking directly at the art in his father’s shop and learning from him what was considered good and what was not.

Oddly enough, we hardly know anything else about Johannes Vermeer. We do know that he became a master painter of the Delft painter’s guild of St. Luke on December 29, 1653. He was all of 21. We also know that in that same year he met the love of his life, Catharina Bolnes, who was from a wealthy Catholic family. Catharina’s mother was horrified. She tried to prevent her dead-set daughter from marrying a non Catholic, and went to some lengths to do so. But in the end, her heart softened and she allowed her daughter to fall into the arms of her chosen beloved, Johannes.

Vermeer moved in with his wife and mother and eventually warmed up to their Catholic way of life and converted early in his marriage. His early paintings from this time were Bible scenes and paintings of saints, perhaps to please his mother-in-law. As time went on and the wonderful blessing of children entered his home, the subjects began to change. Johannes and Catharina had a large number of these blessings -- more than ten in fact. All running about their house: boys, girls, in various shapes and sizes, ages, and noise levels. 

Vermeer inherited the inn from his aging father, and also took on his art dealing business, as well as taking up commissions for paintings. He was, in short, a busy man. To my complete disappointment there are no letters anywhere that he has written. We have no sketches or notebooks of any kind with his doodling genius. We know hardly anything about him except that he was magical with a paintbrush and had a genius for capturing light on canvas.

Vermeer was one of thousands of painters who thrived in the artistic renaissance of the Dutch. But oddly, he only painted around 36 known oil paintings that have survived, and in total throughout his lifetime no more than 60 -- a very small number compared to most. I wondered at it.  I simply had to surmise that he didn't have much time to paint, given his other duties, supporting, feeding and clothing ten children. This too is only a surmise, but much to his benefit, the Dutch aesthetic for daily life portrayed was in his favor and well within his expertise and experience. He lived with it daily, and loved it. His paintings do not lie. I can imagine him setting up his easel in the hall or the kitchen and watching what went on in his own home. How he did this with ten children running around a palate full of oil paints is beyond me. But the results are exquisite.

He (like me) loved windows. He was a master at chasing light throughout the day as it came through one window and then another, lighting up one sweet face here and a bowl of milk there. Shining off a pretty, tasteful dress, and a modest smile. These windows were so key to his paintings that some art critics find it curious that he painted shadows on faces which included a distinctive green in the tint, which was unheard of at the time. I think he painted shadows in green because those faces were lit by a stained glass window he loved in his home and the green shone through on the skin.

We see women mostly. Their reactions to letters read, or a beau visiting or a beau denied! We see them pouring milk and doing work to help their husbands bring in money for the household. We see them serenely looking back at us in feminine mystery but not feminine finery. Vermeer showed us the beauty of women happy to be home. We see women leaning into their husbands and loving to do so -- to dwell in their arms and in their homes provided in love. What a wonderful thing! Anyone who looks at a painting by Vermeer finds himself captured by the peace created there. These faces that are simply happy to be mothers and wives in a thriving family. That is a rare beauty caught. It was Vermeer’s genius that captured it for the ages. He is our champion. Like the ancient bards of old, Vermeer sang with his paintbrush the humble yet mighty deeds of our domestic goodness. It makes me glad and proud to be a wife and mother when I am looking at a painting by Vermeer.

He did all this in between running an inn and selling and appraising art, changing diapers, cleaning up spilled paint off the floor, paying taxes and balancing his books. Perhaps running to capture that afternoon sun with a toddler clinging to his leg as he hurriedly mixed his paint. Was it ever too much for him? Did he ever want to give up? Or did he just persevere each day doing one small piece at a time, taking it all in stride.

He gives me great hope in all of this. I am a writer and it is hard to write when I have to go outside the home to work during the week. I love my job, and I am grateful to be able to work in such a lovely place, but my days are all broken up, inspiration is fragmented in bits and pieces, and I need to learn to work around it -- capturing the magic when I can. It can be frustrating if you are an atmospheric writer and need time and quiet to steep in your thoughts. There is a learning curve in doing any art this way. It can tempt you to stop and give it up because it seems too much.

Vermeer has become my hero in this. He learned to paint and capture beauty in between the living of life. He did this with aplomb. He only produced 36 known and surviving oil paintings because of it, but what beauties they are. These few are enough to show us what a wonderful eye he had and what was of importance to his muse. He dwelt in quiet readiness to capture snippets of real life that broiled about him as a father and husband -- and never apart from that life. He ran to his easel whenever he could. He probably had to chase off little kids who put their fingers in his paints or knocked over his canvases. Art happening in the midst of domestic chaos. It’s a lovely thought. A most encouraging thought to any of us who have been called to the arts of any kind and must find ways of making them happen within the context of family life lived.

I love especially how no one knew of him until he had died. Perhaps because he was a Catholic in a predominantly Calvinist area. Catholics were tolerated but perhaps not preferred by Dutch Reformed art patrons, alas. They say his main customer and patron was a baker, whose shop was down the street from where he lived. What a lucky baker, indeed. Did he ever wonder at the treasure he possessed? Vermeer died at the age of 43 and was deeply in debt, as is the way with many an artist. He had never been successful as a painter in his time. Only later, 200 years after his death, was he discovered by an enthusiastic art critic in France named Etienne Thore, and Msgr. Thore released his magic to the modern world.

Vermeer has always been one of my favorite painters, and now I know the why of it. He has gained a great audience in our time. People are mesmerized by his simple scenes all bathed in light, this champion of the real woman. This genius who has captured us in the beauty we possess beyond fancy clothing, make-up, or wealthy furnishings. He literally shed a magic light on what it is to be content as husbands, wives and children working, praying, and living in our domestic churches. 

In the end, I am quite glad I heeded my old teachers advice just this once! I shall read more introductions from now on, I believe.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

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