November 1, 2012
On Oct. 31, 1632, the Flemish painter Johannes Vermeer was baptized in the beautiful, canal-lined, Dutch Republic city of Delft. The local gentry coveted his paintings, but after his death in December 1675, his richly textured works fell into a black hole of obscurity. He was ignored for nearly two hundred years by art dealers, critics and historians, but he is now considered one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age (Rembrandt being perhaps the most famous name of the period).
Little is known of Vermeer’s personal life; and he, unlike Rembrandt and other great painters of the era, did not produced many paintings. Historians attribute about 36 paintings to Vermeer, and one Delft resident, Pieter van Ruijven, bought half of those. Rembrandt and other Dutch masters produced sketchs, prints, as well as paintings and saw their fame spread across Europe. Vermeer did not stray from Delft, and local collectors afforded him enough of a living to paint, though he never received wealth or fame.
Vermeer was born into a very interesting society, and one that foreshadowed our own.
The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was created from a collection of feudal duchies and bishoprics in the Low Countries (what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), which were controlled by the Holy Roman Empire. The taxation and religious persecution of Protestants under Philip II of Spain, who had succeeded his father, Charles V, in 1556 as Holy Roman Emperor, incited a rebellion led by William I of Orange in 1568. The Republic forged by William became a global commercial power.
The Dutch Republic held an unusual place among the European nations. It was a federation of independent provinces, and smaller states that had agreed to be ruled by a federal government called the States-General with representatives from the seven feudal provinces, the Duchy of Guelders, the County of Holland, the County of Zeeland, the Bishopric of Utrecht, the Lordship of Overijssl, the Lordship of Frisia, and the Lordship of Groningen and Ommelanden. The federation law was governed by a constitution, the Constitution of the Republic of the SevenProvinces, which is cited by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Federalist Papers No. 20 to support the argument for a strong President, and Executive Branch, to settle disputes between the separate but equal states.
The Dutch Republic was an economic success, with the Dutch East India Company heralding the success of independent commercial companies in other European countries, particularly England, which adapted. The Dutch merchant navy was successful in blunting the power of the Portuguese. But the free-market success of the Republic eventually succumbed to fights between the religious factions. Although there was no state church, and individuals had the right to practice religion freely, in practice the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church became a de facto state church; Catholic services were effectively banned; and office holders had to be communicants of the Reformed Church.
But Dutch Catholics continued to control significant wealth, and in 1653, Vermeer married into a reasonably wealthy Catholic family, who likely introduced the talented artist to other families with the capacity to collect art. When the French invaded in 1672, and the English took advantage, the Dutch Republic experienced a severe financial crisis, called the Year of Disaster, the depression destroyed the art market and left Vermeer with virtually no income. The recovery took more than five years, and Vermeer died in debt in 1675.
Rediscovered in the 19th century, Vermeer’s pieces of city life reveal a keen eye for the restrained passion of daily life.