The Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, sometimes known as “Jan,” was baptized in Delft on this date in 1632. Not much is known about the first 20 years of Vermeer’s life. His father, Reynier, was an art dealer, and he also ran a tavern. Reynier died in 1652, and Jan inherited both of these businesses. The following year, he married Catharina Bolnes. He also registered as a “master painter” with the Guild of Saint Luke.
Not much is known about when, why, or how he became an artist. He began his career by painting large-scale biblical scenes, but he’s beloved for his small, intimate glimpses into the daily life of a 17th-century Dutch household.
France invaded the Dutch Republic in 1672, and the Dutch economy crashed. Vermeer died in 1675, at the age of 43, possibly from heart attack or stroke as a result of the stress of his mounting debts. His widow later wrote: “As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead.” There was one painting that meant a great deal to Vermeer; he refused to sell it even to pay his creditors, and Catharina went to great lengths to try to keep it in the family after he died. That was The Art of Painting (c. 1668). It depicts an artist at work in his studio, painting a young woman who is posing as Clio, the Muse of History.
Vermeer wasn’t famous during his lifetime. He didn’t produce many paintings to begin with — only about three dozen survive — and most of them were sold to local collectors. Some of his work was credited to other artists, like de Hooch. It wasn’t until 200 years after his death that his reputation spread outside the Netherlands.