Artists Who Died Before 50: Jan Vermeer
Artists who died too young.
It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.
That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done.
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time.
This is the story of Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)
Vermeer was the leading figure of the Delft School, and for sure one of the greatest landscape painters of all time. Works such as “View of the Delft” are considered almost “impressionist” due to the liveliness of his brushwork. He was also a skilled portraitist, as seen in “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
Born Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer, on October 31, 1632 in Delft, Netherlands, he joined the painter’s guild when he was 20 and served as the dean from 1662 to ’63. He is one of the most highly regarded Dutch artists of all time. His father worked as a tavern keeper and an art merchant, but little is know about Vermeer before the age of 20. There is no record of who he may have apprenticed under or whether he studied art abroad. He likely had a Calvinist upbringing but converted to Catholicism when he married his Catholic wife, Catherina Bolnes.
Did you see the movie "Girl with a Pearl Earring"?
Influenced by Rembrandt
Some experts believe that he was influenced by Rembrandt and Caravaggio. I'm not so sure about that. Rembrandt is famous for his paintings with lots of dark obscure backgrounds and light on the subject as if someone just opened a window. His method went to price of paint. The brighter colors were just more expensive than the dark earth-tones so he used the earth-tones liberally and saved the light for the more vital parts. Vermeer spent some money on his vibrant blues, using the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, and the reds and yellows also. He didn't seem to mind spending money on the colors that would make his paintings glow. His master works focus on domestic life and indoor scenes such as “The Milkmaid.” He had an obvious fascination with light and the way it plays on fabric and the human figure, especially through windows. His works are positively luminous. Because of his realistic renderings of domestic figures, we have an eternal record of both costuming of the middle class of Holland at that time, but also of domestic workers. The amazing thing about this is that portrayal of everyday life was not popular until the Impressionists in the late 1800’s. In my opinion, this makes Vermeer ahead of his time.
Girl with a Pearl Earring movie
The 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, as well as the 2003 film adaptation of the book made this painting and the artist a household name. Because little is known about Vermeer’s life outside of the facts that he was married, had 11 children and his paintings, the novelist and filmmakers could fill in anything and it would seem plausible. I did enjoy the book and movie, both, but felt a lot of freedom was taken with a man’s motives and methods that may or may not be true. He was not well-known outside his community for many centuries and only achieved fame later. His work was largely overlooked by art historians for two centuries after his death. Today his paintings are hung in many prominent museums around the globe. It is sad that there are only 36 paintings officially attributed to him. Many copied his style and one, Han van Meegeren, a 20th-century Dutch painter became a master forger and sold many “Vermeer” paintings until he was caught and convicted. Because of this many Vermeer paintings have been called into question and be validated by experts.
Died at 43
The last few years of his life were accompanied by severe financial problems brought on by the Dutch economic disaster after the French invaded the Netherlands. Vermeer’s wife, Catharina attributed his death to stress of financial matters as an artist and as an art dealer. He was only 43 years old.
Many people have been blessed and influenced by Vermeer and his work. There is still question as to whether he used a camera obscura to trace and paint his work onto the canvases he worked on. Some believe it is obvious and that he couldn’t have achieved the photorealism that he did any other way and still others show there is no definitive proof. In a film documentary called Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison went about trying to prove that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura and curved mirror similar in concept to a camera lucida. It is still a controversial subject among artists and art historians. I personally think with or without a camera, his works were masterpieces and to be revered as such.
Mixing your own paint
One of the things that most impressed me with the book and movie, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was the depiction of how the paints were ground and mixed. Before the days of convenient tubes of oil paint, artists had to grind raw materials, semi-precious stones and minerals, mix them with oil and water and resin to achieve a smooth paste suitable for painting with. If the mixture was badly mixed, it would chip and flake off the canvas. It was almost an art form in itself to mix the paints properly. I loved that the movie took the time to show that grinding and mixing technique since I have read about it but have never had to experience it.
Have $30 million dollars?
If you are interested, there are many places that sell replicas of Vermeer’s paintings for $30 and up, but the last original Vermeer to sell at auction took over $30 million in 2004. To own one is to have a small fortune hanging on your wall. The auction house wouldn’t reveal the person who bought the Vermeer but it is believed that a casino owner in Las Vegas bought it. It was stated then that it is unlikely that a Vermeer will ever come to market again. Those few who own them want to keep them.