Vermeer: Rags to riches in just 300 years

When Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” sold at auction in 2004, it fetched $30 million, a record for the artist and a remarkable achievement for the Dutch Baroque painter who left his wife and 10 children destitute when he died 335 years ago.

While Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt are the three big names in the golden age of Dutch art, Vermeers are rare, with fewer than 40 known.

Part of Vermeer’s holdup in turning out work seems to be that he was extremely methodical. Rembrandt, by comparison, produced some 300 painting and another 300 prints.

According to author Sandra Forty, “(Vermeer) seems rarely to have sold a painting, although when he did it apparently paid well: one is known to have sold for 600 guilders, although fashionable Amsterdam painters could command much higher prices for their work.”

Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colors and sometimes expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

In an age when there were thousands of Dutch artists competing for commissions, Vermeer lived hand to mouth most of the time, Forty adds in her 2009 work, Vermeer.

Vermeer’s productivity was also sapped by the fact that he died at age 43, in 1675.

“He was so deeply in debt by this time that his estate was declared insolvent,” Forty writes. “Almost the only thing he could leave his wife were what was left of his paintings, 29 of them, and three by Fabritius, his mentor.”

A few months after Vermeer’s death, his widow had to apply for writ of insolvency.

Recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, he slipped into obscurity after his death; and was omitted from most all surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries until the mid-19th century.

Since being rediscovered Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

(Above: The Girl with the Wineglass, by Vermeer)

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