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Johannes, or Jan, Vermeer, was born in Delft of the Dutch Republic and baptized there on October 31, 1632. He died 43 years later and was buried on December 15, 1675. From that span of years, he left behind a widow, at least eight children, a treasure-trove of paintings showing intimate views of Delft, and little else, including hard facts about his life.
Where his fellow Dutchman, Rembrandt, bequeathed the world close to 100 pictures of himself, Vermeer gave us only one possible self-portrait contained off to the side in The Procuress. His signature is scattered among legal documents from the time and we can find quotes and even a poem about him from his contemporaries. He was promoted to the head of the Guild of St. Luke by his fellow painters in 1662 and we even have a detailed inventory of the items in his home after his death. However, from the man himself, we hear nothing.
Or do we?
So little is known about his life and yet, in some ways, his paintings offer us the most intimate part of him: his view of the world. He let us into the rooms of his home where he lived out the relatively short years of his life, often giving us glimpses of family members, servants, and every-day objects found around the house. In View of Delft, he takes us on a walk along the canal, showing us a typical morning in his time. He allows us to experience an afternoon outside his door in The Little Street, complete with women attending their chores and children attending their games. And all of these snippets of time were recorded with a clarity of vision and depth of expression rarely seen at the time or even since.
Much conjecture exists about how he created these photographic-like scenes, though most scholars agree that he used some kind of viewing apparatus to aid in his work. However, what exactly he used and how much he relied upon it to create his masterpieces will most likely never be known. Theories have ranged from a camera obscura – a device that projects a scene from a brightly-lit area on to a flat surface in a dark room or box – to a more modern suggestion that he simply used a mirror. Still, despite the fact that his skill and eye for aesthetics are quite evident, many art historians are loathe to suggest that he used any kind of device at all, offended at the idea that he might, in some way, have “cheated.”
And while I think these debates are interesting and can add an element of intrigue to picture talks with older students, the beauty of Charlotte Mason’s principles in art study is that we, and our students, need not be caught up in these scholarly debates or question marks surrounding his life. When we look at his pieces, we can immerse ourselves in the serenity of his settings, the delicateness of his lighting, and the quotidian tasks of his models. We can ponder them together and imagine what the girl in the red hat is about to say or what the letter contains or wonder what thoughts run through the woman’s mind as she looks at the empty balance. These are pieces offering many opportunities for contemplation that will hang wonderfully in the “halls of [our] imagination” and, as Ms. Mason suggests, when doing our picture talks, “there must be knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced; that is, children should learn pictures, line by line, group by group, by reading, not books, but pictures themselves.” (vol 6, p 214)
Today I’m offering an updated Johannes Vermeer Picture Study Aid (PDF and printed versions available!) with a brief summary of his life, key topics about seven of his paintings (four of which are different than the previous version I offered), and printable versions of the pieces discussed (without artist name or titles) at the end. There is also an option to purchase professionally printed copies of the pieces discussed as well.
Though there aren’t many concrete facts about Vermeer’s life, biographers and art historians have managed to piece details together based on quotes, legal documents, and general knowledge about Delft from the short span of his life there. A few of these books have been particularly helpful in putting together this picture study aid:
- Vermeer: A View of Delft by Anthony Bailey
- Vermeer: The Complete Works by Karl Schütz
- The Milkmaid by Walter Liedtke
Traces of Vermeer by Jane Jelley also looked compelling, but because of time constraints, I chose to read Anthony Bailey’s biography over this one so I have no experience with it.
Also, the book Discovering the Great Masters by Paul Crenshaw is on the AO Year 12 book list and has a short write-up for The Art of Painting.
And for children:
- The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations With Seven Works of Art by Bob Raczka – This would be good for older students or parents wanting to know more about the pieces. I would not recommend this for younger students. It includes The Milkmaid, The Geographer, The Art of Painting (titled “The Artist in His Studio”), and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, among others.
- Anna and Johanna by Geraldine Elschner – This is purely fictional and tells the “story” of two characters in Vermeer’s paintings (The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker).
There were a few others for children that looked interesting but I was unable to get from the library to review:
- Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
- Vermeer’s Daughter: A Novel by Barbara Shoup
- Vermeer’s Secret World by Vincent Etienne
If you are interested in diving more into the debate about what he may have used to aid in his painting (camera obscura, mirror, etc.), the documentary Tim’s Vermeer is also very interesting.
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis or study of each piece, and that is intentional. I tried to keep it all very simple in the spirit of there being, “no talk about schools of painting, little about style; consideration of these matters comes in later life, the first and most important thing is to know the pictures themselves. As in a worthy book we leave the author to tell his own tale, so do we trust a picture to tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it. In the region of art as else-where we shut out the middleman.” (vol 6 pg 216)
For enjoying art with children in general, I also included a page of art sources that I’ve found particularly good:
Online Art Collections
For younger children, I highly recommend the Mini-Master series by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober. Also, the Touch The Art series by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo.
For both younger and older children, the Come Look With Me series by Gladys S. Blizzard is excellent.
You may download it below for personal use in your own homeschool (Ambleside Online, another Charlotte Mason curriculum, or otherwise). If you have any feedback or suggestions, please fill out this form!