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15+ Secrets Of Paintings By Jan Vermeer – The Mysterious Master Of Light And Shadow

The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer created no more than 45 paintings and was forgotten for 2 centuries after his death. Now his paintings are one of the most expensive in the world, they are exhibited all over the world and enjoy wild success. What is its uniqueness? Why is it impossible to take your eyes off Vermeer’s works even after 4 centuries?

Happy Worthy Life has delved into the work of this Dutch artist and will try to explain by examples what his talent and skill are.

Very little is known about Vermeer’s life, therefore it is sometimes called the “Delft Sphinx”

Born in 1632, Jan Vermeer married and lived most of his life in Delft. The artist had 15 children, and even for those times it was a lot.

Vermeer painted each picture for an average of 2 years, although the size of most paintings is small – approximately 50 × 50 cm. The artist worked in a typical genre of that time and portrayed middle-class people or maids at work and at leisure. Painting was not the only source of income for him: Vermeer traded in art and made good money on it.

The most famous painting by the artist is “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

“Girl with a Pearl Earring”, Mauritshuis Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands

This painting was once bought for only 2.5 guilders (about 100 rubles). According to one version, Vermeer’s daughter is depicted on the canvas, but there is no reliable information on this. A recent study of the picture showed that pearls can be fake: it is too large to be natural. In addition, scientists have not found a loop or hook with which the “pearl” is attached to the ear.

Vermeer lived only 43 years, leaving the family without a livelihood. His wife had to give up everything in order to somehow pay off her debts. She left herself only one, the artist’s most beloved painting – “The Art of Painting”.

After death, the name of the artist was forgotten for many years. Only in the 1860s, Vermeer’s paintings came into the view of art critics, and soon they began to be bought by wealthy collectors and state museums. Throughout his life, Jan Vermeer wrote no more than 40–45 paintings, but this was enough to be recognized as a great artist in the 20th century and put on a par with Rembrandt and Van Gogh. And by the end of this article, you will understand why.

Take a close look at these pictures. What do you think unites them?

“Mistress and Maid”, Frick Collection, New York, USA
Geographer, Staedel Institute of Art, Frankfurt, Germany
© Google Art Project  
Glass of Wine, Berlin Art Gallery, Berlin, Germany

And here’s a solution: a secret in expertly prescribed light

The light on the canvases of Jan Vermeer is scattered so naturally and beautifully that it seems as if the characters are about to come to life. No wonder the heroes of his paintings are so often depicted precisely near the windows. Perhaps more than any artist could not so accurately convey the play of light and shadow in his works.

Canvases of Vermeer are fraught with a lot of hidden characters

“Woman with Weights,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Look at the picture Woman with Weights. It would seem that the plot of the canvas is simple and there is hardly any mystery hidden in it. But everything is not so clear.

The light pouring from a window under the ceiling illuminates each subject to a different degree and gives a picture of mystery. A mirror hangs near the window; on the wall is a picture of the Last Judgment. On the table are caskets with gold, pearls and money. Now pay attention to the scales that a woman holds in her hands. Their cups are empty, and this symbolizes the coming Judgment at the end of human life. There is an opinion that the artist’s wife Katarina served as a model for this picture.

“A Girl Reading a Letter by the Open Window”, Gallery of Old Masters, Dresden, Germany

One of the most common stories in Vermeer’s canvases is a girl who reads a letter from her beloved. The painter placed the emphasis on the paintings so that the audience could guess what these letters were talking about.

Take a look at the picture “Girl reading a letter by the open window”. And again this magical light: it literally breaks into grains and softly illuminates both the room and the girl herself, at the same time as if giving her hope. A wide-open window hints at a desire for change and, perhaps, a desire to meet a loved one.

But look at the heroine: her eyes are lowered. Perhaps her dreams have just collapsed, and the letter she reads is to blame. It is believed that the picture is hidden in a lovingly-erotic connotation and the fruits on the table symbolize the fall of Adam and Eve.


The picture “Love Letter” is a completely different story: before us is the mistress who received the letter, and her maid. The artist uses an interesting technique and artificially narrows the picture: first we see the curtain and walls, and then the characters. The maid is glad that the letter has finally arrived, but the hostess looks bewildered. It seems that her relationship with her lover does not add up: this is hinted at by a picture with a seascape – an element of violent and unpredictable.

A Woman Reading a Letter, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Another canvas with a girl reading a letter, and again a completely different mood. Cold light, strict female figure, piercing blue color and no hint of emotions and feelings. Perhaps this woman has been married for a long time, and she received a letter from her wandering husband, which is indirectly hinted at by a map of Holland hanging on the wall. It would seem that the same plot, the same artist, but the stories and emotions on them are completely different. What is it if not talent?

Vermeer used very expensive and rare paints

Thrush, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The artist liked to add saturated colors to his canvases, becoming an example in the boldness of color solutions for many painters of the 19th – 20th centuries. So, in the painting “Thrush” the apron and towel are painted with pure ultramarine, and the white background of the wall emphasizes the brightness of the color even better. This seemingly simple technique makes the ordinary thrush somehow spiritualized, magnetic.

“Woman in a Red Hat”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

It is also curious that such paints were very expensive in those days, and the same ultramarine, due to the complexity of production and delivery, was worth more than gold. Apparently, Vermeer had wealthy patrons or customers who paid for expensive materials.

He was not afraid to experiment and discovered new techniques in art.

“Young Woman with a Jug of Water,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

To portray shadows on a light one, the artist first mixed umber, ultramarine and lead white. In the painting “Young Woman with a Jug of Water” Vermeer writes white on white: all folds of fabric are visible through which the sleeves and contours of the hairstyle shine through. Impressionists will discover this trick that makes the canvas light and light only after 200 years.

© Google Art Project  
“The Art of Painting”, Museum of the History of Art, Vienna, Austria

And here is Vermeer’s favorite work. He wrote it to decorate his own workshop. It was this only painting that the artist’s wife Katarina kept in the ownership of the family after her husband’s death.

The picture is hidden many interesting details. The curtain in the foreground offers a look at the unfolding action, see how the story is going. The artist sits with his back to the viewer – it is believed that Vermeer portrayed himself here. The artist writes not just a portrait of a girl, but Clio – a muse of history in ancient Greek mythology, as evidenced by a laurel wreath on her head. A map of the Netherlands with a crack and a chandelier crowned with a double-headed eagle – the coat of arms of the Habsburgs – are associated with history. History is changing, time is slipping away, and the artist is trying to catch it, forever leaving it on canvas, as Vermeer himself did.

Did you learn something new about the works of Jan Vermeer from this article? Or maybe you have something to tell about this gifted Dutchman? Share your impressions.

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