A Short History

Johannes Vermeer of Delft is today one of the world’s most famous painters – despite there being only thirty-six of his works in existence. He is best known for his genre pieces, quiet interiors showing figures in everyday activities, such as The Letter Reader. His early works differ considerably from his later production in terms of subject-matter, size, and style. However, they already reveal Vermeer’s exceptional interest in the depiction of colour and light and tranquil compositions.

  • The Letter Reader (about 1657) The Letter Reader (about 1657), by Johannes Vermeer

On 29 December 1653 Johannes Vermeer registered as a master painter with the Saint Luke’s Guild in his hometown of Delft. This marks the start of his career as an independent painter allowed to sign and sell his own work. Vermeer began as a history painter, depicting mythological and biblical subjects. History painters were regarded as occupying the highest rank among artists as, in addition to their artistic skills, they also had to be well educated in order to depict their subjects properly. Clearly, Vermeer initially wanted to make a career in this prestigious sector of the art world.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is Vermeer’s largest painting and was probably painted around 1654-55. About a year before, Vermeer had married Catharina Bolnes. She came from a wealthy Catholic family. While there is no written evidence, Vermeer most likely had converted to Catholicism shortly before the marriage. The young couple moved in with Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins in Delft. Given the unusual size it is likely that Christ in the House of Martha and Mary was a specific commission, possibly intended for a clandestine Catholic church or – more likely – for a Catholic patron, perhaps even Vermeer’s mother-in-law, to whose first name Maria, the subject of the painting may have alluded.

The balanced composition shows three figures closely linked by their gestures and gazes. This interaction portrays the essence of the biblical story (Luke 10:38-42), in which Martha objected to Mary listening to Jesus while she herself was busy serving. Christ pleaded that Martha place the spiritual above the material.

  • NG 1670 NG 1670, by Johannes Vermeer
  • Cimon and Pero (about 1620-35) Cimon and Pero (about 1620-35), by (workshop of) Dirck van Baburen

Vermeer demonstrates his mastery in rendering light and shade, while the broad brushstrokes show him experimenting with various techniques. The strong contrast of Mary’s profile against the tablecloth and the reflecting light illuminating her shaded face are similar to works by the Utrecht Caravaggists, such as Dirck van Baburen. Vermeer’s mother-in-law owned Baburen’s Cimon and Pero which is partly visible in the background of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

During his lifetime, Vermeer was known only to a rather small circle of collectors and connoisseurs. After his death in 1675 he was quickly forgotten. Right into the nineteenth century Vermeer’s paintings were often misattributed to artists with greater reputations, such as Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris. It was only in 1859 that the French connoisseur Étienne Thoré-Bürger discovered the signature on ‘The Procuress’ in Dresden and identified it as the earliest work of Vermeer then known.

  • ‘The Procuress’ (1656) ‘The Procuress’ (1656), by Johannes Vermeer
  • Diana and her Nymphs (about 1653-54) Diana and her Nymphs (about 1653-54), by Johannes Vermeer

In 1901 the ‘young Vermeer’ took on a more distinct shape and character. The London dealers Forbes & Paterson offered for sale Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Recent cleaning had brought to light Vermeer’s signature. This discovery finally confirmed Vermeer’s long disputed authorship of the Diana and her Nymphs. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary subsequently was bought by the Scottish collector William A. Coats upon whose death his sons gave it to the National Gallery of Scotland in the memory of their father in 1927. It is the only painting by Vermeer in a Scottish collection.