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The Background

Protestantism was the blanket term used to describe religious groups of very different kinds and intentions, at one extreme were the Magisterial Protestants who accepted most aspects of Catholic theology but rejected Papal authority. At the other extreme were groups accepting only Biblical authority and the teachings of Christ, in addition there were Catholic states with rulers who wanted control over their own churches; the right to elect their own bishops and retain income. What united them all was a rejection of Roman authority. Greek which had not been taught in the west for centuries began to be studied at European universities in the 16th century. This enabled a larger number of scholars to access to the texts of the early Church. People like Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536 friend of Thomas More) understood that modern Catholicism had more to do with the works of medieval theologians than with the teachings of Christ and was further corrupted by Papal struggles for power. Rome was faced with a loss of control and a massive loss of revenue. By 1545 the situation had become so serious that the reluctant Papacy convened a great council (Trent) in an attempt to reconcile the dissidents and generate reform within the Catholic Church. Trent ran for over 30 years, some reforms were made but there could be no reconciliation because the separation between Protestant and Catholic states had become a political matter.

The Netherlands

In the early 16th cent the Netherlands were a geographical region of loosely connected states, they had no monarch having been part of the holdings of the great Dukes of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries. The states and their cities had been rich and important parts of the Burgundian holdings, their wealth generated by trade, industry and finance and the Dukes had wisely granted them a large degree of autonomy. Given this independence it is not surprising that Protestantism had gained a foothold in the Netherlands. In 1506 the Netherlandish states were inherited by Charles V (with Margaret of Austria as Regent) the heir to the vast Hapsburg Empire, the Spanish throne and ultimately Holy Roman Emperor. As a child Charles had lived and been educated in the Netherlands, Dutch was his first language and he had a great fondness for his home states. Although he was committed to the Catholic cause he made few reprisals against the Protestants. The problems began when he abdicated in 1555 and his son Philip II was installed as the King of Spain and Duke of the Netherlands. The Provinces were vital to the Spanish economy, her ports were the keys to the sea routes to the Americas and her cities were productive and very wealthy. Philip could not afford any Protestant rebellions and took up residence along with the Great Council at Brussels replacing the Netherlandish stadholders - the provincial governors - with Spanish viceroys. The Netherlandish bishops were replaced with Spanish clergy and the persecution of the Protestants became far more aggressive. In addition taxes were being increased almost monthly to pay for Philip’s various campaigns in Europe, his wars against the Turks and for the upkeep of Spain. Popular unrest and religious discontent became widespread. The Inquisition was brought in and there were mass executions which revolted both Protestants and Catholics and the nobility of the northern provinces began grouping their forces under William ‘the silent’ of Orange, viceroy of Holland and Zeeland.

William was a Catholic but he was revolted by what Spain was doing, a letter was sent to Philip demanding that the Inquisition be discontinued, a promise eventually came from the king on August 12 1556 but it came too late, the first wave of rebellion had broken and the first target was the Catholic church - many works were destroyed, others were hidden inc. the Van Eyck Adoration of the Lamb in Ghent. Philip sent a force to the Netherlands under the duke of Alva with an order to punish all rebels and heretics; William of Orange fled to Germany where he began an organised offensive against the Spanish crown; (approached Suleyman the Magnificent for support which was given) Alva responded with ‘a policy of beastliness’, sacking and burning towns and massacring their inhabitants. almost 7,000 people were tortured and murdered.

Slowly William’s forces beat off Alva’s troupes and by the early 70s virtually all the towns of Holland and Zeeland had joined the revolt and their Catholic officials had been replaced by Protestants. Eventually in 1575 Philip, his finances drained by the Netherlandish war and his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks was forced to declare bankruptcy, his unpaid armies turned on Antwerp and sacked the city (‘The Spanish Fury’)

On January 23 1579 the northern provinces of Holland and Zeeland joined the Union of Utrecht under William of Orange. The divide between the Spanish Catholic south (roughly modern Belgium) and the Protestant north became more or less official, Protestants living in the Spanish south who were unwilling to convert to Catholicism were given four years to settle their affairs and move to the north. Philip put a price of 25, 000 gold ducats on the head of William in 1580 (he was finally assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in 1584 at a dinner held by Rembrandt’s future father-in-law Rombertus van Uylenburgh in Delft). The North was without a sovereign when William died and the states made several attempts to find a replacement before deciding in 1585 that they were better off as the Dutch Republic with the House of Orange as its titular head. A federal state of a union of seven independent provinces handing over authority to the States General at the Hague only in matters of foreign relations and warfare. Free of the twin shackles of Spain and the Counter Reformation church the Republic began to capitalise on its many advantages. She had an unlimited supply of cheap energy with her vast peat beds (at Overijessel) which could be cut and easily transported inland through the canals and her windmills, there were 10,000 of them used for grinding grain, draining water from the lowlands and as wind powered saw-mills enabling the construction of massive fleets of ships for worldwide trading and military defence.

The Republic was officially Calvinist but there actually a number of other Protestant sects, there were also Catholics and Sephardi Jews (who had fled to the Netherlands from Portugal and Spain in the early 16th century) There was no social or professional segregation and the government permitted religious toleration so long as worship was conducted privately in schuilkerk; - house churches. The protestants who migrated north numbered skilled craftsmen and wealthy merchants, many settled in Amsterdam transforming what had been a small port into one of the most important ports and commercial centres in the world by 1630. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company - Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie was founded as the Republic developed its trade routes into Asia, this swiftly became the first ever multinational corporation financed by shares sold to merchants and other wealthy individuals. It became the most powerful trading organisation in the world, eventually gaining a monopoly in Japan.

Holland at a vital point of the crossing of North/South, East/West trade routes was also trading with the Baltic states and Poland (Mothertrade) where she rivalled and then overtook the German Hanseatic League importing and vast amounts grain and wood, (she stockpiled grain in Amsterdam as insurance against bad harvests; there were several in Europe in the 17th century) and exporting herring, salt, woollens, wines and spices. The growth of international trade saw the birth of international law of the sea and commercial law and a sophisticated financial market.

Across the Republic social status tended to be determined by income, however recently acquired, the old landed nobility had relatively little importance since their estates were away from the cities. The clergy had very little influence, it was the urban middle class that dominated almost every aspect of life, they were the major patrons of the arts and the major employers of the workers and labourers who were paid better than in most of Europe. Wealthy merchants did buy themselves into the aristocracy and acquired country estates but it was more important to acquire public office in local government, a prestigious guild or in one of the many charitable organisations.

The religious and intellectual freedom of the Dutch Republic attracted scientists and thinkers from all over Europe. The new Universities of Leiden (1575 founded by William of Orange), the Illustrious School of Rotterdam, Franeker, Groningen, Utrecht, Harderwijk (not the best) were gathering places for intellectuals Renee Descartes lived there for a large part of his life and had his most important works published there, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke took refuge in the Republic and had most had their books printed there.

The skills that were forging the success of the Republic also fed into the Universities. On the maritime trade routes scientists were frequently Caroutravelling with artists whose job it was to record with great accuracy the various botanical and zoological species which might be discovered. Early in the 17th century Leiden university became the main centre in the north for botanical studies and a variety of other physical sciences including botany, zoology and etymology.

One of the founding cities of the tulip industry bulbs came to Europe from Ottoman Empire - tulip means turban (tulip mania 1636) cultivation began by Carolus Clusius at Leyden Botanical Gardens around 1593. Free from the proscriptions of the church the medical schools in universities were teaching anatomy + dissection The optical sciences flourished, Cornelis Drebbel constructed the first compound microscope. Hans Lippershey patented the telescope in 1608 - (later improved by Galileo) however several of his contemporaries (all lens grinders) claimed he had stolen the idea, notably Zacharius Janssen and Jacob Metius and Hans Lippershey. Christiaan Huygens used Drebbel’s techniques to create the first great telescope - 12 ft long for astronomical observations.

The Universities were also providing material for the flourishing printing and publishing industries as well as requiring books for their own libraries. In the early part of the century Leyden was the centre of the Dutch printing and publishing industries with a number of book producers and many independent printmakers. Leyden was followed by Amsterdam and the Hague both of which benefitted from the incoming Huguenot refugees fleeing France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The big publishing houses produced new works and made reprints of foreign works; they printed books on languages, all the sciences, medicine, engineering and philosophy. There was no enforceable censorship in the Republic plus the production and export of books was profitable to the economy. There was also a high literacy level and even small towns had at least one bookshop selling prints, almanacs, songbooks and pamphlets. Relatively few families owned large libraries and professionals tended to buy books pertaining to their own trade however there were large school and university libraries and a number of municipal libraries, the one founded in Amsterdam in 1578 was open to anyone who could read but did not have the means to buy books.
The Visual Arts
Dutch painting in the 17th century bore little resemblance in either style or content to anything being made elsewhere; several reasons - The Netherlands had established artistic traditions dating back to the late 14th century based on observation rather than theory. Religious and moral concepts tended to be expressed through the natural and material world. Portraiture was another aspect of this concentration on the ‘real’, eventually the Flemish portrait type replaced the Italian convention of the ‘cameo’ profile. Oil painting developed in the Netherlands long before it was adopted in Italy; the technique was perfectly suited to the exact depiction of objects and of natural light. By the middle of the 15th century Italian ideas, mathematical perspective and so on were being incorporated into Netherlandish art but the north still retained its adherence to the observed world.
The Patrons
In Catholic countries; including the southern Netherlands and those with absolute monarchies the major patrons of the arts were the Church and the State with wealthy individuals constituting the third ‘arm’ of patronage. Broadly speaking this encouraged a uniformity of style and subject matter. In the Dutch republic, church patronage was relatively unimportant, Protestantism did not encourage large religious works in churches so paintings were restricted to purely decorative pieces for organ cases and so on. Nevertheless the demand for art was huge and a lively free market developed for paintings of all kinds with artists no longer working on commission alone but selling through their studios, through art fairs or through dealers several of whom were also artists, (Rembrandt and Vermeer) The market was stimulated by the arrival in the north of skilled artists migrating from the south. Around 1600 there were only 75 artists recoded in The Hague, 30 years later there were 300 - a countrywide trend. Painters were so numerous and so productive that some works could be sold for as little as one guilder - the daily wage of a skilled labourer

The states and city councils were major patrons commissioning works for town halls etc and to give as diplomatic gifts - usually the subject matter emphasised the success and prosperity of the state. The governors of charitable institutions (regents) were also important patrons. In much of Europe it was the Church that took responsibility for providing old peoples’ homes, orphanages and poorhouses. These were a state responsibility in Holland and one taken very seriously since poverty was seen as a potential source of trouble. The various institutions were governed by elected bodies who commissioned and paid for portraits, history painting, allegories and so on. The various military Guilds and Confraternities commissioned works for their headquarters. Mainly group portraits with each member paying for their own likeness (very lucrative commissions).

The townspeople represented the widest band of art buying; almost uniquely in the 17th century the Dutch were buying paintings for their homes; inventories across a broad band of the bourgeoisie list paintings as part of household furnishings. Bourgeois taste was very wide and included paintings of all kinds, portraits, an important part of Dutch painting, still lives, flower pieces, landscapes, botanical and zoological works. Some artists specialised in a particular type of work, others like Rembrandt could tackle subjects of many kinds. Some cities became known for particular kinds of art - Leyden for still life and flower painting, Utrecht for dramatic genre scenes and so on.
The artist’s Guilds of St Luke which had become moribund were revived in the Republic. For the consumer they guaranteed the technical quality of the art, fair prices and so on. To the artist they offered protection against foreign competition, guaranteed professional training and provided care for painters who were ill or for their widows and orphans in the case of death. Only officially registered citizens could become members of guilds and only guild members could take on pupils - a good source of income - and sell their paintings locally - if an artist moved to another town he had to register there before he could sell his work legally. Despite this ‘closed shop’ Dutch art was not immune to influences from abroad. Caravaggio had a considerable impact, his work was known directly to those Dutch painters working in Italy, there was a large community of Flemish and Dutch artists in Rome - the Bentvueghel; Birds of a Feather although as far as we know only one painter - Ter Brugghen actually met him in 1604. What impressed the Dutch were Caravaggio’s colour and composition; the vitality of his figures and the contrasts of light and shade all of which were adapted first by the painters of Utrecht. By the second half of the century a number of academies were opening to teach life drawing and draughtsmanship skills - not painting, needed to be taught by a master.

Frans Hals 1582 - 1666 Haarlem.

After the Spanish were removed from Haarlem in 1577 the Harlem council set about attracting skilled workers and promoting the arts. Linen and silk manufacture flourished along with brewing, also the centre of the tulip trade and the population grew from 18,000 in 1573 to around 40,000 in 1622 - around half the population was Flemish born.

Hals was born in Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands, the son of the cloth merchant Franchois Fransz Hals von Mechelen who fled to Haarlem in 1585. Hals studied painting for 3 years under another Flemish emigre Karel van Mander an Italianate mannerist who was also the art restorer for the Haarlem ‘collection’ of confiscated works from Catholic churches. In 1610 Hals entered the Haarlem guild of St Luke (also belonged to the Saint George civic guard), he married his first wife, his cousin Anneke Harmensdochter around this time, Hals was Catholic so they weren’t married in church (civil marriage). He followed van Mander as a salaried art restorer for the city council’s art collection. There was no market at this time for religious art so Hals concentrated on genre painting and portraiture. First known portrait of Jacobus Zaffius 1609
his breakthrough painting was the group portrait Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616 (175 by 324 cm - painted on one seamless piece of linen. prob painted in the Militia headquarters) The composition was fairly traditional but Hal’s use of space and the combination of accurate portraiture and a relaxed and intimate atmosphere made the picture a huge success. (Repeated for the Company in 1627 and 1639 - also Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company 1633) He developed a technique of painting in multi-layered impastos with visible brushstrokes. Anneke died the year of the Banquet picture after the birth of their 3rd child (two died) and Hals took on Lysbeth Reyniers the daughter of a fisherman to look after the children, they married in 1617 - she was already 8 months pregnant - they were to have 8 children - the five sons all became painters trained by their father. During the 1620s Hals became an extremely successful portrait painter with a number of influential sitters (double wedding portraits Jacob Pietersz Olycan 1625 and Aletta Hanemans. Paulus van Berestyn 1629 and Catharina van der Eem. Marriage portrait Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (Haarlem) Hals refused to travel to fulfil commissions preferring to work in his studio in Haarlem, he insisted that his customers came to him.

There was a great demand among art buyers for genre and during the 20s and 30s Hals was producing character portraits and popular scenes of everyday life; essays on contemporary social customs and human comedy, his strength as a portraitist gives his figures personality (Young Man and Woman in an Inn 1623 (Yonker Ramp and his sweetheart, The ‘Laughing Cavalier’ 1624. Willem van Heythuysen posing with a sword 1625. Young Man in a Large Hat 26. Gypsy Girl 1628. The Smoker 1625. Two Boys Singing 1625. Laughing Boy 1627. Malle Babbe 1633 (wrongly translated as The Witch of Haarlem) Despite his success he frequently experienced financial difficulties and continued to work as a restorer, art dealer and art tax expert occasionally selling his possessions to clear debts.

From the late 30s Hal’s brushwork became more visible and expressive, he did very little drawing or underpainting on his canvases, (double portrait of Isabella Coymans and Stephanus Geraerdts. Portrait of a Family 1648. Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse. Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse 66) He had a large studio with a number of apprentices many of whom had successful careers (Adriaen Brouwer, Jan Miense Molenaer, Adriaen van Ostade, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronk Bartholomeus van der Helst who worked in Amsterdam at the same time as Rembrandt and was the most popular portrait painter in the city).

In 1652 Hals was taken to court for debt and his property was seized, left destitute he was awarded an annuity of 200 florins by the city of Haarlem an indication of the esteem in which he was held. He died in 1666 (buried St Bavo’s Church), his reputation waned and for a couple of centuries his works could be bought for next to nothing. In the mid 1860s his prestige rose again after the publication of books about his work by Theophile Thore Burger. His paintings were admired and even copied by Monet, Manet, Whistler, Courbet, William Merritt Chase.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1606 - 1669 Leiden-Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s adopted city first became wealthy in the 14th cent through trade with the Hansiatic League. The population was increased by a flood of skilled immigrants after the Spanish wars and the city became the centre for the European free press. In the 17th c. it became the wealthiest city in the western world with ships sailing to the Baltic, N America, Africa and the east. Amsterdam’s merchants held the biggest share in Dutch East India company. In 1602 the Amsterdam office of the Dutch East India company became the world’s first stock exchange.

Unlike Hals Rembrandt painted a wide range of subjects, portraits, numerous self portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, allegorical, historical. biblical and mythological subjects. He was also an art collector and dealer. 300 paintings can be safely attributed to him, 300 prints generally called etchings but many are engravings or drypoint and 2,000 drawings only 75 of which are absolutely certain. Identification has been difficult because he had his students copy his self-portraits plus his many pupils were trained to paint like him.

He was born in Leiden, one of the 9 children of Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn a wealthy miller. His mother was Catholic and his father Dutch Reformed. He attended Latin school and age 14 enrolled at university of Leiden but had an inclination towards painting and became apprenticed to the history, landscape and religious painter Jacob van Swanenburgh for 3 years. He then spent 6 months with another Italianate artist Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, (R never visited Italy so it was probably through Lastman that he learned about Caravaggio) Rembrandt opened his own workshop in Leiden 1624 with his friend Jan Lievens who had also studied with Lastman and was a very talented young painter - the two were friends and rivals until 1631 when Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and Lievens to England. Rembrandt began to accept students including Gerrit Dou who was with him for 3 years before establishing himself as a ‘fine painter’ and Carel Fabritius who moved to Delft. (Rembrandt works from the 20s - The Baptism of the Eunuch 26, Musical Allegory, The Rich Man from the Parable 27, The Supper at Emaeus). In 1629 he was discovered by statesman/poet Constantijn Huygens , secretary to two princes of Orange, Frederick Henry and William II who got him important commissions from the court of the Hague - Prince Frederik Hendrik bought his work until 1646. (Passion of Christ for the Prince 33-39 (9 paintings 93/70 cm, the first 2 based on the Rubens altarpieces in Amsterdam, the rest are Rembrandt’s own visions.

At the end of 1631 he moved to Amsterdam the new business capital of the Netherlands and began to practice as a portrait and history painter in the studio of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh (Rape of Europa 1632, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp 1632) His portraits from this period are highly finished (Nicolaes Ruts 1631, Jacob de Gheyn 1633 Maurits Huygens 1633, The Shipbuilder and his Wife (Jan Rijcksen and Griet Jans Rijcksen) 1633) He was also exploring biblical and mythological subjects (Balshazzar’s Feast 1635 The Blinding of Samson 1636) In 1634 Rembrandt married Hendrik’s cousin Saskia van Uylenburgh, the same year he became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the St Luke Guild of Amsterdam. (Saskia as Flora 1634, Saskia in Arcadian costume 1635, The Prodigal Son (Saskia and Rembrandt) 1635

He opened a new studio with a number of pupils 3 types, boys between 12 and 14 who wanted to become painters in their own right - assistants to after training with Rembrandt remained in the workshop and helped with instruction and production - they were the producers of paintings in the style of the master. Finally there were the amateurs who took drawing and painting lessons as part of their education. He
adding landscape to his repertoire and began to experiment with printing techniques - he owned his own printing press. He was a born etcher with manual skill, a grasp of chemistry and desire to experiment. He combined several techniques - engraving where the artist carved the design directly onto a metal plate using a burin to produce deep precise lines. Etching where the drawing is made with an etching needle through a soft acid resist ground. Drypoint involved drawing with the etching needle onto the plate leaving a small amount of residue or burr along each line. Because many impressions could be made of each image his prints were seen by artists and collectors across Europe and added to his fame.

In 1639 R and S moved to their own newly built house (now R museum) in upscale Breestraat at the edge of the very wealthy Amsterdam Jewish community (cast 30,000 guilders, the mortgage would become a burden later). By 1640 Rembrandt had assimilated his various influences and evolved a distinctive style, he was at the height of his fame and earnings but he always spent up to his income collecting paintings prints and rarities, classical sculptures, suits of Japanese armour, collections of natural history and minerals - and Mughal miniatures which he copied. His Jewish neighbours modelled for his printed and painted Old Testament scenes. (Little Jewish Bride, Jews in the Synagogue, Abraham and Isaac, Abraham and the Three Angels 1646)

There were many setbacks, R and S’s first son died at two months in 1635, their daughter Cornelia in 1638 and second daughter in 1640. Their 4th child Titus born in 1641, he survived but Saskia died in 1642 possibly of TB. Rembrandt was working on The Night Watch - The Company of District II under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (11,91 ft by 14.34 ft) He was deeply affected by Saskia’s death and his work became more reflective and personal, this was not to fashionable taste and commissions began to decline. His output of prints intensified - Christ healing the Sick - actually many gospel stories bought together known as The Hundred Guilder Print done through the 40s - an evolving series of images with lightly bitten lines and aquatint.

Geertje Dircx Titus’ wet nurse became R’s live-in lover until late in the 1640s R began a relationship with the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels - he was in his late 40s, she was around 24 and had been his housekeeper. Geertje left on the understanding that R would pay her a stipend of 60 guilders a year for the rest of her life - she later charged him with breach of promise and was awarded alimony of 200 guilders per year. She continued to demand money, became threatening and was imprisoned, after her release she sued R for wrongful imprisonment, it was a very acrimonious affair and contributed to his near bankruptcy in 1657. (Portrait of Hendrickje, Woman bathing in a stream 1654, Bathsheba at her Bath 1654) In 1654 Hendrickje and Rembrandt had a daughter Cornelia she remained his common law wife but he never married her, at first for financial reasons - marriage would have lost him access to a trust set up for Titus in Saskia’s will however they remained unmarried even after Titus reached 14 and became legally responsible for his own finances.

R was still making portraits for those who admired his expressive and insightful style (Portrait of Jan Six 1654) but his best works of 1650 to 1657 were his prints (The Three crosses Drypoint with burin adjustments - made over 10 years with 60 different impressions taken from the plate 1655 Ecce Homo - 8 different impressions, Abraham entertaining the Angels 1656)

Rembrandt consistently lived beyond his means, a dropping off of commissions and economic depression in Amsterdam made matters worse and finally, in order to avoid bankruptcy he was forced to sell his collections in 1656, this was not enough and the following year he had to sell his house and printing press. He and his family moved into rented property in a working class section of Amsterdam. (Self portrait 1660) The Amsterdam guild barred him from trading as a dealer or a painter and taking pupils so Hendrickje and Titus set up as dealers in 1660 with Rembrandt as an employee. His family feature as models in many paintings from this period, also self portraits. Portrait of Titus, Titus in a Monk’s Habit, Christ with folded arms (Titus) Juno (Hendrickje)

Titus and Hendrickje managed to bring in commissions and ensure that Rembrandt fulfilled them. (Portrait of Jacob Trip - portrait of Margaretha de Geer - wife of Jacob Trip) In 1661 Titus and Hendrickje negotiated a commission ‘The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis’ (from Tacitus) for the new Amsterdam town hall. Originally a series of 12 pics of the Batavian rebellion had been commissioned from Rembrandt’s ex pupil Govert Flinck who died before beginning work. The scheme was then shared out between a number of painters inc. Rembrandt who was given ‘The Oath in the Grove’. The picture was judged a failure and removed, R had to cut it down to be able to sell it. 1662 The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild (Sampling Officials) - last big commission.

Hendrickje died in 1663 possibly of the plague which was sweeping through the Republic. Rembrandt was still painting when Cosimo III de Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany visited Amsterdam in 1667, several self-portraits come from this period. Titus married in 1668 and died, probably of plague the same year, his daughter Titia was born after he died (bought up by her mother’s family) Rembrandt was now alone, he died in 1669 and was buried as a pauper in the Westerkerk - after 20 years his remains were taken away and destroyed.

Johannes Vermeer 1632 - 1675 Delft

Vermeer was he youngest of the three and the least well documented. He lived and worked in Delft for his entire life, he had no titled patrons and specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle class life, he was successful but produced very little because he worked slowly and with great care using expensive pigments. With the exception of two cityscapes, two allegories and a couple of portraits all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft. He sold to a circle of admirers and patrons and took no pupils, he was barely known after his death and barely mentioned in surveys of Dutch art until the 19th cent when he was rediscovered. Some of his work had long been attributed to better known artists like Gabriel Metsu, Frans Mieris and Pieter de Hooch.

Delft in South Holland between Rotterdam to the south east and The Hague to the north west began life as a village on a canal - the Delft (from delve - to dig) It became a city in the 13th century and the seat of the House of Orange in 1572 when William the Silent took up residence and it became the de facto capital of the newly independent Netherlands. The city was wealthy being the home port of the Dutch East India Company; early imports of Chinese porcelain gave the impetus to the ceramic industry. Other luxury good produced there included tapestries and breweries. It was a quiet, extremely prosperous and essentially conservative city unlike booming Amsterdam or Leyden with their international connections and patrons. A large part of the city was destroyed on 12 October of 1654 when the gunpowder store (30 tonnes) in a former Clarissen convent exploded, 100 people were killed and thousands injured.

Vermeer’s father Reijnier Jansoon was a successful middle class worker of silk who lived in Amsterdam where he married Digna Baltus and moved to Delft and had a daughter Geertruy. In Delft he began dealing in paintings and leased an Inn which he called The Flying Fox in 1635 and another, The Mechelin on the market square. At some point Vermeer decided to become a painter but no records exist confirming with whom he trained - it may have been Carel Fabritius who had been apprenticed to Rembrandt in Amsterdam and moved to Delft in 1652 where he became a very prominent painter. Cool lighting, dark figures against a light background and interest in optics link him to Vermeer but there is no hard evidence. (Fabritius died in the gunpowder explosion of 1654, many of his paintings were also destroyed).

Leonard Bramer is another possibility, he had studied in Rome, made small scale history paintings - he was Catholic and served as a witness for Vermeer at his marriage he was also an early supporter of the young artist. It is possible that Vermeer traveled abroad or to Utrecht or Amsterdam, his earliest works have characteristics of the Utrecht Caravaggists and Rembrandt. (Diana and Her Nymphs 1653, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha 1564 The Procuress 1656) When Reijnier died in 1652 Vermeer took over the inns and the art business. In April of the following year he became a member of the Guild of St Luke and married a Catholic girl Catharina Bolnes. His new mother in law Maria Thins was an art collector and a distant relative of the Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemart whose’ paintings appear along with other Utrecht Caravaggists as paintings within paintings in the backgrounds of his compositions. Maria insisted that Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage. At some point the couple moved in to Maria’s spacious house at Oude Langendijk next to a hidden Jesuit church - they lived here for the rest of Vermeer’s life along with their 11 children, he painted in the front room on the second floor.

By the second half of the 50s Vermeer had abandoned the large compositions in favour of scenes of everyday life. He seems to have been encouraged by Gerard Terborch and Pieter de Hooch a leading genre painter in Delft and a master of using perspective. (View of Houses in Delft 1658, View of Delft 1660) He evolved a method at this time, grey or ochre ground over his canvas or panel - compositions were made in in grisaille and then the colour was applied in glazes over the ground or else over opaque paint layers. Dots of unmodified colour were used to intensify the glazes.

Beginning in the late 50s and for the next ten years the interiors expressing harmony in everyday life for which he became highly respected, he was named head of the painters guild in 1662. He always sold his work to a small group of patrons in Delft eg the typographer and printer Jacob Dissius (21 paintings) and Pieter van Ruijeven (20) who was his patron for the best part of his career and occasionally lent him money.
He used camera obscura and lenses; - Vermeer was friend with pioneer lens maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who was executer after his death but Vermeer also used traditional mathematical perspective. He only produced 3 paintings a year. working meticulously and using expensive pigments including lapis lazuli.

Several of his works contain ‘stories’ or moral lessons which can be read through the accessories, the paintings depicted on the walls and so on. All of them use the same identifiable interior space, presumably Vermeer’s studio - (The Milkmaid 1660,Young Woman with a Water Pitcher 1662, Woman with a Pearl Necklace 1662. The Music lesson 1662, Woman in Blue reading a Letter 1663, Woman Holding a Balance 1664, The Concert 1664 (the two paintings on the wall belonged to V’s mother in law one is identifiable as The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen which also appears in Lady Seated at a Virginal painted 6 years later).

His philosophical approach to his craft is demonstrated in The Art of Painting 1666, his second largest work. An elegantly dressed artist is portraying the allegorical figure of Clio the muse of history - she wears a laurel wreath symbolising honour and glory, carries a trumpet signifying fame and a book symbolising history. The iconography was taken from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia translated into Dutch in 1644. The picture was evidently important to Vermeer because his widow tried to keep it from being sold after he died.

Only one other of his paintings contains such specific allegory - the Allegory of Faith 1670. This was probably made for a devout, wealthy Catholic patron for his hidden church. The composition is the same as The Art of Painting with a tapestry cutting off the composition to the left. From The Iconolgia came the glass sphere indicating heaven contrasting with the earthly sphere beneath the foot of the figure of Faith also the serpent - evil, crushed by a stone. The painting on the wall is Jacob Jordaens' Crucifixion owned by Vermeer’s mother in law.

He produced small portraits during the 60s (Girl with the Red Hat 1665, Study of a Young Woman 1665, Girl with a Pearl earring 1665) and a number of ‘story’ paintings (The Love Letter 1666, The Astronomer 1668, The Geographer 1668 - both containing accurate observations of scientific instruments, The Lacemaker 1669 containing an accurate depiction of the creation of bobbin lace),

Late in the 1660s and 70s his style became crisper with greater atmospheric clarity and more complex perspective. (Lady writing a letter with her Maid 1670, Lady standing at the Virginal 1670, Young woman seated at the Virginal) In 1672 The Year of Disaster struck the Netherlands after Louis XIV and a French army invaded the Dutch Republic from the South and an English fleet attacked the country from the east. Theatres, shops and schools were closed and it was 5 years before matters improved. Vermeer was not selling his own work or any of the art he was dealing, he had 11 children to support and was sinking into serious debt and borrowed money using his mother-in-law’s property as surety. He died in December 1675 and was buried in the Protestant Old Church on the 15th his death, according to his wife was caused by his anxiety and depression.