Johannes Vermeer: Mysterious painter

6 February 2024

Johannes Vermeer was nicknamed the Sphinx of Delft because little is known about his life. A Sphinx is a mythical creature that appears in various mythologies. In the Greek version, the Sphinx guards a Greek city. Everyone who wants to enter must solve a riddle. Regarding Vermeer’s life, many art critics still face several puzzles. In this blog. We have listed some of these for you.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1655. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh


It is unknown whether Johannes Vermeer was an apprentice, and who his teacher was. Experts think that Abraham Bloemaert and Hendrick ten Brugghen may have been Vermeer’s teachers, but no evidence for this has been found. In his initial phase as an artist, Vermeer seems to have been inspired by the Utrecht Caravaggists. These artists painted large, Biblical history paintings with a special light-dark contrast called chiaroscuro. This can be seen in Vermeer’s painting Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Many painters from this time also went on an art trip to Italy, which was the country of art at the time. It is not known whether Vermeer also did this.


Vermeer’s small oeuvre is remarkable. It is estimated that Vermeer created around 40 to 50 paintings, which is not a big number compared to other master painters of the time. For example, Rembrandt made around 300 paintings and Frans Hals around 200. Art critics have noted that six works by Vermeer are still missing. Descriptions show that one of these paintings is most likely a Second Street, or another cityscape of Delft. Vermeer’s small oeuvre made many people think that he worked alone, without help from students or employees. In addition, Vermeer almost always painted directly on the canvas and rarely made sketches in preparation.

Personal life

Vermeer’s personal life remains a mystery. It is known that the painter was baptized on October 31, 1632, but his actual date of birth remains unknown. Furthermore, Vermeer’s cause of death is unknown. The artist was buried on December 16, 1675. It is thought that the Rampjaar (Year of Disaster) in 1672, caused too many financial consequences for Vermeer and his family, which ultimately led to the painter’s death.

Painting technique

Finally, many art experts speculate about Vermeer’s painting technique. Many think that Vermeer used a camera obscura. This is a dark room or box, with one origin of light. This creates a certain light and perspective, making it easier to highlight specific objects in a painting. It is thought that Johannes Vermeer also used this painting technique. For example, the background in many of Vermeer’s paintings is the same, as is the lighting. The lightning often comes from the left side of the painting. One example in which this can be seen is the painting The Milkmaid. All this has led experts to believe that everytime Vermeer painted, he used the same room, leading to speculations about a camera obscura.

Another technique that Vermeer is thought to have used is by working with a string. In the 36 paintings we still have from the painter, at least seventeen paintings have a small hole in them. Researchers placed a string along all the perspective lines in these painting, which all led to the hole. As a result, opinions are divided among art critics as to whether Vermeer used either this technique or a camera obscura.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1660. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Royal Delft and Vermeer are closely connected. For example, did you know that Johannes Vermeer and the owners of De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles were members of the same St. Lucas Guild? Discover even more about Vermeer and Royal Delft and book your ticket:

Vermeer and Royal Delft  

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