Paint made from lapis lazuli creates the vibrant blue color in Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid.

Paint made from lapis lazuli creates the vibrant blue color in Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid.

This self-portrait detail from a Vermeer painting is the only known picture of the artist.

This self-portrait detail from a Vermeer painting is the only known picture of the artist.

A Vermeer painting of his home city of Delft, the Netherlands

A Vermeer painting of his home city of Delft, the Netherlands

Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone used to make expensive blue paint in Vermeer’s day

Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone used to make expensive blue paint in Vermeer’s day

A memorial to Johannes Vermeer in Delft, the Netherlands

A memorial to Johannes Vermeer in Delft, the Netherlands

Mysterious Vermeer

Posted: July 1, 2020

Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, the Netherlands, in 1632. Scholars aren’t certain, but it’s possible he never left there. His father owned a tavern and sold art. Some guess that Johannes’s mother could not read, because she signed her marriage certificate with an “X.”

We know very little about what happened to Johannes before he turned 20. He’s as mysterious as his Girl with a Pearl Earring! Mr. Vermeer became famous only after his death, so no one who lived during his time ever wrote a book about him. Who trained Mr. Vermeer? How exactly did he paint? People can only guess.

We do know this. In Mr. Vermeer’s time, painters usually worked in three big steps. First, they made a drawing on blank canvas. Second, they did the “dead coloring” or underpainting. To underpaint, they made a first layer with just one color. This showed which parts of the painting would be dark and which would be light. (This mattered for every painter, but it mattered especially for Mr. Vermeer. His paintings are loved for their luminosity. Things and people in them almost seem to glow.) Third, artists did the “working up.” They applied the perfect colors and fixed each object into its final shape.

When she was studying Girl with a Pearl Earring, Abbie Vandivere was puzzled by the girl’s bright blue scarf. Mr. Vermeer used lots of ultramarine paint on it. This paint is made from ground up lapis lazuli mixed with oil. Lapis lazuli is a precious stone. At the time when Mr. Vermeer was painting, it was found only high in the mountains of Afghanistan. (Check out Ezekiel 1:26 in the New International Version of the Bible. You’ll see this precious stone named as the material of God’s throne in Ezekiel’s vision.) During that time, this pigment was more valuable than gold! But Mr. Vermeer died deeply in debt. How did he afford his paint?

Another mystery about Mr. Vermeer: Why did he paint so few works in his lifetime? Maybe it was because he took so much time on each one. And maybe it was because he had 11 kids!