Johannes Vermeer has now been hailed as one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. He was virtually unknown a century ago, and remains one of the most mysterious figures ever in art history. No letters, no diaries, not even a single word written by him. During his life, he appears in print three times. First, in a short poem describing him as a phoenix that rose from the ashes left by Carel Fabritius - a fellow artist whose work was destroyed in an explosion in Delft. A second mention, where his name is only mentioned, and a final mention in a diary of a French art collector, to whom he refused showing his paintings.
He lived his entire life in Delft. He was also a picture seller. On one occasion, he was asked to be an expert in order to evaluate some Italian paintings that he deemed rubbish. In 1652, he was made a master. He then had the right to sell all of his work. Amazingly, he appears to have sold virtually nothing. Vermeer painted very slowly, completing two or three paintings a year. He usually used his wife or one of the eleven children as models.
He was in deep debt when he died, especially because he had to buy food for his children.
Why was he reluctant to sell his work, despite being in debt? His pictures were definitely sold, as his style wasn't so unique that collectors couldn't appreciate it. He was a painter like his contemporaries but much better. When a potential buyer, Balthasar de Monconys came to Delft to see him in 1663, he refused not to show him any of his work. de Monconys tells how, following this rejection, he was brought to a baker where he saw an oil painting with a single figure, priced at 300 florins. This is the amount Gerrit Dou, one the most famous Dutch painters would normally receive. It is possible that Vermeer did not sell this painting, but the baker held it as collateral to pay off debts.