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Maria Vermeer’s Secret Career – Sophia Perring

Though Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is now one of the most popular artists of the Dutch Republic, his work was not well-known beyond Delft within his lifetime.  Vermeer was only rediscovered in 1859 by Theophile Thoré, and from then on, his oeuvre was slowly pieced together, distinguished by its serene and ambiguous style, as well as its “emotional complexity.” [1] There are, however, widespread doubts about the validity of Vermeer’s authorship. [2] In 2009, Benjamin Binstock claimed in his book, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery and the Unknown Apprentice, that around 6 of the artist’s 34 works were actually produced by Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maria. This essay will not discuss the veracity of this claim, but will instead examine why Maria Vermeer remains unknown to us. It will do so by analyzing the position of women and female artists in 17th century Netherlands. 

Binstock’s claim rests on an image of Maria Vermeer as an inherently talented young woman, whose father’s profession gave her the opportunity to try her hand at painting. This led, according to Binstock, to a healthy competition between Maria and her father, which resulted in a number of similar paintings (all now attributed to Vermeer) which display two different levels of skill. For instance, Young Woman with a Guitar (c. 1674) emulates Girl with a Guitar (c. 1674) (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1672) is also very similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1670), although the former work displays a lesser level of skill (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). Maria developed her own style too, as seen through the Girl with the Red Hat ( c. 1672), wherein the subject is seated in a position unlike any of her father’s works. (Fig. 5) Binstock further posited that when Vermeer died and the family’s financial stability continued to deteriorate, Maria and her mother sold “fake-Vermeers” (i.e. Maria’s work) to their creditors. Maria’s abilities as a painter would, therefore, have had to remain a secret. This is why there are no documents that prove her artistic involvement. But why couldn’t she have sold her work under her own name? What societal structures enabled her to remain unseen?

The obscure nature of Maria Vermeer’s work can first be explained through the position of women in her period. Though men and markets thrived in 17th century Netherlands, this period was not the “Golden Age” for women. As a general rule, Dutch women were limited to the domestic sphere; this is perceived within the widespread dissemination of works by Jacob Cats (1577-1660), as well as the elite tradition of cabinet houses. Cats’ five works, Proteus, Maegden-Plicht, Houwelick, Spiegel and Trou-Ringh, all contain guidelines for life. They focus on love, gender relations, religious obligations, and many other aspects of Dutch society. [3] His Houwelick (Marriage) work, for example, was a guide that described the six stages of female life: young girl, marriageable girl, bride, wife, mother and widow [4] (Fig. 6). Cats notably uses religious scripture, such as the Bible, to convey his messages. Through Genesis II, whereby Eve is created from Adam’s rib, and must defer to her more knowledgeable predecessor, Cats inferred that Eve’s “total will is subordinate to [Adam’s], and that his word is a sweet law for her.” [5] Eve’s purpose becomes to amuse Adam, who naturally takes over her responsibilities in the public sphere. [6] Dutch women were entirely dependent upon their husbands, much like Eve — economically, socially and politically. Their happiness and success hinged upon their husband’s “good will, approval, praise, admiration, benevolence, or indulgence.” [7] This harmful view of gender was natural for Cats, who believed that women chose to subordinate themselves because they understood that their inferiority was God’s indisputable decision.   [8]

The societal involvement of women was thus limited to the domestic sphere; women were not expected to work for a living, at least in middle-class households. If anything, they laboured in unskilled trades until marriage, and later child-rearing kept them from a profession. Their participation in public affairs consisted in their successful running of the household, which acted as a microcosm of the state. [9] The elite tradition of possessing cabinet houses further exemplifies this domestic role. These dollhouses represented the household, clad with foreign luxuries that conveyed the desired grandeur and reach of the family. Additionally, the dollhouses represented women occupied in their domestic tasks. [10] The presence of lying-in rooms, linen rooms and laundry equipment indicated the importance of the maternal domestic role. [11] The miniature house became a didactic tool for both young girls and elite women, and represented the “miniature” lives they were confined to. The domestic role to which women were limited, as exemplified through Cats and cabinet houses, would ultimately limit Maria Vermeer’s career. Maria’s “professional” painting, which would necessarily bring her into the public market and away from her domestic duties, would be discouraged and hidden. 

The development of female artists would also inhibit knowledge about Maria Vermeer’s artistic involvement. The nature of apprenticeship in general would enable the concealment of Maria Vermeer. For male artists, a 10 or 12-year-old trainee would go through a course of training with a professional artist. The student would first master drawing using charcoal, then he would use chalk or pen. He would subsequently begin to copy all types of prints, drawings and plaster casts. [12] Then he would graduate to the palette and brush, working under a formal contract with the master. Under this contract, the student-turned-labourer’s work became the master’s property. It was a recognized custom for masters to sign their pupil’s work with their own name. [13]

Most female artists were “apprentices” to their fathers because they were disallowed from most forms of institutional training, such as those enabled by the guilds. As such, they would not be listed in guild records. Binstock suggests that this would have been the case for Maria Vermeer. She could not have been a member of the Saint Luke Guild of Delft, as they did not instruct women. [14] Maria would have become an apprentice to her father around 1673, when she was about eighteen. Despite her lack of guild training, she would have undergone the formal training of an apprentice, as Vermeer would have likely submitted her to the same education that he had received. [15] Binstock indicates that  to begin an apprenticeship at 18 years old is late for a typical apprentice, but argues that Maria’s earlier works might simply not have survived. [16] She grew up watching her father paint, and she began, like other apprentices, to copy her father’s work, making small personalized adjustments. [17] Maria would have begun her work as a result of her own exceptional efforts, but Vermeer, in Binstock’s narrative, later came to encourage this talent as he recognized his daughter’s potential in the market. As Vermeer struggled to make ends meet for his family, he recognized the possibility of surreptitiously selling Maria’s work as his own to his creditors. [18] The training undergone by Maria would have enabled Vermeer, as her master, to take credit for her works. 

The position of female artists, as well as the critical responses they garnered from Dutch society in the 17th century, affected Maria’s presence in the narrative of art history. This is why Vermeer could not sell his daughter’s works under her own name. As indicated through the earlier discussion of women’s inferior societal position, Maria’s work would have been devalued because of her gender. Most women occupied themselves with minor crafts like sewing, embroidery, and pottery, which were acceptable due to their association with the household; nevertheless, they could not breach the male-dominated world of “fine arts.” Some women broke out of this mold, but not unreservedly. Clara Peeters (1594-c. 1657), Judith Leyster (1609-1669), Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) were notable exceptions in the male-dominated art world. Judith Leyster’s work was, however, constantly attributed to other male masters. Similarities in skill would not only lead to popular disbelief in ability, but also to accusations of imitation. Leyster’s work was often criticized for its Frans Hals influence.  [19]

Other female artists were very successful despite their gender. Rachel Ruysch, known for her colourful and illusionistic still lifes, was held in very high public esteem. Ruysch sold her works for 750 to 1, 250 guilders, while Rembrandt rarely received more than 500 guilders for his canvases. [20] That being said, Rachel Ruysch was born into a highly distinguished family; her father, Frederick Ruysch, was a very successful professor of anatomy and botany in Amsterdam, whose prestige would only add to her own. [21] Maria Vermeer’s situation was not as illustrious –– she needed to supplement her father’s income, and her surname alone could not elevate the status of her paintings. As such, her work would probably never recover from its association to her father. As Binstock writes: “the hat girl panels are self-portrait studies by an unknown female follower of Vermeer, who used the same pigments, models, room, and objects as well as his compositions and thus could only have been his daughter.” [22] If these panels, which are often singled out for their dissimilitude to other Vermeer works, are so obviously linked to Vermeer, Maria’s supposed copies of his works would only be fused with her father’s work all the more easily. 

This association, which would render her contributions secret, would not necessarily be a negative phenomenon for Maria Vermeer. Although she would not be credited for her work, Maria’s secret position would allow her to reap the benefits that her father’s prestige could bestow on her works. Maria’s oeuvre is eccentrically and brilliantly done, especially considering her lack of formal or extensive training, but it is not free of blunders. Her Girl with the Red Hat exhibits, for example, chair knobs that are misaligned and backwards, and whose depiction betrays the use of a camera obscura. The lion-head finials of the chair that the subject is leaning on are too close together, and the left one is too large. The finials should also be facing the subject, not the viewer. [23] It has also been argued that the painterly treatment of the finials is incredibly similar to the effects created from a camera obscura. Binstock explains that the young artist would not have known to conceal and mediate such effects. [24] Portrait of a Young Woman is also technically weak, especially when compared to Vermeer’s antecedent Girl with a Pearl Earring. In Binstock’s words, the work “presents undeniable weaknesses [25] : the sitter’s forehead is too big, her pearl earring is obscured, her hair disappears into the background, and the folds of her clothing disregard the shape of her body. The technical errors present in these works are, however, disregarded when Vermeer’s name comes into play. The creditor to whom the family owed the most debts seems to have been appeased by his acquisition of Portrait of a Young Woman despite these flaws. Maria’s artistic limitations were hidden by her father’s eminence in Delft, thus secrecy would have been desirable. 

Maria Vermeer is unknown to us today, as she was in the 17th century. The secrecy involving her career, if it did occur, would first be required because of the inferior societal and domestic position of women at the time, as explained through Cats and the tradition of cabinet houses. Maria’s anonymity would also be due to the critical response to female artists in this period. The nature of artistic apprenticeships, including Maria’s, allowed masters to take credit for their pupils’ works. Female artists, at least in lower class households, were undervalued for their work because of their gender. Maria Vermeer’s experience might be most akin to Judith Leyster’s, who exhibited her work publicly. Maria would have ultimately been more successful under her father’s name than under her own, as her father’s eminence absorbed the blow of her artistic mistakes. Maria, like many female artists, abandoned her art after marriage, and she created no new works away from her father’s sphere. This sealed the secrecy in which her work would be kept for three centuries.


Bibliography

 Binstock, Benjamin. Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery and the Unknown Apprentice. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. 

Blom, Frans R.E. “Jacob Cats and Montaigne” in Montaigne and the Low Countries (1580-1700). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007. 187-204.

Broomhall, Susan  and Spinks, Jennifer . Early Modern Women in the Low Countries: Feminizing Sources and Interpretations of the Past. Milton Park, Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis Group, 2011. 

Kloek, Els. Women of the Golden Age: An International Debate on Women in Seventeenth-Century Holland, England and Italy. Hilverson, Netherlands: Uitgeverij Verloren, 1994.

 Hofrichter, Frima Fox.“Judith Leyster’s Proposition: Between Virtue and Vice” in The Feminist Art Journal. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

 Martin, W. “The Life of a Dutch Artist” in Seventeenth Century Art in Flanders and Holland vol 9. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1976. 

Muizelaar, Klaske and Phillips, Derek. Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Slatkin, Wendy. “Chapter 5: Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Artists” in Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1985. 51-80. 

Wheelock Jr, Arthur K.  “Girl with the Red Hat” in National Gallery of Art Online Editions: Dutch Painting of the 17th Century. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2014. 382-387.


Figures

Figure 1: Maria Vermeer?, Young Woman with a Guitar, c. 1674, 52.5×45.6 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art (depot), Philadelphia, United States
Figure 2: Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Guitar, c. 1674, 53×46.3 cm, Kenwood House, London
Figure 3: Maria Vermeer?, Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1672, 44×40 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States
Figure 4: Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Pearl Earring, c. 1670, 44×39 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands
Figure 5: Maria Vermeer?, Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1662, 23×18 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, United States
Figure 6: Lion Head Finial detail, Girl with the Red Hat, oil on panel, c. 1672, National Gallery of Art, Washington, United States

Footnotes

 [1] Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery and the Unknown Apprentice (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), 3.

[2] Arthur K. Wheelock Jr cited Van Thienen, Swillens, Blankert, Brentjens, Aillaud and Montias as doubting the authenticity in particular of Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Flute. Binstock extrapolates on these theories and extends their doubts to five other works. Scholars such as Lawrence Fowling do refute these claims wholeheartedly. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, “Girl with the Red Hat” in National Gallery of Art Online Editions: Dutch Painting of the 17th Century (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2014), 386.

[3] Frans R.E. Blom, “Jacob Cats and Montaigne” in Montaigne and the Low Countries (1580-1700) (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 190.

[4] Blom, “Jacob Cats and Montaigne”, 188.

[5] Els Kloek, Women of the Golden Age: An International Debate on Women in Seventeenth-Century Holland, England and Italy (Hilverson, Netherlands: Uitgeverij Verloren, 1994), 28.

[6] Els Kloek, Women of the Golden Age, 28.

[7] Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips, Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 137.

[8] Els Kloek, Women of the Golden Age, 31.

[9] Susan Broomhall and Jennifer Spinks, Early Modern Women in the Low Countries: Feminizing Sources and Interpretations of the Past (Milton Park, Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis Group, 2011), 106.

[10] Broomhall and Spinks, Early Modern Women in the Low Countries, 106.

[11]Broomhall and Spinks, Early Modern Women in the Low Countries, 116

[12] W. Martin, “The Life of a Dutch Artist” in Seventeenth Century Art in Flanders and Holland vol 9 (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1976), 86.

[13] W. Martin, “The Life of a Dutch Artist”, 93.

[14] Delft seems not to have let women join guilds, as is the case with female artist Maria van Oosterwyck (1630-1693). “Maria van Oosterwyck (Dutch: 1630-1693),” Crocker Art Museum, accessed November 15, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20130919233411/http://crockerartmuseum.org/digital-crocker/european-art/item/roses-and-butterfly-nd?category_id=8

[15]  Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 22

[16]Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 8.

[17] Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 22.

[18] Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 270. 

[19] Frima Fox Hofrichter, “Judith Leyster’s Proposition: Between Virtue and Vice” in The Feminist Art Journal, (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 173.

[20] Wendy Slatkin,“Chapter 5: Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Artists” in Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1985), 64.

[21] Slatkin, “Chapter 5: Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Artists,” 64.

[22] Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 252.

[23] Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, “Girl with the Red Hat,” 383.

[24] Seymour instead argues that Vermeer exploited the effect to animate the surface and create layers of depth in the painting. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, “Girl with the Red Hat,” 384

[25] Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, 258.


For more of Sophia Perring’s work, you can find and contact her on LinkedIn.

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