A Timeline of Vermeer's Life 1632&ndash1640 Childhood
Modern art enthusiasts should always keep in mind the twentieth-century art world has little in common with that of Johannes Vermeer. There existed no private art galleries, no queuing up to major international exhibits, no critical reviews in newspapers and painfully little art writing at all. Dutch painters wrote next to nothing about themselves or their work since most considered themselves little more than skilled artisans. The Dutch population at large was hardly aware of the "Golden Age of Dutch Painting" in the way we are today and art lovers spoke in different terms about the paintings we so treasure today.
The material evidence for seventeenth-century Dutch artists, including Johannes Vermeer, consists chiefly of depositions, business transactional and other documents drawn up by notaries and municipal clerks that force us to consider a person's life from a particular angle closer to his adversarial than to his amicable relations with his fellow men. Notorial depositions such as these give us a partial view of individual personalities not only because they emphasize the controversial side of their activities but because they are by and large woefully one-sided and incomplete. Only major events of Vermeer's life, baptism, marriage and burial-were recorded in the vellum-bound registers of the Old or the New Church which are preserved now in the Delft archives.
After Vermeer's baptism in 1632, little or nothing is known of the artist himself until he marries Catharina Bolnes in 1653. However, surviving archival from the following years documents provide an interesting picture and while little can be deduced about the artist's personality, his family background and immediate social milieu is fairly well defined.
John Michael Montias' invaluable Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History was used for the great part of the information contained in this timeline which concerns the artist Vermeer. Montias' book currently constitutes the basis on which all other research regarding Vermeer's life and immediate social milieu is founded and should be read by anyone interested in Vermeer of the artistic milieu of that period. During the course of his research, Montias was surprised to learn that the scholarship on one of his favorite artists, Vermeer, was far from exhausted. He began a quest to uncover the life of the artist, considered one of the most enigmatic and mysterious. In this book, Montias traced the artist's life through notary records, discovering that Vermeer's grandfather was a convicted counterfeiter that his grandmother ran illegal lotteries and that the artist himself fathered 13 children and died at the age of 43, completely destitute.Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History
John Michael Montias
Another colorful book which fleshes out in a highly readable fashion is Vermeer: A View of Delft by Anthony Bailey. Bailey effectively retells much that is known about many of Vermeer's contemporaries, such as the scientist Anton Van Leeuwenhoek, and speculates on his apparent Catholic faith in the Protestant Netherlands. Organized around individual paintings, Bailey's essay begins with the great gunpowder explosion of 1654 and ends with the reverberations of Vermeer's art in the writings of Marcel Proust and the forgeries of Han van Meegeren. Highly recommended for general collections and also for art history collections for its broad view and effective style.
In order to insure reasonable loading time, this timeline has been divided into five sections.
Vermeer Dies - History
Johannes Vermeer van Delft is considered to be the most famous Dutch artists of the Golden Age, second only to Rembrandt. His life was not long, since he died at age 43 and only left around 34 paintings that have been verified as truly his own. His work continues to mesmerize the world today. He did not truly become famous until he was recognized in the 19th century by Gustav Friedrich and a fellow French art critic, and they first believed that up to 66 paintings had been created by Vermeer.
Johannes Vermeer’s life was characterized by many hardships and a rich family life. Growing up in Delft, he was largely influenced by his father, who was a middle-class worker in the silk industry. His father became an art dealer, and after his death, Johannes inherited the family art dealing business from his father when he was only 20 years old. In less than a year after leading this art dealership, he married Catharina Bolenes, who was a Catholic. He also converted to Catholicism just before their wedding, and he enjoyed financial support from his new mother-in-law.
Shortly after marriage, the couple moved into the large home of Catharina’s mother, where Johannes would continue to paint for the rest of his life. His wife gave birth to a total of 14 children altogether, and unfortunately four of those children died very young, even before being able to be baptized in the Catholic custom. It is a topic of great speculation as to who Johannes actually studied painting with. Many believe he may have been self-taught entirely. There are some who believe another Catholic man named Abraham Bloemaert may have tutored him, but there is little evidence and records from Johannes Vermeer’s life that can justify any claims of the source of his artistic influence, which remains largely a mystery.
The Professional Life and Struggles
What has been well documented is the entry of Johannes into an artist’s trade association called the Guild of St. Luke when he was 21 years old. During this time the plague was spreading throughout Europe and the Netherlands where he lived, and although most members of this artist’s guild would normally pay a membership fee, Johannes had apparently been exempted from this charge, probably due to the common financial hardships of the time and his talent. Around this time, he met a patron who loved and bought most of his artwork. The patron was Pieter van Ruijven, whose financial support was critical to Vermeer and his family. As Vermeer matured in his artwork, he was elected head of the St. Luke’s Guild four times, beginning at age 30. His artwork gained attention within Delft, but did not spread much beyond the city.
During 1672 in the Netherlands, there was a severe economic collapse due to the French invasion and the Franco-Dutch war. Due to these events, among other things, Vermeer was forced to borrow money from sources in Amsterdam in the last year of his life. He was clearly struggling to support himself and his large family, and died from frenzy, an old medical term no longer used today which included symptoms such as high fever and sometimes hallucinations. His wife suggested it had been caused by the tremendous financial pressures, and she was able to use his artwork to help the family pay off some of its debts and was able to appeal to the courts for other debts to be forgiven.
- The Girl With The Pearl Earring
- The Milkmaid
- Allegory of Faith
- The Lacemaker
- The Love Letter
- Woman Holding a Balance
- The Girl With the Wineglass
- The Astronomer
- The Music Lesson (a.k.a. Lady at the Virginals With a Gentleman)
- View of Delft
The Painting Style
The most common subjects of Vermeer’s work were usually middle-class women, and they were exceptionally detailed portraits as well as candid scenes depicted with a high degree of realism. He stood apart from other artists by his use of light in the paintings to highlight his subjects in deeply expressive ways. His style was extraordinarily lifelike, portraying intimate scenes of women indoors. He used very rich colors in ways to create deep impact for the viewers, and he would further add tiny white spots in certain places to create a feeling of more texture and sparkle where it was needed.
Originally the artwork of Johannes Vermeer featured historical topics, both Biblical and mythological. After these much larger oil paintings, he shifted to commissioned artworks like cityscapes, using a combination of light and shadow with a partially cloudy sky to bring out depth. His greatest focus was on women performing their habitual daily activities, although his most famous work, the Girl With The Pearl Earring, is uniquely set against a solid black background.
It has been said that Vermeer used a typical technique of the time period referred to an underpainting, where the entire scene is painted in grays and earth tones only first and left to dry before adding color on the next layer. Underpainting, while time-consuming, added volume and an almost three-dimensional depth to paintings, distributing light and dark tones to portray illumination in the final painting. It is also evident that Vermeer often worked on only small sections of a painting at a time, with only one or two pigments at a time. His choices of paint brushes varied from stiff bristle brushes to badger brushes. Vermeer had to hand-grind the paints he would use daily, like other painters of his time. The luminosity that comes across so strongly in Vermeer’s artwork is also due to a final layer of glazing, or painting a transparent layer of paint across the final painting. Glazing techniques were also used to create certain vibrant colors when one color was painted over another, resulting in deep purples and varieties of orange, for instance.
The Artist Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, sometimes known as Jan Vermeer, was born in Delft, Holland in 1632 and is most commonly associated with the Baroque movement of art. Yet, although the Baroque style is famous for its religious painting, Vermeer is best known for works that capture a brief moment of everyday life. Thirty-five works are attributed to Vermeer and he is considered one of the great masters of Western art, yet his work did not achieve this stature for him until roughly two hundred years after his death.
During Vermeer’s era of history, Holland was living in a golden age of political, economic, and social progress. The town of Delft was growing in fame for its artistic pottery—blue and white or tin-glazed pottery known even today as Delft pottery. Artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt were beginning to turn away from painting the religious and mythic scenes so popular during the Renaissance, but instead began to paint intensely realistic scenes that captured a maid, a domestic scene, or even the back of a house. The objects and people of daily life were the subjects of Vermeer’s extraordinary body of work.
Although Vermeer was concerned with realistic depictions of common scenes, his fascination with light and its use in his paintings is generally viewed as the brilliance that sets his work apart. The infused light playing on the colorful tablecloth and the pitcher in Young Woman with a Water Jug seems to stop time in mid-action—it makes a perfectly common occurrence a scene of pure enchantment. In Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, even the subject is attracted to the light as revealed by the maid stealing a glance toward the sunlit window from behind her patron’s shoulder.
Other simple scenes of ordinary life that capture the artist’s genius for light include A Lady Weighing Gold, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, and The Milkmaid, one Vermeer’s signature paintings. Of course, he is also best known for his masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting that recently inspired a best-selling novel (The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier) and a film adaptation of the novel. Vermeer’s genius is also said to be evident in his use of underlying layers of color that produced dramatic results when another color is applied above it. While the artist sought to portray his work realistically, many critics believe the scenes he painted were rendered more beautifully than they would have truthfully existed.
Little is known about Vermeer’s life. In the art world he is known as “The Sphinx of Delft.” Records indicate precious few pieces of information, but he married Catherina Bolnes in 1653—a union that produced fourteen children (four are believed to have died before baptism). Vermeer died in 1675. Art historians argue about his possible use of a camera obscura to obtain his unusual perspectives, but no one denies his painting mastery.
Woman Holding a Balance
The gesture [of holding the balance] requires precise coordination of delicate physical and mental calculations—the same capacities that Vermeer's art demanded from him.
Lisa Vergara, "Perspectives on Women in the Art of Vermeer," 2001
Woman Holding a Balance offers a superb example of Johannes Vermeer ’s exquisite sense of order and rhythm. A woman dressed in a blue jacket with fur trim stands serenely at a table in a corner of a room. The jeweler’s balance in her right hand rests at equilibrium. A large painting of the Last Judgment, framed in black, hangs on the back wall of the room. A shimmering blue cloth and an open jewelry box with two strands of pearls and a gold chain lie on the sturdy table. Soft light coming through the window illuminates the scene. The woman’s deep introspection causes the viewer momentary hesitation about intruding on this private, contemplative moment.
The woman’s gaze at the balance, when considered in the context of the Last Judgment on the wall behind her, suggests that Vermeer, a Catholic, sought to infuse this work with religious and spiritual significance. Saint Ignatius of Loyola instructed the faithful to examine their consciences and weigh their sins as if facing Judgment Day. Only such deliberation could lead to virtuous choices along the path of life. Poised between the earthly treasures of gold and pearls before her and Last Judgment painting’s stark reminder of the eternal consequences of her actions, this woman personifies the values of materialism and morality that jostled for dominance in 17th-century Dutch society.
The painting’s subtext is reinforced by Vermeer’s refined composition and lighting. For example, the delicate hand holding the balance is placed directly in front of the frame’s dark corner, while the scales are set off against the bare plaster wall—an effect that Vermeer created by manipulating reality. Note that the bottom of the Last Judgment’s frame is slightly higher to the left of the woman than it is behind her back.
Related Works by Vermeer in the Collection
Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, c. 1665, oil on canvas, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer, 1962.10.1
Attributed to Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Flute, probably 1665/1675, oil on panel, Widener Collection, 1942.9.98
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665/1666, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.53
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., &ldquoJohannes Vermeer,&rdquo NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/1951 (accessed June 18, 2021).
The life and art of Johannes Vermeer are closely associated with the city of Delft. He was born in Delft in 1632 and lived there until his death in 1675. His father, Reynier Vermeer, was a silk weaver who produced caffa, a fine satin fabric, but in 1631 he also registered in the Saint Luke’s Guild in Delft as a master art dealer. By 1641 he was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house, the “Mechelen,” which contained an inn on the market square in Delft and from which he probably also sold paintings. When Reynier died in 1652 Johannes apparently inherited his business. By that time he must have already decided on a career as a painter. It is assumed that he trained in Delft, perhaps with Leonard Bramer (Dutch, 1596 - 1674) , who seems to have had close associations with Vermeer’s family, or with Carel Fabritius (Dutch, c. 1622 - 1654) . No documents, however, exist about his artistic training or apprenticeship, and he may have studied elsewhere, perhaps in Utrecht or Amsterdam.
Vermeer, who was baptized on October 31, 1632, in the Reformed Church in Delft, was raised a Protestant. In April 1653, however, he married into a Catholic family and seems to have converted to Catholicism shortly before that date to placate his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins, who lived in the so-called Papenhoek (Papists’ Corner) of Delft, adjacent to the Jesuit church on the Oude Langendijck, one of two hidden churches where Catholics could worship. Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved into her house. They named their first daughter Maria and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit order.
Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke’s Guild on December 29, 1653. His early aspiration was to be a history painter, and his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he became so renowned. Although Vermeer’s subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he nevertheless continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods he had preferred in his early history paintings.
Very little is known about Vermeer’s relationships with other painters who might have influenced the thematic and stylistic directions of his art. He apparently knew Gerard ter Borch the Younger (Dutch, 1617 - 1681) , with whom he cosigned a document in 1653. Another artist who may well have had an impact on his work during the 1650s was Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629 - 1684) , who painted comparable scenes in Delft during that period. Vermeer remained a respected artist in Delft throughout the rest of his life. He was named hoofdman of the Saint Luke’s Guild in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671.
Vermeer’s few works—they number about thirty-five—were not well known outside of Delft. It has been postulated that many of his paintings were concentrated in the collection of a patron in that city who seems to have had a special relationship with the artist. When Vermeer died, however, he was heavily in debt, in part because his art-dealing business had suffered during the difficult economic times in the Netherlands in the early 1670s. He was survived by his wife and eleven children, ten of whom were minors. His wife petitioned for bankruptcy the following year. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the famed Delft microscopist, was named trustee of the estate.
Vermeer’s works were appreciated during the eighteenth century, but his fame did not develop until the late nineteenth century, partly a result of enthusiastic appraisal by the French critic Théophile Thoré, whose pseudonym was William Bürger.
 John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Millieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, 1989), 246, has proposed that Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624–1674) may have been Vermeer’s patron.
 Théophile E. J. Thoré (William Bürger), "Van der Meer de Delft," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 21 (October–December 1866): 297–330, 458–470, 542–575.
In 1653, Vermeer registered with the Delft Guild as a master painter. There&aposs no record of who he may have apprenticed under, or whether he studied locally or abroad. Vermeer definitely had at least a friendship with leading Delft painter Leonard Bramer, who became one of his early supporters. Some experts also believe that Vermeer may have been influenced by the works of Rembrandt through one of Rembrandt&aposs students, Carel Fabritius.
The influence of Caravaggio is apparent in Vermeer&aposs early works, including "The Procuress" (1656). The painter also explored mythology in "Diana and Her Companions" (1655-56) and religion in "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" (c. 1655). By the end of the decade, Vermeer&aposs unique style began to emerge.
Many of Vermeer&aposs masterworks focus on domestic scenes, including "The Milkmaid" (c. 1657-58). This depiction of a woman in the midst of her work showcases two of his trademarks: his realistic renderings of figures and objects, and his fascination with light. Many of his works have a luminous quality, including the portrait "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665).
Vermeer enjoyed some success in Delft, selling his works to a small number of local collectors. He also served as head of the local artistic guild for a time. However, Vermeer was not well-known outside of his community during his lifetime.
Biography of Jan Vermeer Van Delft
Relatively little is known about Vermeer's life. He seems to have been exclusively devoted to his art. The only sources of information are some registers, a few official documents and comments by other artists it was for this reason that Thore Burger named him "The Sphinx of Delft". Vermeer became the subject of a biography by John Michael Montias: Vermeer and his milieu: a web of social history (Princeton, 1989), where the social history covers up for the elusiveness of the central character.
Johannes Vermeer was born in the city of Delft in the Netherlands and after a few days he was baptised in the Reformed Church on October 31, 1632. His father, Reynier Janszoon, was a middle-class silk or caffa worker. In 1615 he married Digna Baltens, a woman from Antwerp. In 1620 a daughter, Gertruy, was born. In 1625 Reynier Janszoon was involved in a fight with a soldier, who died from his wounds five months later. Around 1631 Reynier Janszoon leased an inn called The Flying Fox and started to deal in paintings. As a sideline, he continued to work as a weaver. In 1641, when the lease ran out, he bought a larger inn at the market square, named after the Belgian town "Mechelen". Vermeer's only sister, Gertruy, worked at the inn helping her parents, serving drinks and making beds. In 1647 she married a frame maker. When Vermeer's father died in 1652, Vermeer replaced him as a merchant of paintings.
Marriage and family
Despite the fact that he came from a Protestant family, Vermeer married a Catholic girl named Catherina Bolnes, in a nearby village called Schipluiden. For Vermeer it was a good match: his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was significantly wealthier than he, and it was probably she who insisted Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage in April 1653. Some scholars doubt Vermeer became Catholic, but one of his paintings, The Allegory of Catholic Faith, made between 1670 and 1672, reflects belief in the Eucharist. It was probably made expressly for a Catholic patron or for a schuilkerk, a hidden church. At some point the couple moved in with Catherina's mother, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk, close to a Jesuit church. Vermeer lived there for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. His wife gave birth to fourteen children: three sons and seven daughters four were buried at an early stage and their names and genders are not known. The youngest child, Ignatius, was named after the founder of the Jesuit order.
It is not certain where Vermeer was apprenticed as a painter, nor with whom. It is generally believed that he studied in his home town and it is suggested that his teacher was either Carel Fabritius or more likely Leonaert Bramer. It is possible he taught himself or had information from one of his father's connections.
On December 29, 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make clear Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee, a hint that his financial circumstances were difficult. In 1657 he might have found a patron in the local art collector Pieter van Ruijven, who lent him some money. In 1662 Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he was considered an established craftsman among his peers.
Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year, and on order. When Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663 to see some of his work, the diplomat and the two French clergymen who accompanied him were sent to a baker, probably Hendrick van Buyten, who owned one painting he was very proud of.
In 1672 a severe economic downturn (the "Year of Disaster") struck the Netherlands. Not only did a French army under Louis XIV invade the Dutch Republic from the south (known as the Franco-Dutch War), but an English fleet, in the Third Anglo-Dutch War and two allied German bishops attacked the country from the east, trying to destroy its hegemony. Many people panicked, and shops and schools were closed. Some years passed before circumstances improved. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer's business as both a painter and an art dealer, as his wife stated later. With a large family to support, Vermeer again was forced to borrow money.
In December 1675 Vermeer fell into a frenzy and died within a day and a half. In a written document Catharina Bolnes attributed her husband's death to the stress of financial pressures. She, having to raise eleven children, (underlined in the original) asked the High Court to allow her a break in paying the creditors.
The Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who sometimes worked for the city council, was appointed trustee. The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs and beds. (Vermeer did own three paintings by Fabritius.) In his atelier there were among rummage not worthy being itimized, two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table and a small wooden cupboard with drawers. Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to his wife and her mother. Catherina sold two more paintings to the baker in order to pay off the debts.
In Delft, Vermeer had been a respected artist, but he was almost unknown outside his home town, and the fact that a local patron, van Ruijven, purchased much of his output reduced the possibility of his fame spreading. Vermeer never had any pupils and his relatively short life, the demands of separate careers, and his extraordinary precision as a painter all help to explain his limited output.
Review: 'Vermeer's Hat' traces global economy
Stories of ethnic cleansing, human trafficking and illegal immigration, of corporate power and the uneven effects of free trade, have become so prevalent as to define our understanding of the post-Cold War world. But, as Timothy Brook shows in his elegant and quietly important book, "Vermeer's Hat," such stories have been with us for centuries, and our global world is much older than we typically think.
The paintings of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, who died more than three centuries ago, would seem a strange place to go in search of the roots of today's globalized era. Even Brook, a distinguished scholar of Chinese history, admits that the decision is personal and arbitrary. But in Brook's hands, Vermeer's canvases, together with a painting by a second-rate contemporary and an old chipped Delft plate, are just bright lures to catch our attention before embarking with us on a rich, suggestive tour of the 17th century world.
An oversize hat in Vermeer's painting "An Officer and a Laughing Girl" leads to a history of the trade in North American beaver pelts a brightly colored dish in "Young Woman Reading a Letter" launches an examination of the European craze for Chinese porcelain an image of an old Chinese man puffing on a pipe prompts a discussion of the tobacco trade. Maps, a balance and an African boy become points of departure for chapters on the growth of international trade, the role of silver in the world economy, and the explosion of travel and movement of peoples around the globe.
According to Brook, the thread that ties all these elements together, and gave birth to the global age, was China, specifically the lure of its mythical wealth, which, he claims, "haunted the seventeenth-century world." (Brook regrettably abandons himself on occasion to such grand if empty pronouncements as declaring the 17th century "the age of improvisation." Was "the fire within seventeenth-century souls" really "to pawn one's place of birth for the world of one's desire"?) It was the hope of finding a passage to China through North America that inspired the explorations of Samuel Champlain, explorations that were supported by the beaver trade, the quality of whose felt was prized for making hats. It was the European demand for Chinese porcelain that unleashed a cutthroat competition among the Dutch, Portuguese and Spaniards to control the trade. It was the need to pay for Chinese goods that fed the feverish mining of silver in the Andes, most of which ended up in the new entrepots of Macao and Manila.
"Vermeer's Hat" illuminates the unpredictable give-and-take that occurred between societies and how objects acquired new meanings and uses when brought to distant lands. The Dutch filled their homes with a cheap type of imported porcelain that most Chinese found vulgar. In one of the many curious ironies of cross-cultural interaction that Brook explores, so great was the market for such porcelain, that Chinese producers not only changed their production to supply it but even began to favor such porcelain for their own homes, viewing it as a new status symbol that reflected their owner's exotic, European aesthetic sensibility.
The world Brook depicts is one coming alive with movement, of diverse peoples and cultures engaging in sustained contact for the first time. Many of these interactions were bloody, and "Vermeer's Hat" doesn't shy away from them - Champlain's battles against the Mohawks, the Spaniards' brutal treatment of the Indians in South America, the massacre of 20,000 Chinese in Manila in 1603.
Yet, just as important, what Brook does to great effect is show the myriad ways people from different parts of the world managed to work together, to see how their lives intersected in such a manner that cooperation trumped killing. Intermarriage, alliances and friendships were no less a part of the story than were naked conquest and subjugation.
In the end, this is the book's ultimate lesson. In recounting these tales of international trade, cultural exchange and foreign encounter, Brook does more than merely sketch the beginnings of globalization and highlight the forces that brought our modern world into being rather, he offers a timely reminder of humanity's interdependence.
"If we can see," he concludes, "that the history of any one place links . ultimately to the history of the entire world, then there is no part of the past - no holocaust and no achievement - that is not our collective heritage."
John Montias, 76, Scholar of Economics and of Art, Is Dead
John Michael Montias, an economist who became one of the foremost scholars on the painter Johannes Vermeer and a pioneer in the economics of art, died on Tuesday at a hospice in Branford, Conn. He was 76 and lived in New Haven.
The cause was complications from melanoma, said his son, John-Luke Montias.
Part of the Annales school of economists and historians, Mr. Montias was among those who, in the early and mid-20th century, promoted a new form of history by replacing the examination of major leaders and events with the microstudy of ordinary people and occurrences.
Through the scrupulous analysis of common documents ranging from notes and letters to receipts and legal papers, Mr. Montias peeled back the layers in the life of Vermeer, one of his favorite artists -- and one of the world's most enigmatic. His work opened the door for a new genre of art history in which artists were analyzed in the context of their societal and economic surroundings and not merely their works.
"I think he was important for all of us," said Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, the John Langeloth Loeb professor emeritus at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. "When he started this in the 1960's and 70's, there was no one who approached the history of art from that point of view. His work was pioneering -- accurate, extremely convincing, with many novel insights. What was not considered to be relevant to the work of art in the past, we all have subsequently used."
Mr. Montias's research was a primary source for Tracy Chevalier's 2000 novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring," about Vermeer's relationship with the model for his iconic work, and for the 2003 film adaptation.
Mr. Montias began teaching at Yale University in the late 50's, where he specialized in the economic systems of the Soviet bloc during the 1960's and 70's and served as a consultant to high-ranking government officials. His analysis of the economies of Eastern European countries at times drew suspicion, perhaps never more so than during his visits to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from 1963 to 1965 he was shadowed and eventually expelled from Hungary on suspicion of espionage. But if his work was economics, his passion was art, particularly that of the 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands.
"I came to Vermeer 'sideways,"' he said in a 2003 interview for the Essential Vermeer Web site (www.essentialvermeer.20m.com), explaining the genesis of his second career. Having won a summer grant in 1975 to write a comparative study of Dutch art guilds, he traveled to Delft, where he discovered that no in-depth study of a guild existed.
"In the course of this research, I realized that, contrary to my expectations, previous scholarship on Vermeer's life had not exhausted the subject," he said.
And so began his quest to uncover the life of one of the world's most mysterious artists, with Mr. Montias unearthing and poring over 454 documents related to Vermeer and his family that lay, long undisturbed, in the archives of no fewer than 17 Dutch and Belgian cities.
In 1989 he published "Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History" (Princeton University Press), in which he revealed secrets of Vermeer's life: that Vermeer's grandfather was a convicted counterfeiter that his grandmother ran illegal lotteries and that the artist himself fathered 13 children and died at the age of 43, destitute.
Reviewing the book in The New York Times, the art critic John Russell wrote that Mr. Montias had previously "proved that there is a great deal more to art history than shuffling slides in a library."
"His new book does not crack the code of Vermeer's personality, let alone the code of his inner experience," the review continued. "But as detective work, and as a portrait of an era, it ranks high."
In fact, Mr. Montias's midlife obsession had adolescent roots. Born on Oct. 3, 1928, in Paris, he was sent in 1940, alone and by ship, by his Jewish parents to the safety of the United States -- and an Episcopalian baptism -- just as the Germans were preparing to invade France. He boarded at the Nichols School in Buffalo, where as a 14-year-old volunteer in the small library of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, he came across Wilhelm Bode's gilt-edged folio volume of Rembrandt and was immediately captivated.
Mr. Montias's curiosity resurfaced in 1954 when, as a Ph.D. candidate in the economics department at Columbia University, he considered writing his dissertation on the prices of Dutch paintings at auction. He failed to get financial support for his project, perhaps thought frivolous during the cold war.
Things changed when Mr. Montias met Mr. Begemann in the mid-1960's, when they were both at Yale. A specialist in Dutch and Flemish art, Mr. Begemann gave Mr. Montias his first lessons in connoisseurship, and soon after he began to study the genre's history methodically. His first project in the field -- the 1975 summer grant -- required Mr. Montias, already a gifted linguist, not only to learn modern Dutch but also to read 17th-century manuscript sources in old Gothic script.
"He decided to attack the archives in Delft, knowing that they had been scoured for information on Vermeer," recalled Otto Naumann, a Manhattan art dealer who studied under Mr. Montias. "With the confidence that only a true genius can posses, he decided that he could do better, without first learning Dutch."
It took Mr. Montias one week to find an unpublished document that mentioned Vermeer and but another to decipher it, Mr. Naumann said.
Mr. Montias published three more books about the 17th-century Dutch art market: "Artists, Dealers, Consumers: On the Social World of Art" (Hilversum: Verloren, 1994) "Public and Private Spaces: Works of Art in 17th-Century Dutch Houses" (Zwolle, 2000), with John Loughman and "Art at Auction in 17th-Century Amsterdam" (Amsterdam University Press, 2003).
In addition to his son, of Manhattan, he is survived by his wife, Marie, of New Haven, and his mother, Giselle de la Maisoneuve, of Paris.