DELFT, Netherlands - The life of the renowned 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is full of mysteries. No diary or other documents in his own handwriting remain, and no one knows whether portraits of the painter were self-portraits.
In his painting "The Procuress," which depicts a scene at a brothel, the man on the left side of the work is believed to be Vermeer, but the man's identity has never been confirmed.
Tracing the mysteries, I visited the old Dutch city of Delft. Having survived both World War I and II in the 20th century, the city has retained its medieval town atmosphere.
With a number of canals linking areas of the city, time seems to pass slowly there.
Vermeer married Catharina, who was born in a neighbouring town, at the age of 20. Shortly after that, his father died, and he inherited an inn, restaurant and art-dealing businesses.
But after an Anglo-Dutch war brought about an economic downturn, the couple and their 11 children faced great economic hardships.
According to Herman Weyers, director of the Vermeer Center in Delft, painting appears to have been a hobby for Vermeer, and the financially struggling man exchanged his paintings for bread and other food.
Despite financial constraints, Vermeer was not reluctant to spend money on expensive pigments. He extensively used ultramarine, a vivid blue pigment made from the natural gemstone lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. His works are known for their "Vermeer blue."
Vermeer served as an executive of the Guild of St. Luke, a trade association for painters and others. His reputation as a great painter was already established at that time, but it wasn't until 200 years after his death when French art circles highly acclaimed his paintings that they began drawing international attention.
The famous 20th-century French writer Marcel Proust, who authored the novel "In Search of Lost Time," applauded Vermeer's "View of Delft," describing it as "the most beautiful painting in the world."
Vermeer is said to have created about 50 paintings, of which only 37 have been confirmed to still exist. Because of the scarcity of his works, fake Vermeer paintings appeared, and one of them figured in a 1945 forgery incident during World War II.
Painter Han van Meegeren, who spent his student days in Delft, was arrested over the sale of what was then believed to be a painting by Vermeer to a senior Nazi official.
At his trial, van Meegeren claimed he had forged the painting himself and then produced a fake Vermeer painting on the spot. By selling many forgeries, he acquired enormous wealth.
After he was cleared of the allegation that he was a Nazi collaborator, he became a hero for deceiving the Nazis.
Works not in hometown
Most paintings by Vermeer were auctioned posthumously and have been dispersed around the world. None of his pieces remain in his hometown. Weyers speculates that a Vermeer painting would never return home because one of his works could be priced at more than ¥1 billion (S$11.3 million) today.
As Vermeer's paintings continue to attract fans, many people visit Delft from all over the world to follow the path of the painter. Vermeer may have left something more significant in his hometown than his paintings.
Miyoshi is a correspondent in Brussels.