Imagine the scene: you uncover a painting stored away in the closet of an elderly relative's home, coated in a blanket of dust so thick you can hardly make out anything but more dust underneath. You slide it out, begin to carefully brush it off, and find two piercing eyes peering out at you. You brush away more dust, you are covered in it, and the image slowly reveals itself: a stunning oil painting of a young woman in a blue headdress and gold tunic, her red lips parted slightly in an enigmatic, over the shoulder glance.
You have just discovered Johannes (or Jan) Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, the so-called "Dutch Mona Lisa." The year is 1881, and the painting—in poor condition—will sell at auction for two guilders and thirty cents, the equivalent of about twenty-six U.S. dollars in today's currency.
This mostly fictional anecdote is meant to illustrate just how much Vermeer's fortunes—or rather those of the owners of his paintings—have risen since the late 19th century. (The painting was indeed sold in 1881—to an army officer and collector—for that tiny sum.)
Though Vermeer himself achieved modest fame during his own lifetime in his hometown of Delft and in The Hague, he died in debt in 1675, and was subsequently forgotten. Since then, of course, he has become one of the most famous European painters in history, with as much name recognition as fellow Dutch stars, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
With the exception of the rare Biblical or mythological scene and two paintings of gentleman scholars, Vermeer's few paintings—portraits and tranquil domestic scenes of almost preternatural stillness and poise—depict middle class women and their servants at work and at leisure. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is unusual: not a portrait—though the best-selling novel and award-winning film recreate its fictional referent—but what is called a "tronie," depicting, writes The Hague's Mauritshuis museum (who own the painting), "a certain type or character; in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear."
Part of the reason for Vermeer's obscurity is also the reason for his works' precious rarity today—his relatively meager output compared to other Dutch painters of the period. "Most Dutch painters turned out hundreds of pictures for a much broader market," writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vermeer produced "perhaps about forty-five (of which thirty-six are known today)." To learn many fascinating details about the composition, technique, history, and influence of those thirty-six paintings, you should visit Essential Vermeer 2.0, a thoroughly comprehensive site with an interactive catalogue, bibliographies, research links, interviews, essays on technique, list of Vermeer events and online resources, and much, much more.
In one of the most recent postings on the site, emeritus professor of architecture Philip Steadman writes an intricately illustrated essay on the most probable location of the rare exterior painting, The Little Street (c.1658), which, the Rijksmuseum tells us, "occupies an exceptional place in Vermeer's oeuvre." The Rijksmuseum also allows you to download—with a free account—a very high resolution scan of the painting, as well as others like The Milkmaid (further up), Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, and more. Other galleries, physical and online, offer similarly high res Vermeer downloads, and students and devotees of his work can collect all thirty-six known paintings—digitally—by visiting the links below. As for the real thing… well… you'd need to cough up more than a couple dozen bucks for one these days.
Note: Although most images listed below are in high res, several aren't, and they tend to appear toward the bottom of the list. If anyone knows where we can find better versions, please drop us a line.