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Vermeer's Name

Vermeer's Name

"Vermeer" was not an uncommon name in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. "Vermeer" is a contraction of "Van der Meer" which is usually translated as, "from the sea" or "from the lake." In Delft, where the artist lived, "there were other Vermeers and Van der Meers including a doctor, an apothecary, a school teacher, a tapestry-weave and a beer-mixer. At least seven or eight Vermeers or van der Meers worked as painters in the United Provinces in the seventeenth century. There were several landscape painters in Haarlem called Jan van der Meer, two of whom were father and son, the elder being a talented artist. The last but most important namesake was a Johannes van der Meer know as Jan or Jacques or Johan or Jacob, a genre, portrait and history painter active in Utrecht."1

Vermeer was born in 1632, the second child of Reynier Jansz. Vos (c. 1591–1652) and Digna Baltens (c. 1595–1670). The child's name Joannis was registered in Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft on October 31. At that time, Vermeer had a sister who was twelve years older named Gertruy.

click to hear mp3
  • Johannes Vermeer
  • Jan Vermeer
  • Catharina Bolnes
mp3 courtesy marco schuffelen

Vermeer was likely named Joannis, a variant of Jan, after his grandfather Jan Reynierszoon, the tailor. Jan was the most common name given to the male heirs of Delft's good Calvinist folk. Joannis was a Latinized form of Jan that Roman Catholics and upper-middle class Protestants favored. Perhaps the baby was christened Joannis instead of the plain old Jan because his parents, who had improved their economic condition in those years, thought it to be more refined and in step with the times. "There was also a humanist flavor to the name. Taurinus, the pastor of the Nieuwe Kerk who probably christened the child, also called himself Joannis or Johannes. Vermeer himself never used the name Jan. Nonetheless, most Dutch scholars, in the century since his rediscovery, have dubbed him Jan, perhaps unconsciously to bring him closer to the mainstream of Calvinist culture." 2


Surnames (family names) were relatively uncommon in seventeenth-century Holland. Names such as Janszoon or Carstenszoon, Willemsdochter were so called patronymics or names that referred to the first name of the father, and were in common use in fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holland. In written form they were then often abbreviated as Jansz., Carstensz. Willemsdr. etc., they were however usually pronounced in full, including the -zoon or -dochter. Because this form of abbreviation is not recognized as such in the English speaking world it is recommended that the full patronymic is always included in English texts, so the abbreviated patronymic is not perceived as the full name, as often erroneously happens. They were not family names however. Some people like Abel Janszoon Tasman had a patronymic as well as family name. Some patronymics were later used as family names although often in a slightly different form thereby becoming "frozen or petrified paronymics" (e.g. Janszoon to Jansen, Janssen, Jans etc.).

Peter Reynders, Australia on the Map. []

By the year 1640, Vermeer's father Reynier began to use Vermeer as his last name instead of Vos ("fox"), although he may have begun to use it at an earlier date. Vermeer's uncle Anthony had already adopted the surname as early as 1624. It should be remembered that last names did not have the same importance that they do today although by the 1630s most self-respecting burgers in Delft had taken last names. The artist always signed his Christian name plus Vermeer, omitting his patronymic, Reyierszoon, or Reyniersz.

A document cosigned by Johannes Vermeer
and his wife, Catharina Bolnes

Vermeer's name was sometimes spelled out in documents by notaries and public officials as "van der Meer" even though neither Reynier nor his son favored this form. In 1667, witnessing a legal document in which he was referred to as "Johannes van der Meer, artful painter," the artist signed "Johannes Vermeer." Three years later, evidently, encouraged by the artist who was present, a lawyer crossed out "van der Meer" and wrote above it "Vermeer."

When signing documents after 1657, Vermeer switched from using the old Gothic script to the more modern Roman script. After his marriage he preferred the more common spelling of Joannis: Johannes.

← After having experimented various ways of signing his pictures, Vermeer finally settled on his characteristic ligature. In the diagram to the left, we can see how the "J" of Johannes, the "V" of Van der Meer or Vermeer and the "M" of Meer were all accommodated according to the artist's taste.

from: "Dutch name," Wikipedia []

The Dutch habit of naming newborns after another family member originates with a then-widespread superstition that the name in some way contributed to some form of reincarnation of the person the child was named after, who was usually much older. This superstition disappeared after some time, even though a certain Le Francq van Berkeij writes the following in 1776: "bij veelen, een oud, overgeloovig denkbeeld, dat iemand weldra sterft, wanneer hij, gelijk men zegt, vernoemd is" (many have a superstitious belief that a person will soon die when someone, as they say, has been named after him).

As the centuries passed, this practice became so standard that the names of the children were practically known at the marriage of the future parents. The rules for naming were the following:

  • First-born son is named after paternal grandfather
  • First-born daughter is named after maternal grandmother
  • Second son is named after maternal grandfather
  • Second daughter is named after paternal grandmother
  • Subsequent children were often named after uncles and aunts—there was some liberty of choice here.

The infant mortality rate was high. If a son had died before his next brother was born, this younger brother was usually given the same name. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for a daughter. When the father died before the birth of a son, the son was usually named after him. When the mother died at the birth of a daughter, the daughter was usually named after the mother.

  1. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 215.
  2. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, 65.

Vermeer's Father's Name

The inn on the Voldersgracht was called "De Vliegende Vos" (The Flying Fox). The coincidence with Reynier Jansz.'s last name, Vos, was surely not accidental. What is not clear is whether he hung a sign board with an image of a flying fox in front of the inn to announce to the world that he, Vos, was the new boss, or whether he took to calling himself Vos only after he started leasing the inn that was already known by that name. The second alternative would imply that he was already established in the inn as early as January 1625, when he first called himself Vos. This is unlikely, because he was still living on the Small-Cattle Market when he repaid a debt for brandy in September 1626.

It happens also that "Reynier" sounds like "renard," the French word for fox, and that the great compilation of fables that the French call "Le Roman de Renard" became famous in Holland under the title "Reynaerd de Vos." Vos was a natural last name to choose for a man christened Reynier. Not surprisingly, there were many people besides Vermeer's father who called themselves Reynier Vos or De Vos in Delft.

John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1989, p. 61.

It is believed that Vermeer was born in his father's inn on the Voldersgracht 25, called The Flying Fox. This photograph taken from the Oude Kerk shows it no. 25 in white as it appears today.

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