Long considered a minor figure in art history with only around 35 works to his name, Johannes Vermeer is today one of the world’s most revered painters. Here are five things to know about the Dutch Baroque artist who will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opening on Friday:

– The Sphinx –

Nicknamed the “Sphinx of Delft”, Vermeer is one of art’s great enigmas, with only a few known facts about his 43-year existence.

Born into a middle-class family of Calvinist traders in 1632, his eccentric father was also an art dealer on the side.

For reasons unknown the artist shortened his surname “Van der Meer” to “Vermeer”.

He converted to Catholicism, marrying a wealthy woman with whom he had 11 children, but on his death left a mountain of debt from his own art trading.

To pay it back, his widow sold two of his paintings to a local baker for the equivalent of two to three years worth of bread supplies.

– Minor figure to megastar –

In his lifetime, during the “Golden Age” of Dutch art that also produced Rembrandt, Vermeer was a respected artist with a number of wealthy patrons, but apart from a few astute collectors, his work went largely forgotten after his death.

It was only in the 19th century that he was plucked from obscurity, notably due to the interest shown by French journalist and art critic Theophile Thore-Burger.

Vermeer’s stratospheric rise to being considered one of the great masters in art history led to a frenzy of interest in his relatively small body of work.

It’s a fake!

Celebrity brought a rash of fake Vermeers onto the market as art forgers sought to cash in.

The Rijksmuseum says his “remarkably small oeuvre” is believed to consist of between 35 and 37 paintings, but only around 30 have been indubitably certified as his, with debates continuing about the authorship of several others.

“Girl with Flute” is a case in point.

The painting is included in the Rijksmuseum show but its owner, Washington’s National Gallery of Art, says it is was probably the work of one of Vermeer’s students.

– Vermeer’s ‘camera’

Vermeer’s canvases are recognisable by their quasi-photographic quality, which is the more remarkable in that the artist apparently made no preparatory sketches.

His perfectly rendered interiors are re-inventions of real places, with objects moving or disappearing, and specific details becoming central, such as a single piece of thread or a sparkling earring.

Some biographers have raised the possibility that Vermeer, and other Dutch masters, used a pinhole camera to trace their compositions, rather than solely depending on their draughtsmanship.

– Art imitating art –

The Dutch master’s work was part of the intrigue in the Agatha Christie mystery “After the Funeral” and an episode in the hit TV series “Sherlock”.

Meanwhile, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, among Vermeer’s most famous works, owes its monumental fame in part to a 1999 best-selling novel by US author Tracy Chevalier.

The book was adapted by Hollywood in 2003 with Colin Firth as the painter and Scarlett Johansson as his muse, triggering a wave of Vermeer-mania across the Atlantic.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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