Who was Catharina Bolnes?
The most frequent candidates are the Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, Woman in Blue
Reading a Letter, and Woman Holding a Balance. This young woman has the same high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes, and she also appears to be pregnant in two of the pictures.
But these are all hypotheses, and there is no evidence Vermeer did actually paint his wife.
What we do know is that Catharina was the daughter of Maria Thins, who came from a well-to-do patrician family in Gouda, a Catholic stronghold, and Reynier Bolnes, a prosperous brick maker. “Catharina’s childhood memories were full of violence, fits of temper and tears. Her father, after 13 years of marriage, had become an ogre. Maria’s relatives and neighbours were to testify that they saw him insulting his wife, kicking her, pulling her naked from her bed by her hair when she was sick,
attacking her with a stick when she was pregnant, and chasing her out of the house. She was forced to eat her meals by herself. Years later, after the unhappy couple had been legally separated, Catharina and her mother moved into the quite Catholic enclave, called the “Papists Corner,” in Delft, perhaps, seeking solace from their traumatic life in Gouda.
The best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (and later film drawn from the novel) portrayed
Catharina in an unpleasant light. She is characterized as jealous, selfish, vain and superficial: a completely spoiled young woman. Worse, perhaps, she is incapable of understanding her husband’s art, and in a fit of envy she even attempts to destroy one of his finest paintings.
There is no evidence whatsoever this made-up story has any truth in it and even seems unfair to the remembrance of Catharina Bolnes.
Vermeer’s marriage to Catharina in 1653 was manifestly one of love, a Protestant to a
Catholic and against both families’ wishes. He had to leave his neighbourhood and was erased
from the civic records, moving into the house of his mother-in-law, Maria Thins.
There he ran an art dealership..
|Signature of Catharina Bolnes|
There is every sign that the family was happy. Catharina was to be pregnant throughout their
22-year marriage, with 11 of their 15 children surviving. Vermeer named them after his motherin-law, Maria, and her favourite saints (including Ignatius and Franciscus). She made him her
heir in preference to her own son. When he died bankrupt at the age of 43, Maria referred to
him as “the sainted Vermeer”. Catharina pleaded with the executors to let her keep three of
her favourite paintings, one almost certainly of her and the others, I believe, of their girls.
None of this suggests a frigid, jilted canvas-slasher.
Archival research has uncovered enough about Vermeer’s household to indicate a close-knit
home, full of children and music.
Maria Vermeer (born ca. 1654 – d. after 1713) married teh silk merchant Johannes Cramer. They had children.
Elisabeth Vermeer (ca. 1657 – bef. 1713)
Cornelia Vermeer ( 1659- 1660)
Aleydis Vermeer ( 1660- 1749) became a lay nun, and was robed in black silk. She lived as though she was a beguin (begijn) nun.
Beatrix Vermeer ( 1661- bef. 1702) got herself a daughter named Elizabeth
Catherina Hosperius / Hopperius who possibly was related to Pieter Corstiaensz Hopprus who leased the Flying Fox inn to Vermeers father.
Johannes Vermeer [jr] (ca. 1663). Beneficiary of trust fund and in 1689 a feudal inheritance. Married c. 1687 with Maria Anna Frank. In 1688 they got a son named Johannes Antonius [jr-jr] who was raised by his aunt Maria in Delft and this Johannes Antonius never learnt how to write. Jan jr. likely lived as a notary in Brugge, Belgium.
Gertruyd Vermeer ( 1664- after 1713). Sickly child.
Franciscus Vermeer (circa 1664 – after 1708). Was he master surgeon? Married Maria de Wee c. 1690.
Catherina Vermeer ( c. 1665- after 1713)
Ignatius Vermeer ( 1672 – 1713) became master surgeon in Charlois near Rotterdam
‘an [unnamed] child of Vermeer’ (1674 – 1678-80) It was born between July and September 1674
Three other Vermeer’s children were buried by Catharina and Vermeer in 1667, 1669, 1673. One other child born 1672 died in or after 1713. The one born 1674 died in 1678.
At Vermeers death eleven children were recorded as being alive.