Little is known about Vermeer. For a start, we don't know what he looked like. There are no confirmed images of him, though in one of his early works, The Procuress, a man looks out at the viewer from the edge of the scene, which in Dutch painting of the time was often the artist himself. In The Art of Painting a painter sits with his back to us. We don't know if it's meant to be Vermeer, but it gives us an idea of what an artist in his studio might have looked like.
The few known facts about Vermeer's life come from legal documents, of marriages and births and sales and debts. The son of innkeepers, he was born in 1632 in Delft, a town of about 25,000 people best known for its blue and white glazed earthenware. He spent all of his life there, though he may have done a six-year painting apprenticeship elsewhere, possibly in Amsterdam or Utrecht.
In 1653 Vermeer converted to Catholicism and married Catharina Bolnes, a Catholic from a well-off bourgeois family. They had eleven surviving children. The family lived in the house of Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, in an area off the main Market Square known as Papists' Corner because of the concentration of Catholics living there. Only 20% of the population were Catholic; the rest were Protestant. Catholics were tolerated but barred from municipal functions and required to worship privately. There were two "hidden" churches in Delft, one right next door to Maria Thins' house.
Also in 1653 Vermeer joined the Guild of Saint Luke as a master painter -- an important step in his career as a painter, it meant he had completed his apprenticeship and was ready to work professionally as an artist.
He did not make a living from his paintings, however, possibly because he painted so few - just 35 are known to exist, and he produced only two or three a year. He quite likely had a patron, perhaps Pieter van Ruijven, who bequeathed several Vermeers to his daughter. Vermeer was also an art dealer, but his primary source of income was his mother-in-law.
Vermeer painted mostly domestic interiors, often of a woman alone doing something: pouring milk, weighing jewels, reading a letter, playing a lute. It is not known who any of the models were. They were probably all painted in the same room, Vermeer's studio on the first floor in his mother-in-law's house. The room had three windows and light from the northwest -- preferred by painters because it was more diffuse and even. In most of the paintings the women sit or stand in the same corner, with the light source from the left, so that the shadow of Vermeer's hand did not fall onto the canvas as he was painting.
Vermeer may have used a camera obscura as he painted. A camera obscura brings some parts of a composition into focus while blurring others, as well as intensifying colors. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope and other optical instruments, was the executor of Vermeer's will, and may well have introduced him to the device.
Vermeer's death in 1675, probably from a stroke or heart attack at age 43, was stress-related, according to his wife. The family was falling further and further into debt, mostly as a result of a war between France and the Netherlands begun in 1672. Not only did the art market collapse, income from Maria Thins' rented properties also dried up. Catharina described her husband's sudden decline thus:
"As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."