By John Olusegun 12:44 am PST

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th-century Dutch painter. Although popular today, the situation was different during his lifetime. Vermeer’s style that plays on light and color tones makes his works stand out, but he enjoyed little success when he was alive. After his death, his paintings gained recognition, and the desire for every detail about them grew as they were discovered.

Many behold his famous works like Girl with a Pearl Earring and admire the brilliance of the prodigious artist. Everything from the subjects of the paintings to their attire and surroundings is positioned carefully to convey a comprehensive message. Nonetheless, Vermeer is known to have hidden messages within his works. Some of these messages were not discovered until centuries after his death. Here are some you should know:

Girl with a Pearl Earring

The hidden message in this painting will not be understood by anyone unfamiliar with the importance of textiles to the 17th-century Dutch. Vermeer uses the three primary colors for a painter but leaves viewers to determine the different hues and shades in the picture. People who lived in Vermeer’s time emphasized fine material and adored paintings where they were depicted interestingly.

Vermeer’s hidden message is in the material of the girl’s jacket, which can change colors depending on the angle from which you view it. It looks good in direct light but seems grey or blue in shadowy areas.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

Girl reading a letter on an open window by Johannes Vermeer (Photo © Rob Lumen Captum |

The ability to decipher the hidden message in this painting depends significantly on one’s knowledge of the era and art history. A typical act in the 17th-century Dutch Republic is to cover paintings with curtains to protect them. In this painting, Vermeer tricks the viewer with a curtain drawn over a part of the painting. He tempts you to reach out and pull the curtain back to view the entirety of the scenes. However, this is just an illusion, usually called trompe l’oeil.

Vermeer’s message with the curtain also alludes to a famous story in art history. Pliny, the Elder’s Natural History, tells the tale of two painters who entered a competition to know the better painter. While Zuexis painted grapes so realistic that birds flew down to taste them, Parrhasius proved superior when it was discovered what the painting’s covering was painted on. Vermeer alluded to this story with the partially open curtain in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, forcing viewers to appreciate his skills and style.

Woman Holding a Balance

Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer (Photo © National Gallery of Art)

In this work, Vermeer requires anyone looking for the hidden message to reckon with his religiosity. He employs a painting within a painting – a common technique in his works – to depict a scene more profound than the obvious one. While the woman seems to hold a scale to weigh the value of treasures before her, a similar scene plays out behind. The painting behind her, Christ in Judgement, shows Jesus also with a scale, which alludes to Christ weighing souls on Judgement Day.

Vermeer’s flair for profound realism often overwhelms the viewers with the unmistakable message in his works. However, experts and enthusiasts have learned to look for hidden messages. He uses the evident and hidden message to depict mostly human daily lives and his faith. Vermeer’s religiosity is primarily predominant in his early works.