The art of the inventory

From Vermeer to Rembrandt, Bacon to Freud, catalogues of artists’ possessions have afforded us new perspectives on their work and lives

June 02, 2023
Johannes Vermeer, extract from View of Houses in Delft (known as The Little Street), 1658–59. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of H.W.A. Deterding, London
Johannes Vermeer, extract from View of Houses in Delft (known as The Little Street), 1658–59. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of H.W.A. Deterding, London

Two copper snuffers. A child’s bed with a pillow. Four bad green curtains.

Sounds like a crime scene—and a grim one at that—but actually it’s a few lines from the inventory of Johannes Vermeer’s family home in Delft, made shortly after the artist’s death in December 1675.

It’s also the beginnings of a story. One that, in glancing brushstrokes, summons the tall, narrow house on the Oude Langendijk to life, encouraging the mind to drift through its halls, attic rooms and kitchens. 

The inventory is a highlight of the catalogue for the exceptional and long sold-out Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which comes to an end at the start of this month.

It’s only the second time that the inventory has been published in full, in English (Vermeer’s biographer, John Michael Montias, was first to the post in 1989). But before its pages were first made public in 1957—having initially caught the attention of museum director Abraham Bredius in 1885, some 200 years after the inventory was filed by the clerk of the Delft City Archive—it lay largely camouflaged as “records of J. van Veen, no. 2224”.

Van Veen was a notary and the inventory clerk’s employer, the official who was responsible for overseeing the bankruptcy order sought by Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, just six weeks after the artist’s death. 

She had already parted with two precious paintings: Lady Writing a Letter (circa 1670) and The Guitar Player (circa 1672), to settle a debt of 600 guilders—about the price of a small house—at the baker’s. Other records reveal she had been unable to donate a sum equivalent to the deceased’s most valuable cloak to Delft’s Chamber of Charity—the city’s institution in charge of poor relief—as was customary after somebody’s death. (The donation is noted as “uncollectable” in the chamber’s register, taken the day after Vermeer died.)

Vermeer had been successful, but money worries were commonplace at the time—for all classes of society. Since the Rampjaar or “Disaster Year” of 1672, when France, England and the Holy Roman Empire had all invaded the Dutch Republic, the country had been mired in terror and economic crises. Vermeer could sell neither his own paintings nor those he held under the art dealership he had inherited from his father.

In fact it was financial pressure, combined with “the very onerous burden of childcare” that caused her husband’s “degradation and decline”, wrote Catharina in her bankruptcy petition. “Struck by total confusion,” she added, “he had gone from healthy to dead in a matter of a day and a half”.

The woman accompanying the inventory clerk on his tour of the house, then, is a widow at 44, a mother with 11 children to feed and clothe. His neat, right-leaning script has frozen her predicament for all time. From room to room our impression builds: a family navigating a great change, in disarray.

Unlike previous publications of the inventory, the Rijksmuseum catalogue considers “the cohesion of the objects in relation to their spatial setting,” says Pieter Roelofs, one of the curators of the exhibition. “In this way, we try to bring the objects, which in the inventory are listed without their function and meaning, back to life within their original setting.”

Indeed, like those concertina peep shows that the Victorians were fond of, which look like nothing until their paper is stretched, inventories hide a miniature world in their folds. Homes are especially relatable; read about one and you cannot help but make it real in your mind’s eye. Read the description of a pan for poffertjes (small pancakes) or a gilt-leather wall covering, and you are plunged into an otherworldly present. Before you know it firelight glitters on that wall, and the children who like to eat those pancakes flash past in a hallway. 

“The inventory was probably the single most important piece of my research,” says the writer Tracy Chevalier whose 1999 novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, imagines a life for the girl in Vermeer’s circa 1665 painting of that same name (christening her Griet), all while exploring the circumstances of its making. “It was seeing that certain of Catharina’s clothes—the yellow mantle with a fur trim, I think, and a blue housecoat—that were listed in the inventory also appeared on models in his paintings, which gave me the idea that the earring had been borrowed from her too.” Chevalier also clocked the bed in the clerk’s description of the cellar (it wasn’t until sometime in the 18th century that people in Delft slept on the cold upper storeys, and then only the wealthiest). “I never would have thought to put Griet in the cellar if I hadn’t seen that. It was enormously helpful.”

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, 1670–72. Image: The National Gallery, London Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, 1670–72. Image: The National Gallery, London

An artist’s compendium

Vermeer isn’t the only artist to have been subject to inventory. Rembrandt had one too (in 1656, on the occasion of his cessio bonorum—a ceding of goods to absolve him of debts), also Frans Hals (in 1654, to pay a debt he owed to the baker), JMW Turner (in 1853, when housekeeper Hannah Danby, who had been custodian of the artist’s home since his own death two years earlier, also died), Michelangelo (ordered by none other than Cosimo de Medici, the day after the artist died in 1564), and Francis Bacon (in 1998, when every item in the late artist’s home/studio in South Kensington—empty champagne cases included—was donated and then shipped to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin).

There is also a rich seam of photographic inventories: John Webb’s pictorial catalogue of Ben Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, for instance, made on the artist’s death in 1982. Or the photographs of Lucian Freud’s home and studio in Kensington that were taken by his former assistant, David Dawson, when the latter inherited the site in 2011. Most recently, photographs by Henry Leutwyler of the contents of the late Philippe Halsman’s studio (miniature hotel soaps, spare camera screws and all) have been published in a new book.

Of course, not all inventories were drawn up in the same way, or for the same purpose. Sometimes, goods are documented room by room and in great detail; at other times they are merely summarised. The inventory of around 1830 of Thomas Lawrence’s home in Bloomsbury feels cursory in the extreme when compared to that of Turner’s house in nearby Marylebone, which lists his every punch ladle, broken tin box, cravat, pistol and an astonishing number of doilies.

When production designer Suzie Davies was recreating Turner’s homes and studios for Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr Turner—for which she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Bafta—the Queen Anne Street inventory helped her and her team “really inhabit his world,” she tells me.

“We never tried to recreate it exactly, that’s not Mike’s way, but it gave me a sort of base to put in the back of my brain, from which we could build something more thematic, more painterly. We got the mahogany four poster bed, for example, but instead of the chintz it mentions, we used a bedspread from the 1970s—though you’d never notice. We also stuffed the mattress with horsehair, as mentioned in the inventory, so that it would feel lumpy. That sort of detail really helps the cast.”

Much depends on who drew an inventory up and their interest in the contents. Those undertaken for Henry VIII, for instance, detailing the houses he had confiscated from courtiers who had fallen from favour, are necessarily thorough, given the sovereign was beneficiary—and thankfully so, since most have long since been built over.

Some artists made their own inventories: in 1790, the architect William Chambers noted every work of art, pianoforte and “window curtain” in his palace on the Thames in Whitton. As did John Soane, a man so enamoured of his collections and furniture that he was forever arranging and rearranging them; in 1833, he even negotiated a private Act of Parliament to preserve the lot exactly as it remained at the time of his death. His inventory lists a staggering 41,619 objects. No wonder it took his assistant and the museum’s first curator, George Bailey, two years to complete.

Edgar Degas also made an inventory, but of the huge number of paintings and drawings he had bought and hoarded over his lifetime, rather than of the fixtures and fittings of his grand Montmartre apartment. It was a real labour of love: price paid, dimensions, medium, provenance, condition and related works. His original inventory listed some 200 works, though later evaluations reveal the real number to have been over 5,000. 

Indeed, to house this collection, Degas turned one of his three floors into a gallery (he referred to it as his “museum”) to which only a privileged coterie of his friends were permitted entry. One of them was Walter Sickert, who recalled a  “forest of easels standing so close to each other that we could hardly pass between them, each one groaning under a life-size portrait by Ingres, or holding early Corots.” 

This account of Sickert’s alongside those of other contemporaries, together with the handful of photographs Degas took of his apartment, add delicious flesh to the inventory’s bones. The specifics of the collection is one thing, but learning how Degas arranged it, which works he engaged with while getting dressed or eating breakfast, unlocks something infinitely more valuable.

Fro example, we know that a glass case in the dining room held a cast of Ingres’s hand holding a pencil (Degas worshipped Ingres) and prints by the Japanese artist Utamo. We also know that the walls of his bedroom groaned with several sketches and watercolours by Delacroix, Manet’s The Ham (circa 1875–8) and Pear (1880), Ingres’s drawings for The Golden Age and The Apotheosis of Homer, Torii Kiyonaga’s Interior of a Bathhouse (circa 1787) and two small Italian scenes by Corot. Their proximity to the most private part of the house probably demonstrates the highest, most personal level of admiration.

Degas wasn’t the only artist to enjoy Corot in this fashion. We know from Dawson’s inventory that, lying in bed, Lucian Freud had a clear view of Corot’s Italian Woman (circa 1870), which he hung above the fireplace across the hall. One imagines Freud’s glacial-blue eyes resting on her first thing in the morning and last thing at night, in the most unhurried and touching way. 

The same intimate, intensely creative dialogue is suggested by the inventory of about 1645 of the “divers goods, household stuffe, implements of Household, Pictures and other Chattles” in Anthony van Dyck’s house in Blackfriars, which shows that he hung his beloved Titians (he owned 17!) in one room, repeating an arrangement he had employed at his former home in Antwerp.

In contrast, the inventories of Rembrandt’s and Lord Leighton’s houses suggest that their decorative motivations concerned their reputation rather than their passions: the most treasured or costly works in their considerable collections were positioned to be on display for every guest. The intention was partly to encourage buyers to draw favourable comparisons and partly a performative self-fashioning—that is to say to present themselves as curious, learned, successful.

That said, Rembrandt’s inventory also reveals that nine of the paintings he positioned on the lower, most visible floors were by Jan Lievens, his former friend and adversary from his days growing up in Leiden—some recent enough to suggest, charmingly, that the pair had remained in contact, even after Lievens moved to England and Antwerp. 

A parlour game 

Vermeer’s “great hall”—the room in which he would have conducted his art dealing business and where he and Catharina would have entertained guests—was also stuffed with paintings. The inventory clerk noted a picture of a peasant barn, two tronies (paintings of expressive faces) by fellow Delftian Carel Fabritius (of Goldfinch fame) and a still life with fruit and pumpkins, along with a painting of the Adoration of the Magi (ownership of which, the clerk noted, was shared with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins) and 12 family portraits: two of Vermeer’s late parents and 10 of the Thins family, patricians of Gouda. These family portraits “not only had a personal meaning for Catharina and Johannes,” writes Roelofs, “they also contributed, in this specific spot, as a gallery of ancestors, to the representative allure of the family.”  

Vermeer often featured paintings owned by his family in his canvases, so it is likely that the portrait of a man in 1630s dress in the background of The Girl with a Wine Glass (circa 1659-60), is one of these very family portraits.

In the same vein, it is faintly shocking to read the clerk’s perfunctory description of what is conceivably the footwarmer behind The Milkmaid (circa 1660)—akin to one of Holbein’s ambassadors or Rubens’ putti stepping out of their gilt frame and into real life. Indeed, Vermeer’s scrupulously sensitive, even sensuous relationship with ordinary household objects makes his inventory a gift. It is still possible to recognise the “Spanish” chairs the clerk lists in the hall—they have two lion-head finials on their backs—in 10 of his paintings, among them Girl Interrupted at Her Music (circa 1658–9), while the oriental carpets in The Art of Painting (circa 1666–68), The Procuress (1656) and 17 other works must be those noted in the “cooking kitchen” and an “upstairs back room”. The ball-legged table in the “interior kitchen”, too, must be the one Vermeer painted in The Milkmaid and A Maid Asleep (1657). After a while it becomes a type of parlour game, to pair the real objects in the inventory with their depictions. They populate his paintings almost as actors would a cycle of plays. 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1659–61. Image: The Frick Collection, New York. Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1659–61. Image: The Frick Collection, New York. Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr

One has the same immensely gratifying encounter with Ben Nicholson’s inventory. He carried his motley crew of glasses, tankards, mugs and jugs from studio to studio all his life, providing him with a repertoire of forms that he repeatedly deployed. So much so that Webb’s photographs of them function as a sort of roll call for British modernism. A white clay bottle in one photograph is recognisable from two of Nicholson’s cubist-inspired still life paintings from the 1930s, and again in an abstract design from the 1950s. The twisting stem of a glass goblet appears in a 1972 pen and ink drawing and then nine years later in an ink and oil wash. 

According to his inventory, Rembrandt’s house was also crammed with props: wind instruments, arrows, javelins, bows, fans, bamboo pipes and costumes. But, actually, these don’t exude quite the same charge; for one thing, they aren’t precisely identifiable in his paintings. Yet it might also be because, at his best, Rembrandt bestowed the sitter with such a powerful presence that it near sucks the life from the remainder of the canvas. “If she looked up, you wouldn’t be in any way surprised,” said the Duke of Buccleuch of his painting An Old Woman Reading (1655) in a recent documentary.

Studying Rembrandt’s inventory can feel like rubbernecking, because he is a captivating character: a rule-breaker, a spendthrift, a veiny-nosed old sot. The way he skirted the absolute edges of the law to evade his creditors for his bankruptcy was considered so socially shady at the time that insolvency legislation in the Dutch Republic was altered to prevent copycat actions. No wonder we have been fascinated with his fiscals for centuries.

Some scholars have wondered whether Rembrandt even concealed items from the inventory clerk: certainly, no palettes or brushes, easels, frames, canvases or grinding stone (to make pigments) are listed. In fact, temporarily removing items from the house prior to a bankruptcy inventory was not uncommon. Catharina conceivably did the same. We know that, just a few days prior to her inventory, in an effort to prevent The Art of Painting being counted among her possessions and so sold to satisfy creditors, she “bequeathed” it to her mother, though the transaction was declared illegal soon afterwards.

Plus, as Roelofs points out, bar the child’s sleigh that is listed near the front door, the inventory makes no mention of toys, nor of painting accessories beyond a grinding stone in the attic and the two easels and three palettes in the “Upstairs Front Room”. Some scholars have speculated that the clerk’s note about this room—“here and there some clutter that does not merit individual mention”— might refer to paints and so on, which is rather heartbreaking.

A large, fine cupboard, meanwhile, that would have been the logical place to store valuables, is also listed as empty, leading Roelofs to wonder whether “Catharina perhaps had no choice but to pawn her jewels and gold and silver items at the pawnshop at the end of the Oude Langendijk”. Documents in the Delft archives show that her brother, Willem, had previously availed himself of their service.

Also missing is a sense of how the family lived in the house. Was it bustling with guests, or did the family tend to keep to themselves? Messy and grubby, or as neat and ordered as Vermeer’s paintings? The latter is more probable: to paint those glass-like surfaces it would have been essential to keep the place as clean as possible: Vermeer’s contemporary Gerrit Dou is said to have sat immobile in front of his easel for half an hour before picking up his brush, in order to let the dust settle.

I’m speculating again, but inventories are so receptive to it, and particularly Vermeer’s. Perhaps that’s because we’re thirsty for any trace of him­. He is art’s invisible man, after all: scant documents, no drawings, no letters, no pocketbook and no contemporary accounts of his life have yet been found.

Even here, acting as a straggler on the inventory clerk’s tour, our impression of him is fugitive. We never get to see Vermeer directly, even as we sense him or traces of him in the inanimate things that once surrounded him: his 13 pairs of cuffs and 10 ruffs, his Turkish trousers, his bedsheets.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658–59. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658–59. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt

Speaking of bedsheets, is there a moment in all this where we cross a line? I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with strangers poring over my threadbare shirts, “earthenware of little importance” and “bad chairs”, a hundred or so years into the future. The executor of Bacon’s estate, Brian Clarke, who oversaw the transfer of the artist’s effects to Dublin, said that any fascination he felt rummaging through the contents of Bacon’s studio was “tempered, on another side by the fear that one was really kind of poking around in a very intimate and private world that one had no right to be in.”

The anonymous compiler of Vermeer’s inventory, of course, had no idea that his routine descriptions were connected to one of the greatest artists in history, and would still be so exhaustively examined almost three and a half centuries late. But would he have altered his notes? I don’t think so.

The High Court of Holland and Zeeland declared Catharina Bolnes Vermeer personally bankrupt two months later in April 1676, relieving her of any rights to the estate of her late husband. She seems to have stayed on in Delft for a few years afterwards. In 1684 she was living in Breda while still trying to support eight children; by 1687 she had returned to Delft where, soon after she had made her last will and testament, she died—like her husband—in December. The donation to the poor relief charity was still uncollectable.