I wonder how much Vermeer was paid? The Dutch Golden Age was the biggest, most prolific and cut throat market for art in history, perhaps second only to the present day, the dawn of the 21st century, in terms of quantity of high quality artists. Plenty of historical artists died penniless, not only van Gogh but great painters like Zurbaran, Rembrandt, oh, and yes, I've just remembered, Vermeer.
I've been thinking about prices recently. It's one area all artists struggle with. I work by a regular disciplined schedule, and record how many days a painting takes. My painting days run from 9am to 6pm, and depending on whether I get paid for my lunch hour, my most expensive oil paintings earn me either £5.50 or £6.25 per hour, both below the minimum wage, which is, at time of writing, £6.31. Even then, some of my paintings can retail (with a modest commission of 30% exc. V.A.T.) at over £1500, and with a more common 50% plus V.A.T. comission, £2500. Would I want to paint the sort of paintings ordinary people can't afford? Do only the rich deserve good art?
I could exploit my works further by selling limited edition prints, or open reproductions, but should that be relied on for income, or should that be a bonus?
Johannes Vermeer painted slowly and had a large family. He painted less than forty paintings in his lifetime, each taking many months of work. He had a wife to support and produced almost as many children as paintings, but at the same time he was elected head of St. Lukes Guild, and dealt in art at least as much as he painted. Perhaps his actual painting time was limited. Perhaps his art, bought by a small clique of patrons, one in particular, was a personal indulgence and he made most of his money from selling other people's work.
It's reasonable to expect, while a student, to have student prices, and expect prices to naturally grow as popularity increases. Ironically, the artist controls price growth, but he must compete with other artists who offer similar services too. Or must they? Isn't a key point of art the uniqueness of the artist? Even a forger, trying his best can't paint an actual Constable, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Vermeer.
Is there a point when older works must be raised in price? Is there a moral pressure to hold back the works that an arist considers artistically and culturally of national importance? I have no doubt, none, that after my death one of my works will sell for more than my entire lifetime's earnings so far. That happens a lot in art. Should that knowledge make me sad or happy? Happy, surely. I didn't become an artist to become rich, no artist does. In fact I became an artist specifically to escape chasing money, specifically to do what I wanted to do even for no money at all. I want to share my work with the world, but I wouldn't be that bothered if I never sell another painting. In that circumstance, then charging a good price for each work is justified, more than the minimum wage at least... that is, unless you need the money...
Poor Vermeer. An economic collapse and a war destroyed his finances and he died of stress. I wonder how he'd have handled things if he could go back in time and live his life again? (I'm never one for contentment in that regard. If I could live my life again, I'd do everything differently!) Would Vermeer have taken on students? Have ignored his constricting patron and exhibited widely, painting the aristocrats of his secular capitalist universe, gaining fame and fortune in his lifetime... like Rembrandt.
The picture is the painter from my work The Art of Painting, an homage to Vermeer. It was my first (and so far only) painting to sell for over £1000. I will increase my prices.