Essential Vermeer 3.0
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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.

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The children at play

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

One of the most touching details in Vermeer's oeuvre is that of the two children absorbed in their play in the Little Street. Although they occupy a small space, the magical atmosphere that pervades the work would be deprived of much of its intimate warmth without their presence. As is befitting of Vermeer's enigmatic nature, neither the children's faces nor their play is revealed. We can only surmise that the darkly dressed child wearing a broad-brimmed hat seen in profile is likely a boy while the attire worn by the other indicates she is a girl. By turning their backs to us and hiding their activity, the artist stimulates the viewer to explore the thoughts and emotions of his own childhood. Thus, he becomes an active participant in the picture's silent narrative, completing it as a work of art.

Once out of their swaddling clothes, children in the 17th century were dressed as miniature adults. This practice may reflect a lack of recognition of the child's individuality, at least, in moparison to modern standards. Both boys and girls generally wore the same ankle-length dress (the boys until about 5 to 7 years of age). Clothes were expensive so hand-me-down clothes were the norm. Contemporary portraits of children prove how difficult it is to determine the gender of children before breaching unless a name is available. Many children wore pinafores, a kind of apron pinned to the front of an elaborate frock as protection.

European upper classes usually placed their children under tutors and governesses, usually when they reached about 3 years of age. Contemporary letters and diaries show that education was commenced so early and with such intensity that it was not unusual for a child of 4 or 5 to be able to read, write and understand several languages.

The poignancy of Vermeer's image becomes more striking if we remember that Vermeer himself would have eleven children: Maria, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, Ignatius and one child whose name is unknown. Four had died in infancy or early childhood.

The cloudy sky

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The scene that Vermeer represents is fully shaded by overhead cumulus clouds lit by the sun shining from the left. The chief pigment of the blue sky is the now-defunct blue, azurite, the most common blue found on the palette of 17th-century Dutch painters. These clouds are executed with delicate but rapid diagonal brushstrokes of white with small admixtures of red ochre and azurite.

Glue size, which is stickier than natural drying oils used to make paint, was often employed to hold the azurite pigment grains firmly in place. It was necessary to apply several coats of azurite to produce a solid blue, but the result was quite beautiful. The actual thickness of the crust of blue added to the richness of the effect, and each tiny grain of the powdered crystalline mineral sparkled like a minute sapphire, especially before it was varnished. Due to the coarseness of azurite, it was difficult to use in detail. The same blue was often used as a cheap base color for the more expensive natural ultramarine, a precious blue pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli.

Delft's canals

The rows of worn cobblestones that slowly converge are essential in creating a sense of depth and break the stifling flatness of the main façade, which dominates the picture plane. It would appear that soapy water streams down from the servant's washbasin into a gutter, which runs along the wall dividing the properties of the adjacent doorways. The water then flowed into a canal below just out of view. Directly in front of the main building's doorway is a shallow platform decorated with diagonally placed ceramic tiles.

Delft was laced with a fine network of canals which were one of the principal features of this town. In fact, Delft's name derives from delven, which means to dig. European travelers frequently noted that the Dutch were fanatically clean. Each morning homeowners would give a thorough washing of the street in front of their properties. Delft's canals were so clean that the water could be used for making beer. A visitor once remarked that the floors of Delft's houses were so clean that one could eat off them without a plate. The famous Delft scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek commented that he had the gutters of his house thoroughly cleaned two times a year.

Hidden symbolism

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Although Vermeer's view may be enjoyed for its lifelike description that seems to transport the viewer back to the mid-17th century, the work is not without symbolic references.

A fully clothed maid is shown washing laundry over a wooden barrel at the end of the anonymous private alleyway, one of the hundreds in Delft. An unused broom stands nearby waiting to be wielded over pavements with legendary gusto. In the 17th century, sweeping and brooms had solid associations with spiritual cleanliness and purity. The concept of domestic virtue was essential to Christendom and Dutch nationhood.

Infrared reflectography reveals that Vermeer had initially included a seated woman doing handiwork at the entrance of the alleyway. She was painted out at an advanced stage of the work most probably because she obstructed the passageway spoiling the effect of three dimensionality so crucial to the success of the composition.


The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Sprawling grapevines can be seen in a great number of Dutch cityscapes. Although Dutch grapes failed to produce drinkable wine because there was so little sunlight, vines were kept for their decorative effect. Since Antiquity, vines have symbolized fidelity and marriage and in the context of this work, domestic virtue. However, we cannot presume that Vermeer had attached any symbolic meaning to them in the present work.

The curious blue tinge of the foliage in Vermeer's painting has been attributed to the loss of a transparent yellow glaze painted over the blue leaves which originally would have given the leaves their proper green color. This particular glaze method (yellow lake over ultramarine blue) must have been common since the same defect appears in the works of other Dutch painters as well, especially those of the still-life painters.

The elderly woman sitting in the doorway

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The elderly woman who quietly vigils over the scene is doing some kind of needlework, possibly sewing, judging by the large piece of cloth on her lap. She is the only aged person in the artist's oeuvre even though such figures were common stock among Dutch painters of the time. Sewing, like spinning, was an attribute of domestic virtue of Biblical origin. Thus, Vermeer's picture represents a real situation that serves as a model of behavior. However, the work is so naturalistic in its appearance that the viewer never feels the weight of didacticism or moralizing finger-waving.

Differently from the rest of Europe, in the Netherland,s the home became more important than ever, and was eventually embodied in an emblem from the popular emblem book Sinnepoppen by Roemer Visscher. The illustration shows a turtle in his shell, a creature who never leaves his shell, captioned "T'huys best," or, home is best. The virtuous household also held political significance as it was regarded as "the seed of the state."

Artistic license

Despite the scene appears so convincingly realistic, Vermeer must have taken considerable artistic license to achieve the work's unique poetic contents. In the original version, the striking red shutter was absent.

An old house, even in Vermeer's time

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

According to historians of architecture, Vermeer depicted a house that dates from the second half of the 15th, or the beginning of the 16th century. It was not the kind of luxurious townhouse inhabited by the privileged elite of Delft but a dwelling for modest folk. It had high ceilings, well-lit rooms and unusual step-gables making it one of the surviving medieval houses of the time.

The area where the house stood was spared by the Great Fire of 1536 which had destroyed a considerable slice of Delft. It shows numerous repaintings and cracks patches that may have been inflicted by another civic calamity: the infamous event called the Thunderclap of 1654, when an ammunitions magazine exploded killing hundreds of inhabitants.

Even though everyone who has seen the picture from life is astonished by the real appearance of a single place, more than one art historian believes that Vermeer created a composite of different buildings. This 17th-century "copy-and-paste" practice was hardly an anomaly. Pieter de Hooch, for example, painted two courtyards in Delft which are nearly identical at first glance except for their varied architectural features. The ability to combine pieces of reality in a skillful manner would have been in itself admired by contemporary viewers.

Despite its artifice, Vermeer's Little Street remains, perhaps, the most naturalistic renditions of a 17th-century Dutch townscape. Even though it is rendered with breath-taking attention to detail, the finished image shares little with the dry topographic tradition of current landscape painting. Furthermore, the main building is unusually off-center and cropped off on the top, which increases the sense of closeness by forcing a point of view from which the viewer cannot escape. Thus, it is unlikely that it had been conceived as a commemorative "portrait" of a specific house. The French artist and writer Eugène Fromentin wrote that if there ever was a portrait of Holland, the Little Street epitomizes it.

Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out that the buildings in the painting have no specific architectural features, wall plaques or signs, and no church spires rise in the background that permits the present-day viewer to locate them with surety. Vermeer's view is "less about Delft, or even a small fragment of a streetscape in Delft, than about the poetic beauty of everyday life."

Critical assessment

Time, halted for this instant and therefore in a sense for eternity, seems to be his essential subject. Its wear and tear is visible in the bricks and mortar, the fabric of fact that bluntly underpins our tenuous and temporary hold with its many unanswerable questions, such as 'What are we doing here?' And yet according to some art historians, the picture is also about the ideals of domestic virtue: the grapevine symbolizes love and marital fidelity. Psalm 128 says: "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of the house." Catharina was often "full and sweet" as the Dutch described the state of pregnancy. And Vermeer allows for this sense of development in his painting. Unlike de Hooch, who freezes his figures for once and for all, he gives us the feeling that at any moment the woman in the doorway will put her sewing or embroidery away and call to the children; time for some food. And the servant will come in from the passageway and help in the kitchen.

Vermeer: A View of Delft, Anthony Bailey, 2001

The signature

The Little Street (facsimile of signature), Johannes Vermeer

inscribed below window at left: i VMeer (VM in ligature)

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)

The Little Street (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer


1661 Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1657–1658
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1659–1661
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1659–1660
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

Technical report

The support is a fine, plain weave linen, with a thread count of 14 x 14 per cm² The original tacking edges are present and marks from the original strainer bars are 3.5 cm. from the edge on all sides. Of the two lining canvases one is probably attached with glue/paste, the other with wax resin.

The gray ground visible along the silhouette of the right house and in parts of the brick façade contains umber, a little chalk and lead white. Coarse particles of lead white protrude through the thin paint layers of the façade and in the brown shadows. Along the left edge of the painting secondary cusping is evident.

The sky was underpainted with lead white, over which the chimneys on the v-shaped-roofline were painted. Azurite was used in the underpainting of the three upper windows, including sills and surrounds, of the right house, followed by a creamy yellow layer. The sequence of paint layers is reversed in the ground-floor windows of this house. The foliage was painted with an azurite and lead tin-yellow mixture, three different shades of an ultramarine and lead white mixture, and pure ultramarine.

* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Little Street with frame


  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674);
  • (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 32 or no. 33; Gerrit Willem van Oosten de Bruyn, Haarlem (before 1797);
  • his widow, Haarlem (d. 1799), Van Oosten de Bruyn sale, Haarlem, 8 April, 1800, no. 7, to Van Winter;
  • Pieter van Winter, Amsterdam (1800–1807);
  • Lucretia Johanna van Winter, Amsterdam (1807–1845);
  • Jonkheer Hendrik Six van Hillegom, Amsterdam (1845–1847);
  • Jonkheers Jan Pieter Six van Hillegom and Pieter Six van Vromade, Amsterdam (1847–1899/1905);
  • Jonkheer Willem Six van Wimmenum, Amsterdam (1905–1919);
  • Jonkheer Jan Six, Amsterdam and 's-Graveland (1919–1921);
  • Six sale, Amsterdam 12 April, 1921, to Sir Henry Deterding;
  • his gift in 1921 to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. A 2860).


  • Amsterdam 1845
    no. 106
  • Amsterdam 1872
    Katalogus der tentoonstelling van schilderijen van oude meesters
    Arti et amicitiae
    22, no. 143
  • Amsterdam 1900
    Catalogus der verzameling schilderijen en familieportretten van de heeren jhr. P. H. Six van Vromade, Jhr. J. Six en jhr. W. Six
    Stedelijk Museum
    17, no. 71
  • London January 4–March 9, 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    149–150, no. 316 and pl. 80
  • London 1929
    Dutch Art. An Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Dutch Art at Burlington House, London
    Burlington House
    85, no. 103 and ill.
  • Amsterdam October 21–November 3, 1935
    Vermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 July, 1885
    28, no. 165 and ill. 165
  • Rotterdam July 9–October 9, 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed. Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    36, no. 83 and ill. 64
  • Brussels March 2–April 28, 1946
    De Hollandsche schilderkunst van Jeroen Bosch tot Rembrandt
    Paleis voor Schone Kunsten
  • Paris November 25, 1950–February 185, 1951
    Le Paysage hollandais au XVII siècle
    Orangerie des Tuileries
    no. 98
  • London November, 1952–March, 1953
    Dutch Pictures 1450–1750
    Royal Academy of Arts
    vol 1: no. 529, 2: ill. 13
  • New York 1954
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pitcures of Seventeenth Century
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    ill. 7
  • Toledo (OH) January 2–February 13, 1955
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century
    Toledo Museum of Art
    plate #VII, between pages xxii and xxiii
  • Toronto 1954–1955
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pitcures of Seventeenth Century
    Art Gallery of Toronto
    plate #VII, between pages xxii and xxiii
  • Rome 1956
    Le XVII siècle Européen. Réalisme classique baroque
    Palazzo delle Esposizioni
    246, no. 31 and pl. 28
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Musée de l'Orangeri
    no. IV and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    102–107, no. 4 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Gallery of Art
    102–107, no. 4 and ill.
  • Amsterdam 2000
    The Glory of Golden Age: Dutch Art of Seventeenth Century
    201, no. 138 and ill.
  • London 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    Metropolitan Muesum of Art
    no. 69 and ill
  • Tokyo August 2–December 14, 2008
    Vermeer and the Delft Style
    Metropolitan Art Museum
    172–174, no. 26 and ill.
  • Rome September 27, 2012–January 20, 2013
    Vermeer. Il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese
    Scuderie del Quirinale
    206, no. 46 and ill.
  • Amsterdam - October 11, 2019
    Rembrandt-Velázquez.: Dutch and Spanish Masters
    146 and ill.
  • Delft March 25–July 17, 2016
    Vermeer is Coming Home (Vermeer komt Thuis)
    Museum Prinsenhof Delft, Delft
  • Madrid June 25–September 29, 2019
    Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Parallel Visions
    Museo Nacional del Prado
  • Dresden June, 4–September 12, 2021
    Vermeer: On Reflection
    Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Little Street in scale

Where is Vermeer's scene?

A Dutch Courtyard, Pieter de Hooch

A Dutch Courtyard
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 69.5 x 60 cm.
National Gallery of Art,
Washington D.C.

Although many locations have been proposed in the past, the most consistent candidate for the location of the scene of The Little Street has been the Voldersgracht, a narrow street that runs next to a canal in the center of Delft, where Vermeer was born. However, some art historians believe that despite the scene's realistic appearance, it could be a distillation of typical architectural elements gathered and adroitly woven together within the privacy of the artist's studio.

The century-old question has been recently addressed by Dr. Frans Grijzenhout, professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam. Grijzenhout argues that the setting for the painting is on Vlamingstraat in Delft, where houses 40–42 now stand. Grijzenhout's conclusion is based on measurements he has found in the Legger van het diepen der wateren binnen de stadt Delft [Ledger of the dredging of canals in the town of Delft], a document compiled from 1666 onward recording the widths of house frontages for tax purposes.

Little Street new location


However, Philip Steadman, the London architect and author of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, examined point for point Grijzenhout hypothesis and found a number of inconsistencies. Steadman holds that Grijzenhout's proposal is unfounded and provided detailed information in support of the Voldersgracht (click here to read Steadman's arguments).

Grijzenhout mused that the house on Vlamingstraat would have had particular resonance for Vermeer, since the house was occupied at this date by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, one of Vermeer's aunts. But Steadman suggests that Voldersgracht would have held greater meaning for the painter in that it was a view from his family home, across to a building, which, when he painted The Little Street, was just about to be converted for use by his profession's center, the Guild of Saint Luke.

The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer

Elevation of the Guildhall of Saint Luke superimposed over The Little Street. See how the windows and door on the ground floor at the left coincide closely with the windows and door in The Little Street. These survive from the former Old Men's House building.

Vermeer's childhood

Nieuwe Kerk, Delft

Nieuwe Kerk, Delft

The two children playing together in Little Street is the only depicted testimony of childhood in Vermeer's oeuvre.

Very little is known about the artist's early days. His parents were married in 1615 in Amsterdam before Jacobus Taurinus, a famous Calvinist and Orthodox Reformed Church Minister. His parents probably belonged to a sizable group of people called liefhebbers (supporters), or those who for one reason or another chose not comply with the strict requirements of membership or had a dislike for religious discipline.

Vermeer was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church (in the Nieuwe Kerk) in Delft. Because of the 12 year age gap with his sister, Gertruy, Vermeer may have been something of an only child. But like all other children he must have ice skated in the winter, hit kolf balls with a stick and gone fishing in one of the many canals of Delft noted for their pure water. He also took part in the yearly cycle of public festivities which gave children healthy opportunities to let off steam.

Vermeer's family background would be described today as lower-middle-class. His grandparents were illiterate and so was his mother. He spent his childhood in a large house which his father Reynier bought after having improved his economic situation. Reynier was evidently a hardworking man who lived and invested conservatively.

In the Netherlands, the family unit was small and insular in orientation with an average of three or four children. Close relatives, such as grandparents, rarely shared the home. Children were treated by their parents with respect and understanding unusual for the times. They received their moral instruction in the home, where they generally lived until their mid to late twenties.

The public lives of Dutch women

View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1660–1663
Oil on canvas, 98.5 x 117.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Other than The Milkmaid and the Little Street (as well as the tiny stand-in figures in the View of Delft), Vermeer avoided addressing the mundane, day-to-day work routines or the public life of his women, concentrating on moments of reflection (reading and writing) and courtship or music making.

Foreign travelers who visited the Dutch Republic were impressed by the remarkable prominence of women in public places. Not only were they commended for their dedication to the family; Dutch women were reportedly independent and capable entrepreneurs, conducting business either in their own name, or that of their absent spouses. To what extent these frequently repeated observations reflect historical reality is still not clear.

From a legal point of view, Dutch women enjoyed conspicuous advantages over their European counterparts. They could inherit and bequeath property and if they were wronged during their marriage, they had legal recourse. Vermeer's mother-in-law was able to obtain a conspicuous slice of her husband's wealth after years of physical and moral mistreatment. Adultery, unusual abuse or willful desertion could bring separation of "table and bed" effectively annulling the union. Upon marriage, an inventory was made of the capital which was brought into the marriage by both parties. After the dissolution of the marriage, the initial sum would be returned to the original family. Gains and losses made in the meantime were most often shared, but the wife had the option of choosing, after her husband's death, whether or not to share in profit or loss.

Women could also make commercial contracts and notarized documents and, in effect, were qualified to undertake commercial activities. Some, which came from renowned trading families, were highly respected. But the most enterprising of women in the business world were married women or widows who carried on the business of their husbands. On a lower level, a host of Dutch paintings exhibit Dutch women manning shops and markets stalls.

Vermeer's grandmother, Neeltge Goris, was active as uijtdraegster, or second-hand goods dealer, liquidating estates of deceased people. Paintings were frequently a part of these estates.

17th-century tourism in Delft

The Oude Kerk on the Oude Delft in Delft, Jan van Heyden

The Oude Kerk on the Oude Delft in Delft (detail)
Jan van Heyden
Oil on panel, 45 x 57 cm.
Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

By the late 1650s when Vermeer painted the Little Street, Delft had become an important tourist attraction. People flocked from all parts of the Netherlands and abroad to see the city's public and religious buildings. Especially important was the tomb of William the Silent, an elaborate marble construction dedicated to the father of the United Republic assassinated by Catholic Frenchman Balthasar Gérard.

Destiny had transformed another Delft tragedy into a tourist attraction. On Monday, 12th October 1654, in the morning at half-past ten, the civic gunpowder magazine exploded and leveled several parts of the town to the ground. More than one hundred people were killed and many more wounded. The explosion was so strong that it slammed shut doors in nearby towns and was said to have been heard as far away as the island of Texel, seventy miles north of Delft. Once the news had traveled, compassionate dignitaries and common Dutch folk alike came to witness the tragedy. But not long after, the damage had become yet another tourist attraction.

The proud and industrious citizens of Delft made every attempt to restore the damage as quickly as possible, but signs of the disaster remained. Ironically, this tragic event yielded a new market for townscape views of the devastated areas. A close neighbor of Rembrandt's illustrious pupil Carel Fabritius, the painter Egbert van der Poel, survived but lost his daughter and most likely other family members. Van der Poel would depict a healthy number of views of the disaster as a sort of souvenir sometimes showing the actual explosion and sometimes the aftermath, even though we do not know if he really witnessed the disaster. He later became known as the painter of fire.

Eventually, the Delft town council had decided not to restore some buildings lest the people might forget. It is likely that some of the cracks on the building to the right in the Little Street were caused by the explosion.

Delft was also visited for its pleasant ambiance, the intimate scale of its spaces and its tree-lined canals. Just as today, the town offered many strolls past well-maintained stores and private residences.

Dutch children

Emblem from Sinnepoppen, Roemer Visscher

Emblem from Roemer Visscher's
Sinnepoppen, Houghton Library
Harvard University

Travelers to the Netherlands were surprised and disconcerted by the gentleness with which children were treated. There was too much kissing and cuddling going on. Even the custom of giving young children a good-night kiss was looked down upon by the sterner Calvinists. Some historians have theorized that European parents unconsciously distanced themselves from their children since infant mortality was so high. In response to those who thought they were too indulgent towards their young, Dutch parents were reported to have said, "Does anyone spoil their own face or cut off their nose?"

However, the situation was decidedly different for poor children and orphaned children. For them, child labor was normal far before the age of ten, and their education was largely neglected by the workshop masters. In Delft, children from the orphanage were put to work in a textile shop and their work environment was so appalling that many children died.

In any case, Low Countries had a long tradition of depicting children. Jan Brueghel dedicated a large-scale work of scores of children at play which constitutes a sort of encyclopedia of children's games of the time. While Vermeer may have not had Brueghel's masterwork in mind for the Little Street, he was proabably aware of the Flemish tradition.

Dutch homes

A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping, Pieter Jansessens Elinga

A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping
Pieter Jansessens Elinga
Late 1660s–early 1670s
Oil on canvas, 83.7 x 100 cm.
Städelsches Kunstinstitut
Frankfurt am Main

From both an anthropological and architectural viewpoint, in the Netherlands, the home had acquired enormous importance in the second half of 17th century. Scenes of domesticity flourished and women were among the most frequent depicted subjects. This new household became the responsibility and spiritual realm of the woman while the public world, divided cleanly from it for the first time, belonged to the man. Painted interiors displayed women engaged in homemaking, housewifery and nurturing, all fundamental values connected with the virtues of family life.

However, unlike his colleagues, Vermeer represented no families, children or elderly people except for bit parts in the Little Street and the View of Delft.

A view from the back of Mechelen

Face of Mechelen by Leonard Schenk, Delft

The only image of the façade of
Mechelen dates from an engraving
of c. 1720 by Leonard Schenk.
Mechelen was one of the largest
constructions on the Market Square.

The most probable location of the Little Street is at Voldersgracht, a tiny street that runs along a peaceful canal beneath the towering spire of the Nieuwe Kerk. If this is true, Vermeer painted the view of the Little Street looking across the canal from the back side of the second story of his father's inn, Mechelen, located on the Market Place.

Judging from a contemporary engraving Mechelen must have been a rather large house which certainly afforded ample space for the public-house business downstairs. Vermeer's busy father was registered at the Guild of Saint Luke as an art dealer and was also known to have worked in "caffa," a fabric similar to satin which was largely used for upholstery, clothes and curtains. Mechelen no longer exists even though there is an erroneous commemorative plaque on the side on the building which was adjacent to it. The alley was widened to make way for a fire truck. The only image of the façade of Mechelen dates from an engraving of the early 18th century by Leonard Schrenk.

On the occasion of Vermeer's wedding in 1653, he was registered as living in Mechelen. The register also notes that his future wife, Catharina Bolnes, "lived there too." John Michael Montias maintains that it is highly unlikely that Catharina Bolnes, who on her mother's side was from a devout Catholic family, would have actually lived with Vermeer in Mechelen before her marriage. Montias believes the clerk must have made an error. However, the art historian Kees Kaldenbach alternatively suggests that Catharina had gone to live with Vermeer thus forcing Catharina's mother, Maria Thins, to accept de facto their sentimental relationship.

Drawing inspiration from Pieter de Hooch

A Dutch Courtyard, Pieter de Hooch

A Dutch Courtyard
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 70 x 60 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Without a doubt, no painting reveals Vermeer's debt to Pieter de Hooch more than the Little Street. A few years earlier, De Hooch had single-handedly conceived a new type of cityscape which was far removed from the panoramic or topographical views of his colleagues. Here, the silence of daily life and the timeless routine of household work, so cherished by the Dutch people, are played out on a stage of humble stone, brick and mortar.

A "fake" Vermeer cityscape

Rustic Cottage, Dirk van Laan

Rustic Cottage
Dirk van Lann
Whereabouts unknown

Dirck Van Laan's Rustic Cottage was erroneously held to be an authentic Vermeer by Thoré-Bürger, the French art historian who is considered to be the rediscoverer of the master. Van Laan's painting cannot be considered a forgery because the artist probably had not even the slightest idea that his work would later be attributed to Vermeer.

In the annual Paris Salon of 1866, the event which had catalyzed the public attention around Vermeer's then-unknown work, the Rustic Cottage was shown along with other authentic and inauthentic works by the artist. Not only was Van Laan's piece a favorite among the public but it was also held to be one of Vermeer's best works by connoisseurs alike. Zacharie Astruc singled it out for its studied simplicity. "One hears voices," he wrote. "What intimate existence, and how well expressed." Van Laan painted a variant of the work which is even more similar to Vermeer's Little Street.

Vermeer: a conservative painter for a conservative town

Concerning the laid-back atmosphere in Delft, art historian Peter C. Sutton wrote: "The conservative spirit seemed to be reflected in the layout of the city itself. Whereas most 17th-century Dutch towns were a tangle of narrow streets and alleyways, Delft had a clearly organized ground plan since the Middle Ages. A regular system of canals and streets, meeting at right angles and forming a grid culminated in the large rectangular marketplace, where the Nieuwe Kerk and Town Hall still stand. The dominant impression of the city, then as now, was of long vistas bordered by low brick dwellings. In his Journal de Voyayes of 1665, Balthasar de Monconys observed, 'Les rues sont toutes si droictes et si regalières, qu'on sçait d'abord tous les endroits.' Delft's chronicler, Dirck van Bleyswijk, also claimed that Delft was the cleanest of all Dutch cities. The town's neat and orderly appearance, so suited to the mentality of the inhabitants, found its clearest expression in the works of De Hooch and his colleagues."

The conservative atmosphere of Delft seems to have suited Vermeer's artistic temperament. He cannot be considered a particularly innovative painter and he seems to have had relatively little influence on his contemporaries. He was a professional late-comer of sorts whose work presented no revolutionary or provocative content. He embraced the basic theoretical tenets of the art of his time and adhered to common technical procedures of his school even though he worked outside the history painting idiom which, however, had been abandoned by most Dutch painters.

Vermeer identified himself with his native culture. His canvases are a direct confirmation of the moral and social values held by the majority of his fellow Dutchmen. His political allegiance is amply demonstrated by the maps of the Dutch Republic which populate his works, in particular, by the exquisite treatment reserved for the map of the Netherlands which proudly hangs as the backdrop in The Art of Painting. In the early Officer and Laughing Girl, the carefully integrated relationship between the figures and the map expresses, as Arhtur K. Wheelock Jr. wrote, "not only an unmistakable pride in the homeland but also the communion between the people who live there and enjoy the fruits of peace." Moreover, he portrayed the highest cultural and scientific achievements of his countrymen without a trace of irony.

In particular, Vermeer identified with his native Delft. Anyone who has had the chance to directly view the View of Delft or the Little Street cannot deny the empathetic treatment of these subjects. No doubt, Vermeer was the cleanest painter in Delft and he may have been its most loyal as well. While almost every other painter had left Delft by the late 1660s for the prosperous Amsterdam, Vermeer remained bound to his beloved birthplace until the day of his premature death.

Jacobus Vrel: follower or precursor?

Street Scene with Bakery, Jacob Vrel

Street Scene with Bakery
Jacobus Vrel
Oil on panel
Private Collection, New York

Although Vermeer was "celebrated" in his own time among a circle of elite art collectors, the mark he left on his contemporaries and later painters is remarkably thin. There exists no evidence that he ever had an apprentice and not a single one of his many children was sufficiently inspired by his work to take up brush and paint. One of the few artists who has been linked to Vermeer is Jacobus Vrel, an enigmatic figure who has only recently gained recognition. Vrel remains one of the most charmingly idiosyncratic minor-masters of his time. Some viewers have assumed that he was only an amateur or "Sunday" painter.

Nothing is recorded of Vrel's life, his name surviving solely through the signatures on some of his paintings. His slim oeuvre includes 38 sparse interiors and quiet street scenes. They all show a fresh, almost naïve treatment that is much in agreement with modern sensitivity.

Some of his paintings are signed or bear traces of signatures that were altered to read Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch, with whose paintings Vrel's work was often confused. Indeed, Thoré-Bürger, the French art critic who "rediscovered" Vermeer in the 1860s, had discussed Vermeer's status as a townscape painter largely base on the works that were actually by Vrel.

An autodidacte, Vrel is stylistically connected to the Delft and Amsterdam artists Pieter de Hooch, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter Janssens Elinga. but some authorities consider it likely that he lived in a provincial town rather than a major art center. Elements in his street scenes may indicate connections to Haarlem, Friesland, Flanders, or the lower Rhineland. His only dated painting, from 1654, suggests that, rather than following, Vrel anticipated Delft artists' interest in domestic themes and light effects. However, the early appearance of two of his works in the inventory of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria proves that he was well enough regarded in his day to have attracted the attention of the archduke's curator, the renowned Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger. The date on his Interior with a Woman at a Window (1654) proves that he dated paintings four years before any known dates on De Hooch's Delft-style interiors or courtyards.

Painting bricks

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Since the outset of his career, Vermeer shunned the microscopic detail of the fijnschilder (fine painter) technique of his Leiden colleagues. By comparison, Vermeer's painting is broad and simple, and although there are passages of exquisite technique, detail is always subordinated to the impression of the whole.

Another characteristic of Vermeer's approach to painting was his search to achieve the maximum visual effect with the most economic pictorial means. In the Little Street, for example, he was able to accomplish the life-like effect of worn masonry with the simplest of procedures. Instead of painting individual bricks one by one, he first laid in with a large brush a more or less uniform layer of thick reddish-brown paint on the part of the building's façade covered by bricks. Here and there he introduced a hint of gray to avoid producing a mechanical effect. Once dry, he carefully defined the mortar between the bricks with thin lines of light gray paint. Later, a few bricks were heightened with orange to create some sense of relief while others are darkened to give a weathered appearance.

Schilderachtig and Vermeer's house

Curiously, even the earliest reference to this picture describes it as a "house" rather than a "street." As in few other Dutch townscapes, in Vermeer's picture, the intimacy of domestic life prevails over mere architectural features. This sentiment must have been shared by those who saw it 300 years ago. For in those times, Vermeer's house was not the kind of luxurious townhouse that was going up on the fashionable Oude Delft but a modest house from a distant past which had somehow resisted the misfortunes of the city; old but not dilapidated.

To anyone who gazed upon the Little Street in 17th-century Netherlands the now unfamiliar Dutch term schilderachtig would have come to mind. Schilderachtig, which means "picture worthy" or "worthy of painting," corresponds fairly well to today's picturesque. However, it should be remembered that in the 17th century, Italian concepts of art weighed heavily upon European painting, one of which was that the worth of a painting was indivisible from the value of its subject. Accordingly, an old woman, a dilapidated farmhouse, a village peasant scene or Vermeer's humble house would have drawn sneers becauseonly grand Biblical or historical narratives were truly worthy of great art.

But Dutch painters, many of whom thought of themselves as little more than artisans, paid more attention to the art market than to art theory. Given that they worked free from aristocratic or ecclesiastic guidance, they were free to pursue subjects that attracted them or that proved immediately salable, however high or low the subject might be according to the classical hierarchical status of painting categories.

Schilderachtig, then, implied values close to the Dutch such as rustic simplicity, naturalness and a love for the unadorned. The idyllic world of the past and curious unusual or even ugly had become worthy of the painter's attention. Rembrandt could find an audience for the old run-down farmhouses outside of Amsterdam and Vermeer an old house along a small Delft canal.

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