The Little Street

(Het Straatje)
c. 1657–1661
Oil on canvas
54.3 x 44 cm. (21 3/8 x 17 3/8 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
inv. A2860
there are 9 hotspots in the image below
The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer

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 grape-vine symbolizes love and marital fidelity. Psalm 128 says: "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine 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 Little Street facsimile of signature), Johannes Vermeer
inscribed below window at left: i VMeer (VM in ligature)

The Little Street (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1657–1658
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

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

c. 1659–1660
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

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-roof line 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.)


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.
Johannes Vermeer's Little Street in scale
vermeer's life

Maria Thins, in the first draft of her testament, leaves to Vermeer's daughters jewels (wrings bracelets and gilded chains) and the sum of three hundred guilders to Vermeer and Catharina.

In the same testament Maria Thins wills to Vermeer's first child, Maria, 200 guilders. The child's name is an almost certain sign of good will that existed between Vermeer and his mother-in-law.

In Nov. 30 Vermeer and his wife were lent the sum of 200 guilders from Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen and art collector who may have purchased in the following years more than twenty of Vermeer's works. This money may have been a kind of advance payment on the purchase of future works. Van Ruijven is now rightly considered Vermeer's patron. He was almost seven years older than Vermeer and seems to have had a personal relation with Vermeer that went outside the usual client/artist relationship.

Feb. the framemaker Anthony van der Wiel, who had married Vermeer's sister Gertruy, registered at the guild as an art dealer.

dutch painting

Frans Snyders, Flemish painter, dies.

Both Pieter de Hoogh and Vermeer began to paint the genre interiors refining a regional type, lending it a more realistic qualities of space, light and atmosphere.

The Dortrecht landscape artist Aelbert Cuyp borrows warm light and hilly scenery from Italian examples.

european painting & architecture

Diego Velázquez paints Las Hilanderas (The Spinners)

The Corsini payed Guercino 300 ducats for the Flagellation of Christ painted in 1657. Guercino was remarkable for the extreme rapidity of his execution—he completed no fewer than 106 large altar-pieces for churches, and his other paintings amount to about 144. In 1626 he began his frescoes in the Duomo of Piacenza. Guercino continued to paint and teach up to the time of his death in 1666, amassing a notable fortune.

music Le Sieur Saunier: Vencyclopdie des beaux esprits, believed to be first reference book with "encyclopédie" in its title.

science & philosophy

A pendulum clock was designed by Christiaan Huygens and built by Solomon Coster.

Universal Mathematics (Mathesis Universalis) by John Wallis amplifies the English mathematician's system of notation, applying it to algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Wallis will be credited with inventing and introducing the symbol for infinity; he has demonstrated the utility of exponents, notably negative and fractional exponents.


Mar 23, France and England formed an alliance against Spain.

Jun 1, first Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam (NY).

A 4-year Dutch-Portuguese war begins over conflicting interests in Brazil, but Johan de Witt will end the hostilities with a peace advantageous to the Dutch.

Coffee advertisements at London claim that the beverage is a panacea for scurvy, gout, and other ills.

Public sale of tea begins at London as the East India Company undercuts Dutch prices.

The Flushing Remonstrance written to Nieuw Amsterdam's governor Peter Stuyvesant December 27 is probably the first declaration of religious tolerance by any group of ordinary citizens in America.

The first London chocolate shop opens to sell a drink known until now only to the nobility.

vermeer's life

In this period, the Guild of Saint Luke was probably the center of Vermeer's public life.

Vermeer may have began distancing himself from his family or origin. This fact is seen in his failure to name any of his children after his mother or father as was common practice of the time. His first two daughters, born before 1658, Were named Maria and Elizabeth after his mother-in-law and her sister.

In Vermeer's Procuress a Chinese bowl appears in the still life. Between 1602 and 1657 the Dutch had imported millions of pieces of porcelain. Native Delft artisans began feverishly producing everything from elaborate imitations of Chinese porcelain to the humble floor tiles seen in some of Vermeer's interiors.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch: paints Courtyard of a House in Delft, one of finest works. De Hoogh's courtyards may have influenced Vermeer's The Little Street.

Frans van Mieris paints The Duet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Farm with a Dead Tree.

european painting & architecture Bernini: church at Castel Gandolfo (-1661). Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, preferring instead to concentrate on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in coherent designs.
music Apr 22, Giuseppe Torelli, composer (Concert Grossi op 8), is born in Italy.
literature Moliere was anointed with the patronage of King Louis XIV. Molière left behind a body of work which not only changed the face of French classical comedy, but has gone on to influence the work of other dramatists the world over. The greatest of his plays include The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), The Misanthrope (1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Tartuffe (1664, 1667, 1669), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).
science & philosophy Amsterdam naturalist Jan Swammerdam, 21, gives the first description of red blood cells. He will complete his medical studies in 1667 but devote himself to studying insects, tadpoles, frogs, and mammals rather than practicing medicine.
history Sep 3, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the New Commonwealth, i.e. ruler over England's Puritan parliament, dies at age 59. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as English Lord Protector.
vermeer's life

Around 1659 or 1660, Vermeer's brother-in-law Willem Bolnes left his irascible father's house in Gouda to live on one of the family's properties in Schoonhoven. Willem incurrs in debts and borrowing money from his mother, Maria Thins, since his father had become too impoverished to help. Willem apparently had no kind of work. He was later to become a serious problem for Vermeer and his wife.

In the late 1650s Vermeer, paints two exceptionally luminous interiors, inspired by genre models of the time. In both Officer and Laughing Girl and The Milkmaid he uses his famous "pointillist" technique (thick points of light colored paint in the most intensely light areas of the composition called pointillés. This technical artifice conveys a sense of brilliancy rarely seen in any other of his works. Vermeer never again painted a humble sitter, such as the common milkmaid.

dutch painting

Jan van der Weff is born. Johan Willem, Elector Palatine, whom he had met in 1696, appointed him Court Painter in 1697 at a salary of 4,000 guilders on condition he work for him six months of the year. In 1703 this was increased to nine months, and he was made a knight. He remained in Rotterdam, making trips to Düsseldorf to deliver pictures and paint portraits.

Jan Janz de Heem (d. 1695) is born. Son of the celebrated still life painter Jan Davidsz de Heem he was baptized on 2 July, I650 in Antwerp. From 1667 to 1672 he worked in Utrecht with his father who sometimes retouched the son's work. There has undoubtedly been much confusion between the work of father and son. Jan Jansz is last recorded in a document of 1695.

european painting & architecture 1659–1661 Michael Sweerts, Flemish painter, created his rosy Portrait of a Youth.
music Mar 7, Henry Purcell, English organist, composer (Dido & Aeneas), was born. Purcell was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period and one of the greatest of all English composers. He wrote fantasias for viols, masterpieces of contrapuntal writing in the old style, and some at least of the more modern sonatas for violins, which reveal some acquaintance with Italian models. In time Purcell became increasingly in demand as a composer, and his theatre music in particular made his name familiar to many who knew nothing of his church music or the odes and welcome songs he wrote for the court.
literature Oedipus (Oedipe) by Pierre Corneille 1/24 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Paris
science & philosophy

Christiaan Huygens of Holland used a 2-inch telescope lens and discovered that the Martian day is nearly the same as an Earth day. He also discovers the rings of Saturn. He also constructs a chronometer for use at sea; however, it is influenced by the motion of the ship and does not keep correct time.

English physician Thomas Willis, 38, gives the first description of typhoid fever.

Elementa curvarum by Jan De Witt gives an algebraic treatment of conic sections using the newly developed analytic geometry. It appears as part of an edition of Schooten's Geometria a Renato Des Cartes.

history The Spanish infanta Marie Therese introduces the French court to cocoa, which will be endorsed by the Paris faculty of medicine and received with enthusiasm until it becomes surrounded with suspicion as an aphrodisiac in some circles and as a mysterious potion in others.
vermeer's life

Vermeer is appointed one of the headman of the Guild of Saint Luke to a term of two years. This fact has been interpreted as a testimony of the high esteem in which the artist was at the time held. However, by the time Vermeer was elected headmaster, many of the painters resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than usually thought.

Vermeer and his wife bury a child in the Old Church in Delft. The same document states, Vermeer and his wife were then living in the house of Maria Thins on the Oude Langendijk in Delft. At the time, the household included Vermeer, his wife, his mother-in-law, and three children, not counting an infant who had died and at least one female servant. The house had a basement, a lower hall with a vestibule, a great hall, a small room adjoining the hall, an interior kitchen, a little back kitchen, a cooking kitchen, a washing kitchen, a corridor, and an upper floor with two rooms, one of which was taken up by Vermeer's studio.

Vermeer's family situation was unusual. Very few married men in the Netherlands lived with a parent or parent-in-law for an extended period of time. Vermeer's marriage too, must be considered exceptional in as much as he married outside his own family's religion and social class. He moved from the lower, artisinal class of his Reformed parents who lived on the Delft Square to the higher social stratum of the Catholic in-laws who instead lived in the somewhat segregated "Papist Corner," the Catholic quarter of the city.

The burial of his child is the earliest known record of the artist's residence in Maria Thin's house.

dutch painting

Jan van Mieris is born. Son of the famous Frans van Mieris, Jan painted principally history subjects, but his earliest works were apparently genre scenes in his father's manner.

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Jewish Cemetery. The painting's ruinous, glowering scene exemplifies the trend toward turbulence in Dutch landscape at mid-century.

Adriean Coorte is born. Coorte devoted himself to the precise rendering of simple objects in small paintings. His paintings often have strong illumination that gives the composition an enchanting stillness.

european painting & architecture Diego Velázquez, Spanish painter, dies.
music Alessandro Scarlatti, Italian musician and composer, father of Domenico is born.
science & philosophy

Marcello Malpighi discovers that the lungs consist of many small air pockets and a complex system of blood vessels. By observing capillaries through a microscope he completes the work of Harvey in describing the circulation of the blood.

Robert Boyle announces in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of Air that removing the air in a vacuum chamber extinguishes a flame and kills small animals, indicating that combustion and respiration are similar processes.

history May 28, George I, king of England), is born.

May 29, Charles II, who had fled to France, is restored to the English throne after the Puritan Commonwealth. Charles made a deal with George Monck, a general of the New Model Army, and with the old parliamentary foes of his father. The British experiment with republicanism came to an end with the restoration of Charles II.

Dec 24, Mary I Henriette Stuart (29), queen of England, dies.

The Dutch crafted an early version of a boat they called a "yacht."

1660s The British began to dominate the trade in port wine from Portugal after a political spat with the French denied them the French Bordeaux wines. Brandy was added to the Portuguese wines to fortify them for the Atlantic voyage.
vermeer's life

In Dec. Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, purchases a grave in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. Originally from Gouda, at this time she probably had come to understand that her son-in-law had become an inseparable part of the family she headed.

Willem Bolnes, brother of Vermeer's wife Catharina, showed up on several occasions at Vermeer's house and made trouble. Several witnesses, including Tanneke Everpoel, Vermeer's servant which some scholars believe to have posed for The Milkmaid, claimed that Willem created violent commotion, causing people outside to come to the front door and listen. He swore at his mother Maria Thins, with whom Vermeer and his family resided, and called her an "old popish swine," a "she-devil," and other words "that could not be decently mentioned." He pulled a knife on his mother and tried to stab her. He also once threatened Catharina with a stick although she was pregnant "to the last degree." The stick, added a neighbor Willem de Coorde, had an iron spike on one end. Tannake prevented Willem from hitting her with it. None of this violence seems to have worked its way into the world of Vermeer's art.

Willem Bolnes, like his father, is prone to moments of uncontrollable violence. He soon after had another serious incident which left Maria Thins with a 74 guilder fee to pay two surgeons and wine necessary to help him recover.

In the estate inventory of an innkeeper named Cornelis de Helt who died in 1661, the first item listed is as "a painting with a black frame by Jan van der Meer."

dutch painting

Rembrandt depicted himself in a painting as the Apostle Paul.

Apr 20, Gerard Terborch, the elder, painter, dies.

Rembrandt paints The Syndics of the Cloth Hall.

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Landscape with Watermill.

Jan Steen paints Easy Come, Easy Go.

european painting & architecture

The Tent of Darius by Charles Le Brun, now 42, who has been commissioned by Louis XIV to create a series of subjects from the life of Alexander the Great. Le roi de soleil fancies himself a latter-day Alexander and makes Le Brun first painter to the king, giving him a huge salary.

The Château Vaux-le-Vicomte is completed for France's minister of finance Nicolas Fouquet with a two-story salon. Architect Louis Le Vau has designed the structure (his Collège des Quatre-Nations is also completed this year), and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, now 48, has created its gardens. Le Nôtre will begin work next year on the gardens of Versailles.

music The Paris Opéra Ballet has its beginnings in the Royal Academy of Dance (Académie Royale de Danse) founded by Louis XIV
science & philosophy

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle discards the Aristotelian theory that there are only four basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and proposes an experimental theory of the elements. Boyle will be called the "father of chemistry" but he holds views that will encounter skepticism from later chemists, e.g., that plant life grows by transmutation of water, as do worms and insects since they are produced from the decay of plants.

Christiaan Huygens invents a manometer for measuring the elasticity of gases.


Mar 9, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of France, dies, leaving King Louis the 14th in full control.

Apr 23, English king Charles II is crowned in London.

Henry Slingsby, master of the London Mint, proposes the "standard solution" a mix of flat rules and free markets, to resolve the ongoing problem of money supply and coin value. Britain adopts the idea in 1816 and the US follows in 1853.

Water ices go on sale for the first time at Paris under the direction of Sicilian limonadier Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli from Palermo. Fruit-flavored ices were originated by the Chinese, who taught the art to the Persians and Arabs.

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 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.

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 a 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.

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 mean time 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.

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 near bye 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 a 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 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.

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 proabaly aware of the Flemish tradition.

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, the home had acquired enormous importance in the second half of 17th-century in the Netherlands. 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.

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 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.

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.

Rustic Cottage, Dirk van Laan

Rustic Cottage
Dirk van Lann
Whereabouts unknown

Dirck Van Laan's Rustic Cottage (see left) was erronously 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.

In relation to 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.

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 remarkable 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 on the basis of 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 is 1654, and proves that he dated paintings four years before any known dates on De Hooch's Delft-style interiors or courtyards.

The Little Street (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Since the outset of his career, Vermeer shunned the microscopic detail of the obsessive fijnschilder (fine painter) technique of his Leiden collegues. 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.

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 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 becasue only grand Biblical or historical narratives were truly worthy of great art.

But Dutch painters, many of whom thought 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 classic 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 farm houses outside of Amsterdam and Vermeer an old house along a small Delft canal.