View of Delft

(Gezicht op Delft)
c. 1660–1663
Oil on canvas
98.5 x 117.5 cm. (38 3/4 x 46 1/4 in.)
Mauritshuis, The Hague
inv. 92
there are 9 hotspots in the image below
View of Delft, Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's View Delft is probably the most memorable cityscape in western art. Though not an interior scene, as most works by Vermeer are, the painting draws us into his mental and social world: into his artistic vision and into his city. What we see seems almost too obvious, too plainly descriptive, too perfectly observed to require comment or analysis: the city of Delft appears before us under the partial clouds characteristic of the North Sea climate, a palpable grouping of brick, mortar, and clay structures seen across the broad Schie canal. It is all there, still nameable today: the Schiedam gate at left, the Rotterdam gate with its twinned turrets at right, the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, picked out in the brightest sunlight, the diminutive tower of the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, just breaking the long roofline at left. The scene's varied light effects look so natural -deep shadow and bright patches, pinpoint highlights and watery reflections -that the eye ignores what the mind knows: that this light is high artifice, that it is a work of painting.

Mariët Westermann, "Vermeer and the Interior Imagination," Vermeer and the Dutch Interior

Facsimile of signature of Vermeer's View of Delft
signed lower left on the boat: IVM (in monogram)

View of Delft (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1660–1661
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1661–1663
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1660–1661
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

The support is a fine, plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14 x 13 per cm² and selvedges on both left and right sides. Strainer bar marks have resulted from a vertical cross bar and corner braces. The canvas has been lined. The buff-brown ground, bound with oil and some protein, contains chalk, lead white, ocher, a little umber, and a little black.

The composition was built up in light and dark passages. The sky, foreground, and light parts of the water are laid in with lead white while the town and its reflection were left in reserve. Some parts of the townscape are underpainted with black. A rough surface texture was created in many places, particularity in the stone facades, and in the roofs, by underpainting with lead white containing exceptionally coarse pigment particles mixed with sand. The fine yellow ocher paint of the step gable at left contains transparent rounded particles of sand.

* 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 View of Delft 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. 31;
  • Willem Philip Kops, Haarlem and Bloemendaal (before 1805);
  • Cornelia Kops-de Wolf, Bloemendaal (1805–1820);
  • Anna Johanna Teding van Berkhout-Kops, Haarlem (1820–1822);
  • S. J. Stinstra et al. sale, Amsterdam (J. de Vries), 22 May, 1822; no. 112, to J. de Vries;
  • purchased by The Netherlands for the Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague (inv.92).
  • Paris April–May, 1921
    Exposition hollandaise: Tableaux, aquarelles et dessins anciens et modernes
    Jeu de Paume
    10, no. 104
  • London January 4–March 9, 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    144, no. 304
  • London January 4–March 9, 1929
    Dutch Art. An Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Dutch Art at Burlington House, London.
    Burlington House.
    85, no. 103 and ill.
  • Amsterdam 1945
    Weerzien der meesters
    no. 132
  • Delft November–April, 1950
    Het Koninklijke kabinet "Het Mauritshuis" in het museum 'Het Prinsenhof' te Delft
    Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof
    11, no. 25
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. 3 and ill.
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Musée de l'Orangerie
    no.3 and ill.
  • Paris February 19–June 30, 1986
    De Rembrandt à Vermeer: Les peintres hollandais au Mauritshuis à la Haye
    Grand Palais
    350–557, no. 53, ill. (with extensive literature)
  • Washington D.C. November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Gallery of Art
    120–127, no. 7 and ill.
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    Johannes Vermeer
    no. III and ill.120–127, no. 7 and ill.
  • The Hague February 1–May 3, 2009
    Pride and Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age
    185–188, no. 49 and ill.
  • The Hague April 28, 2012–June 30, 2014
    Meesters uit het Mauritshuis Zes eeuwen kunst onder een dak (Highlights Mauritshuis in Gemeentemuseum The Hague)
    Gemeentemuseum The Hague
Johannes Vermeer's View of Delft in scale
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, Gerrit ter Borch, 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.

Following the infamous gun powder explosion of 1654, which had caused the death of the painter Carel Fabritius, Delft's community of artists had been shrinking. Many painters had left town, most to settle in Amsterdam, some in nearby The Hague. Vermeer, perhaps because of his close economic ties with his patrician mother-in-law, was the only noteworthy artist to have remained.

Despite its decline, Delft remained an important city of passage that artists occasionally visited. It contained many fine collections that a local painter could easily have access to. And if he wanted more, he could always take a seat in an inexpensive horse-towed barge and glide in comfort to The Hague, Amsterdam, Leiden, or Rotterdam. All the major towns of Holland were connected through a dense network of canals, along with barges that traveled back and forth according to a tightly-ordained schedule. Ease of travel helped to keep the country artistically compact.

Self Portrait, Carl Fabritius

Self Portrait
Carl Fabritius
c. 1648–1650
Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 60.5 cm.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The artistic traffic was intense both during Delft's heyday as a ville d'art and afterwards. Many out-of-town artists left a trace of their presence when they signed as witnesses at a local notary's office. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Nicolaes Maes and Samuel van Hoogstraten, who both lived in Dordrecht in the 1650s and had been studied with Rembrandt, did not once stop over in Delft on their way to The Hague or Amsterdam to talk shop with Carel Fabritius, another of Rembrandt's pupils. Two heads (tronien) by Van Hoogstraten were found in Vermeer's death inventory. Vermeer must also have seen the works of Maes, whose themes and composition arrangements had become part of the visual vocabulary of the Delft School. His own A Maid Asleep bears a striking compositonal resemblance to Maes; pictures of eavesdropping maids.

View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In the View of Delft, the tower of the venerable Oude Kerk is hardly noticeable, whereas that of the Nieuwe Kerk has been majestically rendered, although perhaps a bit too wide. One of the most curious details of the picture, pointed out by art historian Kees Kaldenbach, is that the Nieuwe Kerk's bell tower is empty. Kaldenbach's research has demonstrated that the old set of carillon bells of the Nieuwe Kerk's tower had been hoisted down in the spring of 1660 during a restoration headed by the renowned Hemony bellmakers. Accordingly, the empty tower points to the year 1660 confirming the painting's date generally proposed on stylistic grounds. Furthermore, Kaldenbach posits that given the full green foliage and the active maintenance works on the ships moored at the shipyard (getting ready for the opening of the legal fishing season on June 1st), it follows that the scene was intended to depict an early morning in the first half of May.

Scientific analysis suggests that the painting was on Vermeer's easel quite some time and was likely finished in 1661 to 1663.

Photograph of Thore Burger

Art French critic Théophile Thoré (who used the pseudonym Thoré-Bürger) is generally accredited of having rediscovered the art of Vermeer in the middle of the 18th century. He began his study of Vermeer with an account of his first encounter with the View of Delft in The Hague, describing it thus:

"A superb and most unusual landscape [that] captures the attention of every visitor and powerfully impresses artists and connoisseurs. It is the view of a town, with a quay, old gatehouses, buildings in a great variety of styles of architecture, garden walls, trees, and, in the foreground, a canal and a strip of land with several figures. The brilliance of the light, the intensity of the color, the solidity of the paint in certain parts [produce] an effect that is both very real and nevertheless original."

To Thoré Vermeer's work embodied the purest expression of what he retained the ultimate purpose of art: to record and honor the activities of the daily life of everyday people, thus coloring the aura of the Delft master with his own leftist agenda. Thoré extolled Dutch art for its direct appeal to simple human virtues making it an art for the people (l'art pour l'homme). He was, however, not only a man of politics but of great aesthetic sensitivity who admired Vermeer's use of sparkling impasto and pearly luminosity.

Thoré devoted 20 years of travel and research to his study of Vermeer and as early as 1860 he began purchasing Vermeer paintings. A Lady Standing at a Virginal was acquired sometime before 1876, the Woman with a Pearl Necklace was bought from Henry Grevedon in June 1866. A Lady Seated at a Virginal was purchased for a mere 2,000 francs in 1867. The impact of Thoré's research and interest was enormous. Vermeer rapidly gained a reputation as one of the greatest Dutch artists of the 17th century triggering a buying frenzy of wealthy American businessmen and art collectors who vied to snap up the few Vermeer paintings still on the art market.

Although Thoré's criticism today may appear fastidiously political, his early recognition of the important masters of French 19th-century painting and the Dutch baroque place him at a seminal point in art history. His most important contribution was in the history of taste and collecting, particularly the reevaluation of Dutch artists as well as an early supporter of Impressionism.

Map of Delft, the Kolk

Vermeer's View of Delft represents the city of Delft as seen from the south, over a triangular body of water known as the Kolk. This area took its initial form from a bastion constructed in 1573, when the city fortifications were modernized. In 1614, it was dug up again, creating the present triangular harbor. Both of the gates and the town wall were pulled down in the 1830s and most of the stepped-gable buildings in the painting have been replaced by modern facades. Only the Nieuwe and Oude Kerk have survived.

The Kolk was the main point of departure to other cities and to other countries via the Schie and Maas. One could access Rotterdam, Schiedam and Delfshaven as well as the Flanders, France, England and to every corner of the world. Beyond the harbor lie the deep brown city walls that are broken only by the small Kethel Gate and the larger Schiedam Gate with its clock tower. The Rotterdam Gate is recognizable with its twin tower. None of these architectural features have survived.

Vermeer chose to portray a rather uncharacteristic profile of Delft. Traditional cityscapes of Delft emphasized the town's most distinctive landmarks. The Oude Kerk, one of the most venerable monuments of all, can barely be discerned in the distant left center of the composition.

View of Delft today

The photograph to the left was taken from a position very near to the point where Vermeer painted the View of Delft, more or less at the same height from the ground. Historians concur that the artist worked from the second story of an inn that has been torn down long since.

Given that this area of Delft was one of the busiest, the apparent calm which reigns in Vermeer' picture is probably a product of the painter's artifice, rather than fact. However, with a little luck, the right timing (the hour is shown on the clock of the Schiedam gate about 7:15 to 7:30 A. M.) and a few clouds, it is possible that standing where Vermeer once stood one might still experience some of the atmosphere of Vermeer's masterpiece. After all, the spire of the Nieuwe Kerk still can be seen, the shoreline is still in the right place and a tiny sliver of the Oude Kerk's four spires peers over the banality of the modern skyline.

But even if the expanse of Dutch sky is there and the two key monuments indicate we are correctly aligned, there is something oddly "wrong" about the setting. Standing on the spot where Vermeer worked, everything seems farther, much farther away. Precisely at this juncture, in front of the only fixed point that can be objectively identified and compared with one of Vermeer's painting, we are assailed by the doubt that the painter took great liberties in his interpretations of the real world, creating a reality whose bits and pieces can be disputed in terms of factual truth but whose artistic "rightness" is overwhelming.

View of Delft from the Northwest (detail), Hendrick Cornelisz.Vroom

View of Delft from the Northwest (detail)
Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom
Oil on canvas, 71 x 162 cm.
Gemeente Musea, Delft

The level expanses of the 17th-century Netherlands were crossed by canals that had been dug to regulate the flow of water, but at the same time doubled as an extraordinarily effective means of transportation, more practical than any way on land. Although the centers of Dutch cities had paved roads, in the back streets and outside the city it was sand, dust and mud. Riding by carriage meant a bumpy and often muddy road. Alternatively, Dutch towns were connected by a network of line services by tow barges (trekschuit), then one of the most advanced public transport systems in the world. They provided scheduled day-time transportation which was frequent, dependable and affordable.

Traveling by barge was a little slower but far more comfortable than by carriage. One could enjoy the view of the landscape, have a conversation with the skipper or read a book while the boat slowly glided through the water pulled by one or two horses. This unique mode of traveling influenced communication within Dutch society as well. Boat travel encouraged men and women from different geographical locations to meet and exchange information and opinions in leisurely freedom. People of diverse social spheres, religions and political persuasions mingled and sooner or later familiarized.

Vermeer no doubt knew the waterways and used them. The service between Delft and The Hague (the administrative capital of the United Provinces and important art center) ran every two hours in both directions taking from one to one and one half an hour to arrive. The Delft-Leiden service is said to have carried 170,000 passengers annually during the 1660s.

In the foreground of the View of Delft one can see a tow barge put into service in 1655 when the line service to Rotterdam was started. Vermeer thus shows us a recent transport innovation in the Delft region.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Behind and to the left of the Rotterdam Gate is most likely the passage eternalized in writing by Marcel Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu.

Proust describes an elderly writer Bergotte who visits a Dutch art exhibit and, while examining a detail of Vermeer's View of Delft, falls ill and dies. That scene, that painting, described as a "Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof" has attracted the attention of a multitude of critics. Bergotte's final thoughts before dying, perhaps more than any other, faithfully reflect Proust's idea of art.

Although not all experts agree on the precise location of Bergotte's "little patch," Proust writer Jeffrey Mayers believes that "the famous little patch of roof (not wall) that the writer Bergotte sees in a moment of epiphany before his death appears just next to the pointed left turret of the Rotterdam gate, amid the warm browns and blues of the stone buildings and tiled roofs, and it provides a golden contrast to the rich red roofs on the right side of the painting."

View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The View of Delft was Vermeer's largest and most time consuming work of his entire oeuvre, except perhaps for the elaborate Art of Painting. Since nothing has come down to us concerning the artist's intentions in regards this or any other work, art historians have attempted to fill the gap. Walter Liedtke, for example, believes that the view could have been commissioned by Vermeer's patron, Pieter van Ruijven. who had collected more than half of the artist's artistic production. Furthermore, Liedtke points out that Van Ruijven's collection contained three other small scale cityscapes of Delft by Vermeer as well as three architectural paintings by Emanuel de Witte, including a patriotic view of William the Silent's tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk which Vermeer spectacularly highlighted in his view. Van Ruijven would have also been aware of the historically proclaimed relation between an artist's reputation and the fame bestowed on his city.

Dutch citizens strongly identified not only with their republic, but with their city of birth. Their civic pride is testified by innumerable Dutch cityscapes, many of which are so similar to one another that they are virtually indistinguishable expect a few characteristic church towers or large civic buildings.

The Dutch were enormously proud of their country, their way of life and the cities in which they lived. They wrote richly illustrated city histories that celebrated the achievements of their most renowned citizens and the beauty of their monuments. Large-scale engraved maps were printed which portrayed the city streets, the canals and gardens in extraordinary detail. No people in history portrayed their landscape as frequently and with such attention to detail as the Dutch.

The Dutch were the first to formulate the cityscape as an independent genre of painting. Some art historians believe that the topographical urban motif evolved out of highly developed Dutch cartographic traditions rather than from traditional background scenery in pictures devoted to religious, historical or mythological subjects. Civic officials commissioned the new scenes to record their towns' historic towers and spires, as well as the stately new buildings and imposing fortifications that reflected wealth and authority. Residents bought portraits of their cities on the open market and proudly displayed them in their homes.

Although we do not know why Vermeer the interior painter created such an atypical and time-consuming work as the View of Delft, it is possible that his patron and Delft burger Pieter van Ruijven commissioned it.

While the artist did break the Dutch landscape mold of prominently displaying the town's most important monuments, he did follow the conventional cityscape formulae whereby poverty, litter and slums were completely erased. Nonetheless, Vermeer was too original of a painter to blindly adhere to any established formula.

In the present work he narrowed his focus to portray the bastions of his native town from a selective view point, on one particular moment while a few sparse cumulus clouds lazily pass overhead casting their shadow over a good part of the composition. Art historians have narrowed that time to about 7:30 (see the clock on the Schiedam Gate) on morning of the month June, 1661. A moment later, the cloud would have moved on and the scene we now see would no longer be as Vermeer represented it.

Rather than representing a viewpoint that afforded the best panorama of the town and its monuments, Vermeer selected one which would convey a deeper and, perhaps, more personal sense of identify with his beloved city.

Preludio V in C [1.78 MB]
Matthias van den Gheyn

performed by:
Marianna Marras, Nieuwe Kerk Delft, 1995.

Bespeeld door drie Delftse beiaardiers

One of the most beguiling aspects of Vermeer's working method was the artist's hypothetical use of the camera obscura, a sort of primitive photographic camera. After an initial positive response of the art community regarding its use, some art historians have moderated their enthusiasm or completely backed away. While they still admit Vermeer was familiar with the workings of the camera obscura, they believe that many of the stylistic characteristics attributed to the camera were conceived independently from the device.

Of course, no documentary evidence indicates whether or not Vermeer actually set up a camera obscura on the second floor of a long-lost tavern where the view point of the View of Delft was located. Much less do we know if he employed it for temporary observation or during the arc of the painting process. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that Vermeer used a camera obscura at some stage in the working process of the View of Delft gained validity because of the distinctive effects of light, color, atmosphere and the curious presence of signature optical effects produced by the mecchanism.

View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeer

One of the most vexating questions regarding Vermeer's working methods is artist's presumed use of the camera obscura, a sort of primitive photographic camera. After an initial positive response, some art historians have moderated their enthusiasm or completely backed away. While they still admit Vermeer was familiar with the workings of the device, they believe that some of the stylistic characteristics of his paintings that are attributed to camera obscura vision were conceived independently from the device.

Of course, no documentary evidence indicates whether or not Vermeer actually set up a camera obscura on the second floor of a long-lost tavern where the view point of the View of Delft was located. Much less do we know if he employed the device for temporary observation or during the arc of the painting process.

View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The most convincing trace of the camera obscura image is constituted by the artist's translation of an optical phenomena called disks of confusion into painted dots termed pointillés which in the View of Delft are particularly abundant (disks of confusion are produced by an imperfect 17th-century lenses that spreads out sharp highlights in nature into tiny, sequin-like circles). Pointillés teem along the lower side of the right-hand barge creating a sensation of shimmering reflections of light bouncing off the water's surface. However, is should be remembered that the camera obscura produces a poor image in low lighting conditions. Furthermore the device requires great light to create disks of confusion, and only on shiny objects. Certainly, the light represented in the View of Delft would have been too low to produce them on the camera's screen in correspondance the shadowed passages of the foreground. Vermeer experts believe he probably availed himself of artistic license regarding the disks of confusion with which he had become familiar with through long hours of camera observation.

Vermeer was not the only painter who knew the camera obscura. Camera obscuras were sometimes acclaimed in the 17th century for naturalistic images that they created. They present an instantaneous living image, where movements of clouds, water and birds are visible. Color and contrasts of light and dark are distilled, giving an added force to the image which must have intrigued any painter of the time. In the View of Delft, all of these phenomena are present.

In today's world flooded with images it is not easy to appreciate the impact the camera obscura image could have provoked in a world where all images, except for natural reflections, were deliberately and tediously crafted by hand. Contemporary literature relates some of the magic that accompanied camera obscura viewing that we can no longer imagine.

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

The Oude Kerk on the Oude Delft in Delft
Jan van der Heyden
Oil on panel, 45 x 57 cm.
National Gallery, Norway

By the time Vermeer reached his artistic maturity, many of Delft's best painters had fled to the rapidly-growing Amsterdam. However, only a few years before Delft had inexplicably attracted some of the rarest talents of the United Provinces. The short stays of Pieter de Hooch, Paulus Potter, Carel Fabritius and Jan Steen around 1650, coupled with the permanence of Vermeer, the gave rise to the so-called School of Delft.

Before the arrival of these painters, Delft had been only a minor center of artistic activity. What brought such artists may have been the city's long and venerable history, its lovely streets and quite, aristocratic atmosphere which pulled visitors in from all over Europe. In this quintessential Dutch environment, these painters evidently found the tranquility to forge a naturalistic yet measured art which some art historians have described as classical.

Curiously, the years of Delft's maximum artistic ferment did not correspond to its economic and political climax which had been reached years before. As art historian Peter C. Sutton wrote: "Over the course of the 17th century, Delft drew inward. While occasionally still serving as a theater for political events, the city gradually surrendered its active role in the nation's affairs. A small group of families espousing aristocratic ideals and orthodox Calvinism came to dominate the civic administration. Wealth remained but was used more and more conservatively. The entrepreneurs were increasingly replaced by more cautious rentiers; while capital could readily be found for high-yield ventures such as those of the Dutch East and West Indies Companies, little money was reinvested in local business. At a time when trade and industry were expanding briskly throughout Holland—and nowhere so dramatically as in Amsterdam—Delft's economic base was vanishing. Its crafts and porcelain manufacture and tapestry weaving remained strong, but many businesses languished. The textile industries, suffering from competition with the English, curtailed their activities or moved elsewhere and by 1667 the city's breweries had fallen in number from more than 100 to 15. Land reclamation and the damming of rivers had transformed Delft from an open port to a virtually landlocked city. Commercial shipping at Delfshaven was increasingly rerouted through the burgeoning port of Rotterdam."