Vermeer's Delft Today

Voldersgrach, Delft
A view of the Voldersgracht, the small street
where Vermeer was born

In an age when every self-respecting painter had to travel to Rome in order to drench himself in the immortal works of Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo, it is surprising to note that not a single one of the great masters responsible for the rise of Dutch Golden Age of painting felt the need to go to Italy. Esiais van de Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer all stayed in the Netherlands, close to their home, painting for their local market.

Vermeer seems to have passed his entire life in his home town Delft—we know only that he made a brief trip to Amsterdam and The Hague in his last years. Some art historians believe that the artist studied painting in Amsterdam or in Utrecht although there exists no documentary proof in regards. In any case, Vermeer must have loved his home town.. His two "portraits" of Delft, the majestic View of Delft, a hymn to civic pride and nature, and the humble Little Street, which narrates the intimate life as seen across an inner-city canal, are tangible proof of this deep attachment. It is also known that Vermeer painted another landscape of Delft, a "view of a house standing in Delft" as it was described in the 1696 Amsterdam auction

Delft's past was long and glorious. It was the third city of Holland to receive a municipal charter, in 1246, and it remained in the forefront of Dutch history for several centuries. As well as being a center of resistance and headquarters for William of Orange during the war with Spain, it was the birthplace of William and one of the war's military heroes; Hugo Grotius, jurist and statesman who established the principles of international law, and the scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the first microbiologists. When Holland began to flourish in the late sixteenth century, Delft shared the new prosperity.

The World of Vermeer: 1632–1675, Hans Koningsberger, New York, 1967

The center of old Delft is the market, which is shown as a white oblong rectangle in the middle of Johan Blaeu's plan of Delft is de Markt, or market square. The square is not particularly large, but it is dramatic because it is the only wide-open, ornamental space within a medieval huddle of houses. Old Delft, which had about 23,000 inhabitants in 1630, two years before Vermeer was born, actually boasts only three or four real streets; the rest are alleys and canals. The canals were the arteries of Delft, carrying its trade and also its visitors; in fact, Holland's waterways were its safest and smoothest channels of transportation until well into the nineteenth Century. Marcel Proust described one such waterway after visiting Delft: "An ingenious little canal dazzled by the pale sunlight; it ran between a double row of trees stripped of their leaves by summer's end and stroking with their branches the mirroring windows of the gabled houses on either bank."

Delft light
The light of Delft on houses reflected in one of the numerous canals

Now these narrow canals lie quiet under their humpbacked bridges, but they are still used to carry supplies to the flower market, the butter-and-cheese market and the fish market, all located along the waterside. They are almost straight, but their slight bends provide surprising changes in the fall of the light, which is confined by the houses, reflected in windows and water and sifted through the canopy of the trees.

The light of Delft! Thousands of words have been written about it and its real or imagined secrets. The French playwright and poet Patil Claude wrote that it was "the most beautiful light in existence." Considered coldly, there is no reason why the light of Delft should be different from the light of The Hague or Rotterdam. But the old town is so still, even today the heavy foliage, the dark water and the old brick walls envelop it so beautifully that its light, many times reflected and filtered, does seem different once it has reached the level of the eye; it seems to have an especially soft, fluid quality.

Perhaps it is not only Delft, not just the trees or canals, which make this light so special, but also Vermeer. As Stratford-on-Avon or Walden Pond may move the visitor in a manner which has nothing to do with their physical appearances, so the light of Vermeer's town has been given a magical connotation by his work.

the Delft train station
A lone biker at the train station gets ready to take a tour of Delft (the leaning spire of the Oude Kerk can be seen in the distance).

While contemplating period paintings of the silent Oude Delft canal, the grizzly "snapshot" of the Delftse Donderslag by Egbert Lievensz. van der Poel (1654–1660), a stately Delft church interior or Vermeer's View of Delft, the casual viewer may wonder how these places might appear today. What has changed in the course of 300 years and exactly what remains of the past? With an improvised tour guide composed of paintings, engravings and descriptions of Delft, we stand a fair chance of finding at least a few answers.

First of all, how well is Delft conserved? "In the second half of the seventeenth century (about the time Vermeer's career was taking off) Amsterdam and Rotterdam had taken over more and more of the nation's trade because of their excellent ports—while Delft slowed down. Its famous pottery industry continued to flourish, but other businesses languished. The number of breweries in the city shrank from more than 100 to 15. It became the home of retired people and a stronghold of conservative Calvinism. Gradually, the once-vigorous city went into a decline that left it virtually dormant until the 19th century.

The one lucky result of this misfortune is that the heart of Delft today looks very much as it did in Vermeer's day, since, by the time the town came to light again, men had learned to value and preserve the architectural heritage of the past. Thus, Delft still has a few acres of houses, churches, canals and squares which lead us straight into Vermeer's world."1

Bleyswyck's Kaart Figuratief
This detail of Dirck Van
Bleyswyck's Kaart Figuratief
shows the area around the
Groote Markt
(Market Place).

Click on the Kaart to view four
points of interest concerning
Vermeer's life and art.

Unfortunately, some of the original buildings which played key roles in the life and work of the artist have been demolished even though some of their original locations can be pinpointed with security. The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and the City Hall do still stand in all their glory, but the private dwellings of Vermeer and his extended family, and the Guild of St. Luke where he fraternized with his colleagues, have long since been torn down.

The Great Fire

Two dates crucial for the shape and socio-economic development of the city of Delft must be considered: the first is the Great Fire on May 3, 1536, caused by a bolt of lighting that struck the tower of Nieuwe Kerk. Part of the wooden tower was burned down and the organ, bells and the stained-glass windows were lost. Fanned by a strong east wind, the fire ravaged virtually everything west of the Nieuwe Kerk (houses of the time were mainly built with timber).

Few of these building, which gave Delft its medieval character, withstood the fire. Delft rebuilt their city with stone instead of wood. It also meant that few current buildings pre-date the fire.An anonymous painted copy of a map of Delft (below), complete in its details, illustrates the devastation's extent. This map also serves as an invaluable source for locating cloisters and convents and other public houses whose ruins gradually vanished with the reconstruction of the city. The painting represents nearly every house and church, whether still intact (signaled by the red of the roofs) or as a ruin.

"In the next forty years, the reconstruction of the Nieuwe Kerk and scores of houses in brick and mortar absorbed the energies of the city's citizens and depleted their resources. In the 1540s and 1550s, stately houses went up around the Groote Markt (Great Market Square) near the Nieuwe Kerk, along the Oude Delft canal, and in other neighborhoods where many dwellings had been burned down, These were the new houses, built along tree-lined canals, where rich burgers lived, whom common people said, 'sat on cushions and ruled the city.'" 2

Plan of Delft after the Fire of 1563
Map of Delft after the fire in 1536
Anonymous
Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft

( Dirck Evertsz. van Bleyswijck "junior" (1639–1681), who was born to a prominent Delft family, was once the owner of the map.)3

The Delft Powder Explosion

The Delft Powder Explosion (detail),  Egbert van der Poel
The Delft Powder Explosion (detail)
Egbert van der Poel
1654
Oil on wood, 36.2 x 49.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

The second catastrophe which shaped the topography of Delft was the infamous explosion of the gunpowder magazine, called the Delftse Donderslag, on Monday, October 12, 1654. About 40 tonnes (80,000 to 90,000 pounds) of black powder of the Netherlands' gunpowder reserve, which were stored in barrels in a magazine in a former Clarissen convent (Poor Clares) exploded at half-past ten in the morning.

The story goes that Cornelis Soetens, the keeper of the magazine, opened the store to make his weekly check a sample of the powder. "Soetens was accompanied by a colleague from The Hague, wearing a red cloak, and by a servant. A lantern was lit, a door to the store was opened, and Soetens's companion handed his fine cloak to the servant so that it wouldn't get dirty and told him to take it home. The two men went in and down the dark stairs to collect their sample. Some minutes passed. It was still an ordinary Monday morning in Delft. Fiver huge successive explosions merged with one another. The earth shuddered and shuddered again. Flames rose and an intense heat fanned out in a searing wave."4 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. The anchor of a ship was found 900 meters away. Large trees were sheared off to stumps, and the stained glass and roof of the Nieuwe Kerk were destroyed.

Once again, several parts of the town were leveled to the ground. More than one hundred people were killed and many more wounded.

Luckily, many citizens were away, visiting a market in Schiedam or the fair in The Hague. But Carel Fabritius, Vermeer's colleague and Rembrandt's most talented pupil, who had lived with his family in the Doelenstraat nearby the gunpowder magazine, died at his easel while painting a portrait, and with him perished a part of his slim artistic production. A baby girl was rescued after 24 hours. She was still sitting in her high chair, holding an apple and smiling. After the initial Herculean effort to remove the rubble and save those who were trapped under the debris, but only a few survived. The recriminations came later. A protestant preacher blasted out at the city authorities saying too much freedom had been given to Catholics.

View of Delft after the Explosion of the Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654, Herman Saftleven II
View of Delft after the Explosion of the Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654
1654
Herman Saftleven II
Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on two sheets of paper, 24.9 x 74.9 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

from:
Carolyn Logan, "Recording the News: Herman Saftleven's View of Delft
After the Explosion of the Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654," Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 31, 1996.
https://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/journals/1/pdf/1512982.pdf.bannered.pdf

A drawing by the Dutch artist Herman Saftleven (1609–685) recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum [see image above] illustrates how a leading draftsman in seventeenth-century Holland recorded a contemporary event of catastrophic proportions. As indicated in the inscription, it represents the city of Delft after the explosion of the gunpowder arsenal of the States General on October 12, 1654. Salient points of interest are marked with letters and described in the legend below:

A. is the hole or pool 13 feet deep and full of water
where the tower had stood when I drew it on October 29
new style.

B. is the Nieuwe Kerk [New Church] where the glass
was destroyed and a large hole torn in the roof and was
very damaged, but the coats of arms and sepulcher and
the ornament on his majesty's grave was not damaged.

C. is the Oude Kerk [Old Church] where the glass
and the walls were torn away. I saw a remarkable thing in
this church that the wall behind the arms of Admiral
Tromp was blown away but the arms were not damaged,
also those of Admiral Pi et Heinz were similarly not
damaged.

D. is the place where the Militia Hall stood and also
where the maid of the Militia Hall was pulled out fully
clothed from under the stones on October 27 so miserable
from having been buried.

E. the trees which stand on the city walls were little or
not at all damaged.

Saftleven's drawing is the earliest known record of the devastation, showing Delft as it looked only seventeen days after the catastrophe.

Delft After the Explosion of the Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654, Gerbrand van der Eeckhout
Delft After the Explosion of the
Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654

Gerbrand van der Eeckhout
Probably late 1654
Pen and brown
ink, gray wash over black chalk,
10.9 x 13.6 cm.
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin

The dubious honor of storing such a frightening amount of explosive material had fallen to Delft because it was protected by firm ramparts. At the time Delft boasted walls, 8 gates and 24–26 turrets for its defense system. Only the Oostpoort, dating from the fourteenth-fifteenth century, survives in its picturesque setting. The powder magazine (it was one of five in Delft) also called 't Secreet van Holland, as it was partly underground and hidden by trees and bushes and was more or less unknown to Delft's citizens.

News of the event spread rapidly throughout the country. The States General sent a note of condolence; Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia, paid a visit; and many other people came to survey the devastation.

And with the city's reconstruction, opportunities to make much money abounded. Aside from the work of reconstruction and repair, illustrated pamphlets dedicated to this tragedy were sold to the curious. A close neighbor of Fabritius, the painter Egbert van der Poel, miraculously survived but lost his daughter and most likely other family members. Van der Poel would furnish in the coming years at least 20 views of the disaster as a sort of souvenir of the even though we do not know if the artist had personally witnessed the event. He eventually became known as the painter of brandjes (little fires), "the best painter of fire in all of the Netherlands."5

Council Hall ('Raadszaal') Delft
Upper part of one of the stained-glass windows in the Council Hall ('Raadszaal')
of the Town Hall showing two variations of the Delft coat of arms.
The dark beam in the middle symbolizes the Oude Delft canal, the origin of the city
of Delft.
  1. Hans Koningsberger, The World of Vermeer: 1632–1675, New York: Time-Life Books, 1967, 29–39.
  2. Johan Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, 3.
  3. Kees Kaldenbach, Complete Book on Vermeer of Delft & the Seventeenth-Century City of Delft. http://kalden.home.xs4all.nl/verm/vermeerbook7.html
  4. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001.
  5. Walter Liedtke ed., exh. cat. Vermeer and the Delft School, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, 325.

.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.

the Great Fire of Delft, 1536
Detail from the map, showing the market place with Nieuwe Kerk (tower, roof and window-panes demolished) and the old city hall, which in 1618–20 was rebuilt by Hendrick de Keyser to its present form.