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Vermeer's Delft Today: View of Delft

in collaboration with Adelheid Rech

View of Delft, today The photograph above was taken from Plein Delftzicht, an area expressly established to gain a "correct" view of Vermeer's panoramic View of Delft. With a bit of fantasy one could take the two slim towers of Maria Jesse church (19th century) as the towers of the former Rotterdam Gate which were torn down long ago. Due to the increased height of the modern houses, the spire of Oude Kerk (above the two reddish triangular forms of rooftops to the left) is even less visible than in Vermeer's painting. (Image courtesy of Adelheid Rech)

Our imaginary tour of Vermeer's Delft starts at the Kolk, the triangular-shaped harbor at the south of the city in front of which Vermeer had painted his splendid View of Delft. From a topographical point of view, the shape of this tiny slice of Holland remains surprisingly intact as can clearly be seen in the comparison between Willem Blaeu's 1648 map of Delft and a Google satellite image of the same area. The Kolk preserves the same form and dimensions today (fig. 1) and it often possible to find a boat anchored exactly at the same point where Vermeer painted the large tow barge which put into service in 1655 for transportation to Rotterdam. The area of sunlit roofs of a row of houses is presumably on the Geer canal, just to the left of the main tower. The eye is drawn to this section and to the sun lit tower of the Nieuwe Kerk.

The Kolk, Delft
Click on the map to access a larger image.

The Museum het Prinsenhof of Delft, established in 1911, offers a unique opportunity to explore the history of the Netherlands, Delft and delftware. The museum is housed in a building of great historical importance, the site of some of the most dramatic and consequential events of Dutch history. It was once the court of William of Orange, the Father of the Dutch Nation. In the museum you will also discover the role the citizens of Delft played in the history of the Netherlands and how delftware became the global brand it is today. The building is an urban palace built in the Middle Ages as a monastery. Later it served as a residence for William the Silent. William was murdered in the Prinsenhof in 1584; the holes in the wall made by the bullets at the main stairs are still visible.

address: Sint Agathaplein 1, 2611 HR Delft

opening hours:
September 1, 2018–28 February 2019:
Tuesday–Sunday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

during school holidays:
Monday - Sunday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
closed on King's Day (27 April), Christmas Day and New Year's Day

The Vermeer Centrum Delft is volunteer-run organization that provides information about Vermeer, demonstrates his painting techniques and exhibits reproductions of his works. It also has a shop that sells Vermeer-related objects. The Vermeer Centrum Delft is an organization that is completely run by more than eighty enthusiastic volunteers. The Centrum is located on the historical spot of the former St. Lucas Guild, where Vermeer was head of the painters.

Voldersgracht 21, Delft

openings times:
opened daily from 10 a.m.–5 pm.
open on 24 and 31 December from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
open on 26 December and 1 January from 12 a..m..–5 p.m.
closed on 25 December

Free guided tours on Friday and Sunday
Friday at 11:30 a.m. (Dutch)
Sunday at 10:30 a.m. (English)
Sunday 12 a.m. (Dutch)

The shop and Café Mechelen have the same opening times.

For information on opening time and tickets, click here.

The main market in Delft, in Dutch, de Markt, draw visitors from both afar and from the neighboring cities like The Hague and Rotterdam. It is located between City Hall and the spectacular Nieuwe Kerk and is open on Thursday. Jumbled together some 150 stalls are sell cheese, fish, vegetables, bread, nuts and other food, can be purchased as well as clothing, bicycle accessories and electronic gadgets. Around the market, pubs and open-air terraces afford excellent places to rest and have a cup of coffee.

The flower market takes place on the Brabantse Turfmarkt, a five-minute walk from the general market. This piece of Delft boasts dozens of flower merchants and thousands of flowers. On Saturdays the location hosts a smaller version of the general market with some 50 stalls.

Also interesting is the weekly art and antiques market frequented by tourists who want to enjoy the beautiful city and hunt for good deals. The antiques and vintage market is open on Thursdays and Saturdays from April through October. On Thursdays it is located along the canal in the street known as Hippolytusbuurt. On Saturdays the market is bigger and includes a book market. It sprawls along the Voldersgracht and the canals in the Hippolytusbuurt and Wijnhaven.

Vermeer's warm ochre yellow sand bank in the foreground has been replaced by concrete and asphalt and a busy road now runs along the banks of the distant shore where Vermeer had depicted a "smalschip" and a "wijdtschip" (the later possibly used for long distance ferrying) resting peacefully while a few early morning creatures stroll oblivious to their surroundings, most probably, waiting for the tow barge to leave its moorings. The clock was used by ferryboats leaving the harbor to go to Rotterdam, Schiedam or Delfshaven. "Given the orientation of the scene, the full green foliage and the active maintenance works on these two ships which are moored at the Delft shipyard—getting ready before June 1st—it follows that the intended scene and/or the actual conception of this painting must be dated at an early morning in the first half of May."1

The Kolk, Delftfig. 1

The area port on the south side of Delft took its initial form from a bastion constructed in 1573, when the city fortifications were modernized. At the time, it was considered too shallow and too small: insufficient for docking ships. In 1614, it was dug up again, creating a triangular harbor called the Kolk. The new port was ready in 1620. Both of the gates and the town wall were pulled down in the eighteen thirties. Most of the stepped-gables in the painting have been replaced by modern facades. In Vermeer's representation, only the towers of the Nieuwe Kerk and the Oude Kerk have survived even though the present stone spire of the Nieuwe Kerk dates from 1875. The original wooden spire caught fire when it was struck by lightning three years earlier.2The Kolk, called De Kolk, is now part of the Rijn-Schiekanaal and is used as a passers-by harbor.

The Kolk was the main point of departure to other cities and to other countries via the Schie and Mayas. One could access Rotterdam, Schiedam and Delfshaven as well as the Flanders and Brabant, France, England and thereon to every corner of the world.

Oude Kerk, Delft fig. 2 View of Delft (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1660–1663
Oil on canvas, 98.5 x 117.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Vermeer's View of Delft represents the city of Delft as seen from the south. Beyond the harbor lies the deep brown city walls which are broken only by the small Kethel Gate and the larger Schiedam Gate with its clock tower. The Rotterdam Gate is recognizable for its twin tower. None of these architectural features has survived. It must be said that Vermeer chose a rather uncharacteristic profile of Delft for his painting.3 Traditional cityscapes of Delft generally emphasized its most distinctive landmarks. The Oude Kerk, one of the most venerable monument of all, painted in tones of a dull gray can barely be discerned in the distant left center of the composition (fig. 2).

For a thorough examination of the relationship between the actual historical site and Vermeer's rendering, consult: http://www.xs4all.nl/~kalden/verm/artibus-hist1982.htm.

The photograph at the top of this page was taken from a position very near to the point where Vermeer painted his picture, more or less at the same height from the ground. Historians believe that the artist worked from the second story of an inn that has been long since torn down. The perfect peacefulness which reigns over the scene no longer remain unless one is determined to bring some inner peace there oneself. But we should remember that the peacefulness of Vermeer's picture was probably the painterly artifice rather than historical fact since this part of Delft was one of the city's busiest.

With a little luck and the right timing (the hour is shown on the clock of the Schiedam gate about 7:15 to 7:30 A. M.) the typical low flying cumulous clouds and cool Dutch light cannot fail but suggest something of the atmosphere of Vermeer's sublime masterpiece. To be sure, the shoreline is still in the right place, the spire of the Nieuwe Kerk still can be seen and a tiny sliver of the bizarre tower of the Oude Kerk peers over the clean modern skyline.

But even if the expanse of Dutch sky is there and the two key monuments tell us we are aligned correctly, and even if we are able to ignore the differences in architectural design and construction materials and remember the red masonry and deep green vegitation of Vermeer's picture, today's viewer generally walks away from the Plein Delftzicht with the sensation that something is disturbingly wrong about the presnt setting. The background shore is distant, much farther away than in Vermeer's painting.

Precisely at this juncture, one is assailed by the doubt that the painter took great liberties in his interpretation and that his poetry is based on something else than a literal transcription of a long lost world. "As usual, Vermeer created a reality whose bits and pieces can be disputed in terms of factual truth but whose artistic 'rightness' is overwhelming."4

Delft, Holland
View of historic Delft with

Comparative portrayals

For credible comparisons we must rely on seventeenth- and 18th-century drawings and topographical maps, none of which is perfectly accurate These comparisons reveal that in the course of execution Vermeer moved toward greater compositional simplicity, at the expense of literal realism. Vermeer seems to have played down the three-dimensionality of the sight, emphasizing, instead, its overall frontality. A comparison of Vermeer's painting with topographic views taken from more or less the same angle, such as the one drawn by in the early eighteenth century, indicates that Vermeer made the houses in Abraham Rademaker the foreground of the city more uniform in size and less closely packed than they were in reality. He apparently introduced these changes to achieve a more isocephalous, frieze-like effect; in the manner of a classical theorem (except that he was portraying houses rather than people lined up in a row as in a Roman bas-relief). He also reduced the size of the figures on the shore in the foreground so as not to distract the viewer's eye from the structures beyond the river. Except to a viewer who was extremely familiar with the site, the alterations he introduced must have enhanced the illusion of reality. Hoogstraten, Wheelock points out, does not recommend that paintings copy nature but that they give the appearance of having copied nature. And if Vermeer used an optical device such as a camera obscura, it was not so that he could get the view of Delft (just right" but to create special effects, to enhance the sensation of reality by stressing contrasts of light and dark, and to help him render his colors more vivid.

View of Delft

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.

Despite the unusualness of this exterior scene within Vermeer's production, it has, for many modern viewers, come to stand for Vermeer himself. When Marcel Proust needed an image for artistic perfection he chose the patch of yellow that, in Vermeer's curious vision, wedges a splendid sun-drenched roof between shaded walls. How could the View of Delft become an epitome of artistry in western culture? Some answers to this question tell us more about the novel and self-aware character of Vermeer's art, which is so central to the continuing appeal of his interior painting.

Art historians have traced various precedents for Vermeer's direct rendition of the city from the south side, and the painting unquestionably acknowledges this genealogy. Vermeer knew the descriptive profile views of cities that appeared in historical descriptions of cities. Such views were often printed alongside the edges of city maps, and Vermeer included a wall map of this kind in The Art of Painting. He also must have known paintings of cities seen in profile against a low horizon. Yet unlike the cityscapes Vermeer found before him, View of Delft does not amount to a somewhat clinical, dry inventory of the local architectural scene. There is an unprecedented immediacy and tangibility about Vermeer's Delft.

Much accounts for the difference the View of Delft makes. Crucial is the framing, which cuts off the view to left and right at seemingly arbitrary points. Eyes trained on photography accept such slicing, but it must have been startling to contemporaries. This move brings the city closer, makes it loom large. Another tactic that makes the city seem monumental yet near is the remarkably high key of the coloring of distant architectural features. While the colors are limited in range, their intense saturation is surprising given the presumed distance at which the city is seen. And then there is the strong composition of the painting into broad but loose horizontal bands of light and dark, unobtrusive at first. Insistent patterns also arise from Vermeer's judicious distribution of sunlight and shadow, and from his emphasis on dark foreground clouds and dark reflections in the water.

The result is an arresting monument to Delft and its historical place, signaled subtly by the sunlit aspect of the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk. This church had gained fame in the seventeenth-century as the location of the tomb of William of Orange, the sixteenth-century prince who had led the Northern Netherlands in their revolt against Spanish governance. The Father of the Fatherland, as he became known, had chosen Delft as his residence, and it was there, in 1584, that a political adversary assassinated him.

Most Delft contemporaries would have recognized Vermeer's emphasis on the tower, in marked contrast to the diminutive presence of the tower of the Oude Kerk. And yet View of Delft is no Orangist propaganda piece, for the image subsumes the venerable and complex history referenced by the tower into an image that looks contingent on an immediate atmospheric moment. Most of Vermeer's paintings derive their fascination from such a tension between acute momentary observation (registered in accidents of lighting or human actions) and a sense that the resulting image freezes a moment in a narrative history.

Mariët Westermann
"Vermeer and the Interior Imagination"
Vermeer and the Dutch Interior
2003, p.219

Compare Vermeer's rendering with other artworks of the same scene. Click on image to enlarge.

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

View of Delft, Gerrit Toorenburg
A View of Delft
Gerrit Toorenburg
c. 1750
Teylers Museum, Haarlem

View of Delft with Schiedam and Rotterdam Gates (detail), Abraham Rademaker
View of Delft with Schiedam and Rotterdam Gates (detail)
Abraham Rademaker
Drawing and wash, 66 x 106 cm.
Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft

View of Delft, Jan de Bisschop
A View of Delft

Jan de Bisschop
c. 1650–1660
Graphite, pen and brush amd brown ink
9.5 x 15.5 cm.
Amsterdams Historisch Museum, Asmterdam

The Rotterdam Gate at Delft, Jan van Kessel
The Rotterdam Gate at Delft
Jan van Kessel
c. 1649–1669
Black chalk, pen and brown ink, 17.9 x 24.4 cm.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, De Grez Collection


  1. Kees Kaldenbach, Tow barges, freight ships and herring buses on Vermeer's "View of Delft." http://www.xs4all.nl/~kalden/
  2. Michel van Maarseveen, Vermeer of Delft: His Life and Times, Amersfoot and Brugges: Bekking & Blitz uitg., 2001.
  3. Kees Kaldenbach, The Genesis of Johannes Vermeer and the Delft School a Wall Chart on the Cultural Heritage of Seventeenth Century-Delft, http://www.xs4all.nl/~kalden/auth/Genesis.html
  4. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 110.
  5. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

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