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Vermeer's Delft: View of Delft

in collaboration with Adelheid Rech

Our virtual exploration of Johannes Vermeer's Delft commences at the Kolk (fig. 1), the distinctive triangular harbor situated at the city's southern boundary. Here, Vermeer immortalized his magnificent View of Delft. From a cartographic perspective, the geographical contours of this diminutive segment of the Dutch landscape have remained remarkably unchanged. This fidelity is evident when juxtaposing Willem Blaeu's 1648 map of Delft with a contemporary satellite image of the corresponding locale (fig. 2). Presently, the Kolk retains its original configuration and scale, and it is not uncommon to discover a vessel moored at the precise location depicted by Vermeer, where the sizeable tow barge initiated service in 1655, facilitating transport to Rotterdam. It is hypothesized that the sun-kissed rooftops in Vermeer's painting belong to a sequence of buildings along the Geer canal, immediately to the left of the prominent tower (fig. 2) . The observer's gaze is invariably attracted to this illuminated segment, as well as to the radiant tower of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).

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

The Museum Het Prinsenhof in Delft, established in 1911, offers a unique journey through the history of the Netherlands, the city of Delft, and the renowned Delftware. This museum is ensconced in a structure of monumental historical significance, a backdrop to some of the most pivotal events in Dutch history. Formerly the court of William of Orange, known as the Father of the Dutch Nation, the building's walls bear witness to the nation's storied past. Visitors can explore the significant role that Delft's citizens played in Dutch history and the evolution of Delftware into the globally recognized brand it is today. Originally erected as a monastery in the Middle Ages, the edifice later became the residence of William the Silent. His assassination at the Prinsenhof in 1584 is etched into history, with bullet holes from the tragic event still visible on the main staircase.

address: Sint Agathaplein 1, 2611 HR Delft

opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

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

The Vermeer Centrum Delft, a volunteer-run organization, offers insights into the life and work of Johannes Vermeer, showcasing his painting techniques and displaying reproductions of his masterpieces. In addition to educational exhibits, the center features a shop with an array of Vermeer-inspired merchandise. More than eighty passionate volunteers operate the center, which stands on the historic site of the former Guild of Saint Luke, once presided over by Vermeer himself as the head painter.

Voldersgracht 21, Delft

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

Delft's main market, known locally as "de Markt," attracts visitors from afar as well as from neighboring cities such as The Hague and Rotterdam. Situated between City Hall and the magnificent Nieuwe Kerk, the market opens every Thursday. Here, a bustling array of over 150 stalls offer a variety of items including cheese, fish, vegetables, bread, nuts, and other foodstuffs, alongside clothing, bicycle accessories, and electronic gadgets. Encircling the market, a selection of pubs and open-air terraces provide idyllic spots to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee.

A short five-minute stroll from the general market is the Brabantse Turfmarkt, home to the flower market. This vibrant segment of Delft is adorned with numerous flower merchants presenting an array of thousands of flowers. On Saturdays, this venue also hosts a smaller iteration of the general market, featuring around 50 stalls.

Equally captivating is the weekly art and antiques market, a haven for tourists seeking to absorb the city's charm and scour for unique finds. This market is available on Thursdays and Saturdays from April to October. On Thursdays, you can find it alongside the canal in Hippolytusbuurt street. Come Saturday, the market expands to include a book market and extends along the Voldersgracht as well as the canals within Hippolytusbuurt and Wijnhaven, creating a delightful maze of vintage and antique treasures.

The Kolk, Delft
fig. 1 The Kolk Click on the map to access a larger image.

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 latter possibly used for long distance ferrying) resting peacefully while a few early morning creatures stroll oblivious to their surroundings, most likely, 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 or the actual conception of this painting must be dated at an early morning in the first half of May."Kees Kaldenbach, "Tow barges, freight ships and herring buses on Vermeer's 'View of Delft'," (accessed October 29, 2023).

The Kolk, Delftfig. 2

The Kolk

The Kolk, formally known as Zuidkolk, is a sizable, triangular harbor situated on the southern flank of Delft, encompassing three city gates that are discernible in Vermeer's painting. Integral to the Schiedam watercourse, which joins the Maas River, the Kolk lies mere kilometers from the bracing waters of the North Sea. This pivotal locale served as a confluence from which thoroughfares and waterways fanned out to Rotterdam, Schiedam, and Delfshaven.

Originally, Vermeer's depiction of Delft's distinctive skyline was rendered with stark clarity, the water portrayed as a glassy expanse, unbroken by any hint of movement. Subsequently, Vermeer altered the canvas, imparting a subtle disturbance upon the water's surface to suggest the caress of a zephyr. The reflections of the Rotterdam and Schiedam Gates were extended, seamlessly binding the skyline to the quayside.

The genesis of the Kolk's unique geometry can be traced back to a bastion erected in 1573 amidst the modernization of the city's defenses. By 1614, efforts were undertaken to excavate the Kolk, resulting in the establishment of a more utilitarian harbor. At the time, it was considered too shallow and too small: insufficient for docking ships. The construction was terminated in 1620.

In 1655, the construction of the Schie Canal was realized, complete with a towpath on its western periphery. This development, orchestrated by the Delft city council, was designed to boost commerce from Delft to Delfshaven. The trekschiuten, or tow-boat ferry service, commenced from the Zuidkolk, in proximity to the Kethel or Schiedam gate, offering hourly departures and facilitating connections to Overschie, near the Maas River. This service provided a direct route to Delfshaven and branching paths to Rotterdam and Schiedam. With a schedule of 13 to 15 daily services to Rotterdam, excluding Sundays, Delft emerged as a strategic node in the transport network of Southern Holland. The endeavor required intricate negotiations with a host of landowners and the creation of essential infrastructures such as bridges and toll exemptions, coupled with the establishment of right-of-way agreements. Once completed, the Kolk 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 and Brabant, France, England and thereon to every corner of the world.

Other than the triangular form of the waterway, little remains of the Kolk in Vermeer's View of Delft. Both of the gates and the town wall were pulled down in the 1830s. 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.Michel van Maarseveen, Vermeer of Delft: His Life and Times (Amersfoot and Brugges: Bekking & Blitz, 2001).

Presently, the Kolk serves as a harbor for various moored vessels and facilitates the passage of both small and large watercraft. It constitutes a section of the Rijn-Schiekanaal, providing a navigable route between the cities of Leiden, Delft, and ultimately Rotterdam. The canal is pivotal for a range of activities, particularly commerce, with numerous commercial vessels transporting essential goods for trade. Additionally, it is a destination for recreational boating, where private vessels traverse the picturesque waterway for pleasure and tourism.

The Kolk in Vermeer's View of Delft

Oude Kerk, Delft fig. 3 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 should be noted that Vermeer chose a rather uncharacteristic profile of Delft for his painting.Kees Kaldenbach, "The Genesis of Johannes Vermeer and the Delft School a Wall Chart on the Cultural Heritage of Seventeenth Century-Delft," (accessed October 29, 2023). In the harbor are several horse-drawn barges and a few freight ships, and at the right near the shipyard two herring busses under repair. In the gently rippling water we see the elongated reflection of the city wall and the buildings on the quay, with the Schiedamse poort (Schiedam Gate) on the left and the Rotterdamse poort (Rotterdam Gate) with its twin towers on the far right. It is striking that Vermeer did not depict the entrance to the city in bright daylight, as every other painter depicting a comparable setting had done up to that time. The two gates, with the small bridge, the Kapelsbrug, in the middle, the city wall with the salmon-colored roofs of the arsenal and the towers of the Oude Kerk and De Papegaey (the parrot) brewery on the left, lie in the shadow of one of the clouds drifting over. Vermeer illuminated the scene from the right and placed the city center with the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in the background in dazzlingly bright light.Pieter Roelofs,"Venturing into Town," in VERMEER, ed. Pieter Roelofs & Gregor Weber, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2023, 142. Traditional cityscapes of Delft generally emphasized its most distinctive landmarks. The Oude Kerk, one of the most venerable monument of all, rendered in muted gray tones that can barely be discerned in the distant left center of the composition (fig. 3).

View of Delft, today fig. 4 This 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 might take the two slim towers of Maria Jesse church (19th century) for 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 is even less visible than in Vermeer's painting. (Image courtesy of Adelheid Rech)

The photograph above (fig. 4) 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 remains unless one seeks to find it within. But we should remember that the peacefulness of Vermeer's picture was probably the painterly artifice rather than historical fact given that this part of Delft was one of the city's busiest.

With a little luck and the right timing (the time is indicated by the clock of the Schiedam gate about 7:15 to 7:30 A. M.) the typical low flying cumulous clouds and cool Dutch light inevitably suggests 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, that today's viewer generally walks away from the Plein Delftzicht with the sensation that something is jarringly different from the setting in Vermeer's time. 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 poetic vision is rooted in 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 accuracy but whose artistic "rightness" is overwhelming."Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001), 110.

Although Vermeer's View of Delft depicts a gleaming, clean city, the reality for the painter and his peers was likely quite different due to the numerous potteries, distilleries, breweries, and soap-rendering plants that would have produced constant clouds of smoke. Fires for cooking and smoking products meant that they would have been a perpetual presence in the city center where people lived and worked. Additionally, Delft's lack of a sewerage system and the existence of a central burial ground created a terrible stench. The city had measures in place, like a fifteenth-century recycling station called de Stille Putten for waste processing and strict waste disposal regulations enforced by city governors. Waste was collected and sold for profit, suggesting an early form of recycling. Despite these efforts, the city struggled with odor problems, leading to continuous revisions of waste management laws, indicating that residents often flouted these rules."Ingrid van der Vlis et al., "In the Footstep of Vermeer," in Vermeer's Delft, edited by David de Haan, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Babs van Eijk, and Ingrid van der Vlis (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, Museum Prinsenhof Delft, 2023), 129-133.

Delft, Holland
View of historic Delft with

Comparative portrayals John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

"For credible comparisons, we must rely on seventeenth- and eighteenth-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 site, 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 Abraham Rademaker in the early eighteenth century, indicates that Vermeer made the houses in 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 isokephalism, 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

from: "Vermeer and the Interior Imagination" by Mariët WestermannMariët Westermann, "Vermeer and the Interior Imagination," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2003), 219.

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.

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


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