Vermeer's Delft Today: View of Delft

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)

Click on the thumbnails below for more hi-res images of the area around Plein Delftzicht.

Modern Delft

Modern Delft

Boats in modern Delft

Modern Delft

Modern Delft

Modern Delft

Modern Delft

Deflt

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

the comparison between Willem Blaeu's 1648 atlas (left) and a Google satellite image (left, below) of the same area.The Kolk preserves the same form and dimensions today 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 trasnportation to Rotterdam. Vermeer’s warm ochre yellow sand bank in the foreground has been replaced by concrete and asphalt and a busy road now runs along the banks of the distant shore where Vermeer had depicted a "smalschip" and a "wijdtschip" (the later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

satelitte view of Delft

The 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 a triangular harbor called the Kolk. 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.2

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 most every corner of the world.

Oude Kerk, Delft
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 (see detail image above).

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

Comparisons 5

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.

compare Vermeer's rendering with other images of the same scene

View of Delft, Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft (detail)
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 (detail)
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
1700–1710
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, 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, 2001, p.110
  5. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, 1989

.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.