Vermeer's Delft Today: VOC

most of the text on this pages is derived from:

"The Dutch connection: Asian export art in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," The Magazine Antiques, 3/1/1998, Jorg, Christian J.A.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of taking a walk in Delft and is familiar with the places related to the life and art of Vermeer is amazed by their close proximity. Flying Fox, where Vermeer was born, is barely 50 steps from Mechelen, the inn which his father would later purchase when the future artist was just nine years old. From Mechelen it was only a few scant yards to the front door of the Guild of Saint Luke, the fulcrum of Vermeer's professional interests. The artist’s later living-quarters (proffered by his generous his mother-in-law Maria Thins) and studio (where he painted many of his masterworks) is just across the Delft Markt (Market Place) on Oude Langendijk, little more than 100 paces away.

The longest distance by far, a brisk 10 minutes walk, is from the center of Delft to the Kolk, where Vermeer composed and painted the famous View of Delft. The near miniscule dimensions center of Delft should not deceive us. The city had considerable political, moral and economic importance in the Netherlands and was physically connected to the outer world through its canals and through its affiliation with the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company. If Vermeer did not, as it seems, venture more than occasionally outside his beloved home town, the farthest fetches of the world came directly to his feet.

East-India Company, Delft
Engraving of the house of the East-India Company,
one chamber founded in Delft in 1602.
The port of Delft (now Delfshaven, belonging to the port of Rotterdam) was an important center for the trade with overseas. In 1631 two houses were bought on Oude Delft, renovated and turned into the 'Oost-Indisch Huis', the East India House.

As the world's first multi-national company, the VOC had commercial interests all over the globe. Delft was one of six towns in Holland that had a chamber of the VOC. Delft accessed the world's oceans through Delfshaven, the harbor town that in the seventeenth century was part of the municipality, on the right bank of river Nieuwe Maas, in South Holland. Since Delft was not located on a major river, in 1389 a harbor was created about 10 km (6 mi) due south of the city, to be able to receive seafaring vessels and avoid tolls being levied by the neighboring and competing city of Rotterdam. This settlement was named Delfshaven ("Port of Delft").

The VOC was founded in 1602 as a shareholders' company. It was an amalgamation of small independent trading companies to which the States-General of the Dutch Republic gave far-reaching privileges. The most important of these was a monopoly on all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. The company's main goal was to acquire a share of the profitable trade wade in spices, textiles, and precious metals produced in this vast region, which included Persia and India, the Malaysian Peninsula, the Indonesian archipelago, China, and Japan.

Bond of the VOC
A bond issued by the Dutch East India Company, dating from November 7, 1623, for the amount of 2,400 florins.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the VOC's trade with the East was its influence on decorative arts produced in the West. Ceramics, lacquer, textiles, and souvenirs from China, Japan, and India were much sought after in the Netherlands, where they were used to ornament interiors and as sources for imitation and inspiration for new designs. One of the most unique consequences of the involvement with the VOC was the direct importation of Chinese porcelain. Mainly blue-and-white, this porcelain was an enormous hit with the people of Holland. Complete shiploads were readily purchased by wealthy Dutchmen s However, due to internal troubles in China around 1645, the import of Chinese porcelain stagnated. Via its trading post on Deshima, the artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan, the VOC was able to get only a limited supply of Chinese porcelain.

Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook provides a remarkable view of the VOC in Delft, Dutch trade and the rapidly expanding world.

The Chinese potters developed kraak porcelain in the second half of the sixteenth century and sold it throughout Southeast Asia. When the Dutch came to trade, they bought and shipped back thousands of pieces of this porcelain for resale at an excellent profit. For the burgher class this porcelain demonstrated their new status and wealth. It was exotic, rare, sturdy, finely decorated, and easy to clean.

The situation triggered a fascinating development in the Netherlands. Since the 1620s earthenware producers in Delft, Haarlem, and probably Rotterdam had been trying to make high quality imitations of Chinese porcelain. However, it was only after a prolonged period of experimentation that they succeeded in making thin, light, white-glazed earthenware decorated in blue in the Chinese style. Delft became the center of the industry since its former beer breweries could accommodate the large and sprawling potteries. Another immensely popular product of the Delft pottery industry were the small floor tiles which can be seen in a number of Vermeer paintings. These tiles protected the walls from the daily assault of brooms and mops. They covered the walls of particularly humid environments such as cellars as well as the interiors of the Dutch kitchens' hearths. The number of factories in Delft grew from four in 1647 to more than twenty in 1661 and offset the steep decline in the local beer industry.

Delft tiles
A row of common Delft tiles which illustrate children at play.

.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.

The facade of the Delft East India Company as it appears today
Front of the remaining complex of the former East India House, present Oude Delft 39. The three warehouse wings which were built around a courtyard, are still to be recognized from the courtyard. In 1987–1989 the complex was divided into a number of houses.
Courtyard of the Dutch East Indies Company of Delft Courtyard (back view) of the former East India House. Three centuries to be found in one small courtyard...