Vermeer's Delft Today: The Flying Fox on Voldersgracht

Voldersgracht street sign

By February 1629, Reynier Jansz. Vos (Vermeer's father), his wife Digna and his daughter Gertruy were living in an inn on Voldersgracht (Fuller's Canal) called De Vliegende Vos (The Flying Fox). Reynier's move away from the inn called Three Hammers located on Beestenmarkt (Small Cattle-Market) was a move to a higher social condition and a gamble to make a better life for his family. We know of a second rental contract on Voldersgracht dates from 1637 (the first contract is lost). Reynier's landlord was a leather dealer and shoemaker Pieter Corstiaens Hoppers, economically successful but almost illiterate.1 In 1641, when Vermeer was 9, the lease of the Flying Fox ran out but Reynier was able to move to Mechelen, a much larger tavern on the Market Square, a fact which would seem to indicate that the Flying Fox had brought some fortune to the hard-working father. The Voldersgrachtstill runs parallel to the north of the Market Square, the heart of Delft. It was named after the fullers who used its water in making the whitening material called fuller's earth.

Voldersgracht, Delft
Voldersgracht today

The area around Voldersgracht was more respectable than the Beestenmarkt where mostly working-class folk lived. "A few doors down from The Flying Fox, Pastor Jacobus Taurinus lived with his wife Margaret van der Meer (no relation to the artist's family). There were richer people in Delft than the pastor and his wife, but those two stood on the highest rung of the town's society. Reynier's immediate neighbor was Cornelis van Schagen, a well-to-do merchant who sold clothe from the shop in the lower part of his house. There was also a painter, Cornelis Daemen Rietwijk, living just on the other side of the Old Men's Home next door to Vermeer's house, who ran a sort of academy where young people learned how to draw and received elementary instruction in mathematics and other subjects. Reynier may have not been well-off as some of his neighbors; keeping and inn, moreover, was scarcely a prestigious occupation. But it was much better that weaving caffa (caffa is a damasked fabric containing silk and either wool or cotton) by the side of the Small-Cattle Market."2

The street sign at the beginning of Voldersgracht bathed in Delft light

Some inns were respectable and some were little more than brothels. Visitors from abroad weren't always able to tell the difference at first glance. Obviously, beer was drunk in both types of inn. Obviously, beer would have been one of the principal calling cards of Reynier's new venture. Delft was a beer town renowned for its high-quality production which, however, had waned by the time of Vermeer. Beer production requires clean water and Delft was known for its excellent supply of water and for its proverbial cleanliness. In the Netherlands, beer was drunken at all hours although it was generally much weaker than today's beer. It has said the average beer-drinker in Delft put away 250 liters a year. Beer was drunk at all times of the day from breakfast on.

Reynier's talents were many: he ran the Flying Fox, dealt in paintings and was also known as a caffawerker. Caffa was a damasked fabric containing silk and wool or cotton used especially in upholstery production. Perhaps the daily presence of this luxurious fabric stimulated in the young lad Johannes a fascination for the delicate sheen and joyful play of light, one of the hallmarks of his compositions.

Voldersgracht, Delft
Voldersgracht 25–26

Johannes was presumably born in the Flying Fox and it is only logical that the constant ebb and flow of visitors of all walks of life, including accomplished painters, as well as the pictures hung on the walls of his father's inn, must have kindled the first flicker of his future artistic calling. He heard the banter of artist's shop talk every day and introduced into the mystery of the painter's craft. Curiously, the powerful Guild of St Luke, which regulated the lives of all Delft artisans and artists, was only a few paces to the right of the Flying Fox.

There must have been no lack of music in an around the Flying Fox. Everyday, Johannes heard the hourly chimes and weekly concerts of the carillons of the Nieuwe Kerk whose imposing tower cast its long shadow over the inn on sunny days (see image below). Vermeer's grandfather was a musician and had owned more than one musical instrument.

It is not certain where the former location of the Flying Fox was located. John Michael Montias, Vermeer's biographer, believed that it was "two houses east of the Old Mens Home," making it number 23. From 1620–1640 changes had been made just in the row of houses at 23–27. No doubt, buildings had been joined and then split into still other lots. However, consensus has it that the most probable location for the defunct Flying Fox is at Voldersgracht civic number 25 or 26. This last location is currently occupied by Herberg de Vliegende Vos, a café-restaurant with exhibitions and 3 hotel rooms.

Voldersgracht from tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft
Voldersgracht viewed from the
tower of the Nieuwe Kerk

Vermeer's house once stood in
the place of one of the two furthest
buildings on the right-hand
side of the image.

Although we likely will never know the exact location of the Flying Fox, the Voldersgracht is able to transport even the most jaded visitor directly into the heart of Vermeer's Delft. On a quiet day it is hard not to relive at least a flash of its antique atmosphere. The photograph to the right, taken from the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk on Market Place in the summertime, shows the shadow of the Nieuwe Kerk stationed temporarily over the newly reconstructed Guild of Saint Luke. The two buildings to the far right are civic number s 25 and 26 Voldersgracht.

Was the scene of Vermeer's Little Street located at Voldersgracht?

Vlamingstraat, DelftVlamingstraat

Although many locations have been proposed in the past, the most consistent candidate for the location of the scene of Vermeer's The Little Street has been the Voldersgracht, a narrow street that runs next to a canal in the center of Delft, where Vermeer was born. However, some art historians believe that despite the scene's realistic appearance, it could be a distillation of typical architectural elements gathered and adroitly woven together within the privacy of the artist's studio.

The century-old question has been recently addressed by Dr. Frans Grijzenhout, professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam. Grijzenhout argues that the setting for painting is on Vlamingstraat in Delft, where houses 40–42 now stand. Grijzenhout's conclusion is based on measurements he has found in the Legger van het diepen der wateren binnen de stadt Delft (Ledger of the dredging of canals in the town of Delft), a document compiled from 1666 onward recording the widths of house frontages for tax purposes.

However, Philip Steadman, the London architect and author of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, examined point for point Grijzenhout hypothesis and found a number of inconsistencies. Steadman holds that Grijzenhout's proposal is unfounded and provided detailed information in support of the Voldersgracht solution.

Click here to read Steadman's arguments supported with contemporary maps, drawings and a 19th-century photograph.

Grijzenhout mused that the house on Vlamingstraat would have had particular resonance for Vermeer, since the house was occupied at this date by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, one of Vermeer's aunts. But Steadman suggests that Voldersgracht would have held greater meaning for the painter in that it was a view from his family home, across to a building, which, when he painted The Little Street, was just about to be converted for use by his profession's center, the Guild of Saint Luke.

Click here to read Grijzenhout's arguments or see: Frans Grijzenhout and Lynne Richards, "Vermeer's 'Little Street': A View of the Penspoort in Delft," Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2015.

The Littel Street location

Elevation of the Guildhall of Saint Luke superimposed over Vermeer's The Little Street. See how the windows and door on the ground floor at the left coincide closely with the windows and door in The Little Street. These survive from the former Old Men's House building.

  1. Kees Kaldenbach.
  2. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, 65.

.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.