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The School of Delft

(part one)

A 17th-century baseboard tiles fabricated in Delft during Vermeer's life time. Examples of the originals can be seen in Vermeer's painting such as the Milkmaid and the Lady Standing at a Virginal. The production of world renowned Delftware porcelain reached its apex in the later years of Vermeer's life time.

Just why one center rather than another gives birth to a new and highly significant form of painting at a given moment is one of the mysteries of art. Delft was in Vermeer's time a small town known for its breweries, porcelain and tapestries. Although it was in economic decline respects to both Amsterdam and Rotterdam, it produced in span of two decades, one of the most significant artists of all time, Jan Vermeer, along with a score of lesser but innovative artists. This group of rather loosely tied artists has been nominated "the School of Delft". Few of these artists were actually born in Delft. The fact that they influenced each other's painting is obvious at first glance but since very few of Vermeer's paintings are dated it is extremely difficult to determine if he had a more innovative role or if he tended to draw inspiration and elaborate ideas taken from others within the school. What we do know is that he alone was able to transcend the particular traits that characterized the school to create a tiny body of absolute masterpieces that elevate his painting to the level of two other geniuses of Dutch painting: Rembrandt and Hals.

The following examples illustrate the primary characteristics of the Delft school by comparing Vermeer's paintings to those of several of his fellow painters.

An Interior Scene, Pieter de Hoogh

An Interior Scene
Pieter de Hoogh
c. 1658

The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer
The Glass of Wine
Johannes Vermeer

Although Delft lacked the economic prosperity that could sustain a large patronage it may have been its quiet order and serenity that attracted artists. Delft housewives were said to be "fanatically clean" while Delft itself was considered "not only the cleanest place in Holland, but, one may rightly assume, in the whole world." This sense of cleanliness and order is one of hallmarks of the school of Delft.

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius

The Goldfinch
Carel Fabritius
c.1654

Woman with a Pearl Necklace , Johannes Vermeer
Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Johannes Vermeer

Carel Fabritius is usually believed to have been Rembrandt's most gifted pupil. Even though he lived in Delft briefly, he had an enduring impact on fellow painters. The Goldfinch is one of the few works that have survived his untimely death in the Delft powder magazine explosion. Its extraordinary expressive power is almost entirely lost in reproduction.

The stark light flooded white-washed wall which surrounds the bird is a break away from the usual dark backgrounds that Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Hals habitually employed to dramatize the foreground figure. Its luminosity and poetic simplicity may have had a direct impact on the young Vermeer. His own Woman with a Pearl Necklace strikes a similar note.