The School of Delft was loosely composed of a heterogeneous group of artists, most of whom were born outside Delft but worked there at one time or another for varying lengths of time between 1650 and 1670. According to some art historians, there was, however, no pivotal figure in Delft (least of all Vermeer) around whom the other painters gathered for inspiration although at one time or another Carel Fabritius, Pieter Saenredam, Paulus Potter and even Nicolaes Maes have been cast in the role of catalysts.
Leonaert Bramer, who would have been acknowledged by Delft citizens as the most important Delft painter of his generation, produced eccentric history paintings, murals and moody Italianate nocturnal scenes which share nothing with the work of Vermeer and his pioneering colleagues. The other important painter in Delft was Christiaen van Couwenberg, who, like Bramer, made primarily history paintings and had studied in Italy. His paintings of Biblical subject matter, for modern taste, appear theatrical and brittle, practically at the antipode of the Delft spirit.
Any scenario that might explain how the Delft spirit was ignited must include the contemporary gathering of Carel Fabritius from Amsterdam (and with him the lessons of Rembrandt), Pieter de Hooch from Rotterdam (a painter of amiable low-life scenes), Paulus Potter (noted for his silvery, atmospheric landscapes) and the pioneering architectural painters, Gerrit Houckgeest and Emmanuel de Witte along with Vermeer, native of Delft.
We know that Italian artists and art writers of the Renaissance thought the artistic production from each of the major Italian cities (Rome, Florence and Venice) presented distinct characteristics distinguishing them from the others. There is no documentary evidence showing that painters of Amsterdam, Haarlem or Utrecht had ever viewed the more innovative art production of Delft distinct from the production of other cities—nough so to merit an appellative. Nor is it known if the painters of the School of Delft themselves held that there was a common thread binding them together. Vermeer may have urged the awkward De Hooch to draw his figures and organize his compositions with greater care, but if Vermeer's white-washed walls owe more to the pearl-gray church walls of Houckgeest or De Witte rather than to the stark white background of Fabritius's tiny Goldfinch is impossible to know. A significant number of the paintings produced in Delft are not dated, frustrating attempts to determine the directions of influence with any degree of accuracy.
On the other hand, it is almost impossible to believe that in a city as small as Delft, which at that time could have been be crossed by foot in a few minutes, such exceptionally talented painters belonging to the same guild would not have talked shop and kept a close eye on their colleagues' progress, if nothing else in order not to fall behind in competition.
The School of Delft is known for genre scenes of domestic life, church interiors, courtyards and its city streets. The principal artists of the School of Delft are Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, Carel Fabritius, Gerard Houckgeest, Paulus Potter and Emmanuel de Witte. Today, Vermeer is universally considered the greatest painter of the school although each of painters listed above have carved out a prestigious place among the most significant painters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Some art historians have also designated a School of Pieter de Hooch.
Other painters who, to a greater or lesser degree, have been associated with the School are Hendrick van der Burch, Cornelis de Man, Anthonie Palamedesz, Egbert van der Poel, Adam Pynacker, Jan Steen, Jacob van Velsen, Johannes Verkolje, Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, Daniel Vosmaer and Jacob Woutersz Vosmaer.
The principle qualities which distinguish the painting of the School of Delft from the painting of other Dutch schools is a pervading calm, careful observation of the activity of light, perspective coherency, measured composition and a relative disinterest for detail for the sake of detail. The last is the quality which brought the fijnschilders (fine painters) of the Leiden School to the international stage.
The School of Delft coalesced in the early 1650s and continued to produce paintings of elevated quality and originality through the 1660s. However, as quickly as the Delft style arose, it disappeared. Many artists departed for more promising markets, usually Amsterdam. By the time Vermeer died in 1675, the city had reverted to its status as an artistic backwater.
The character or even the existence itself of the School of Delft—no such appellation existed at the time—is not, however, set in stone. The art historian Christopher Brown has questioned if the School of Delft ever existed in a meaningful art historical sense. J. Breunesse holds that "with the use of the term 'Delft School,' a problem [is] created rather than solved."
On the other hand, in line with previous art historians, John M. Montias, the economist turned Vermeer biographer, suggests that once Potter, De Witte, Fabritius, De Hooch and Vermeer joined the Delft Guild of Saint Luke shortly before or shortly after 1650s, "a genuine school—in the sense of a community with intersecting interests in subject matter and techniques, with some similarity in aesthetic approaches, and with significant cross influences—had at last come into existence."
Walter Liedtke, one of the most authoritative scholars of Dutch art, affirms unequivocally that the School of Delft did exist and organized in its honor an imposing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which included 85 paintings, 15 by the hand of Vermeer.1 Briefly, Liedtke posits that "most innovative Delft artists of the 1650s and 1660s achieved (unconsciously, to be sure) a synthesis of qualities that were well established in Delft and the naturalistic mode of description that had been at home in Haarlem, 'Cradle of the New Art.'"
In any case, as Liedtke points out, the most recent art historical research has concentrated more on the individualities of the painters working in Delft and their relationship to the broader context of South Holland rather than with the School of Delft. Some critics maintain that the "regional" differences in the arts are less marked in the Netherlands, united as it was by strong bonds of commerce and a highly efficient system of transportation.
While busy kitchen scenes, chocked with food and kitchenware to show off the painter's ability to render textures, abounded in the sixteenth century, domestic scenes were more generally executed in drawings and etchings. Only in the new century did the domestic setting come into its own as a distinct motif.
In the first half of the 1600s artists such as Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, Pieter Codde, Jacob Duck, Willem Duyster and Anthonie Palamedesz painted numerous interior scenes, crowded with figures of the jeunesse dorée, but with minimally defined interiors.
The interior environment—generally, only the background wall and floor are represented—contain no more than two or three simple pieces of furniture placed at the extreme left- or right-hand side of the composition. Perhaps, a table is placed in the middle of the composition around which the animated figures gather. The background walls are generally nude or adorned with quickly sketched wall maps or framed paintings while the floors are bare or covered with prosaic wooden planks. The windows, if visible, are roughly defined. Raking light streams over the background wall from left to right, gradually diminishing as it distances itself from the source of light. In some of the later interiors, a shadow descends diagonally from the left-hand side of the composition, suggesting the window's bottom. One has the impression that furniture and architectural features are rendered free-hand without the aid of geometrical perspective.
While the figures and their fancy costumes, the raison d'être of the painting, are defined with brilliant tints and meticulous detail, the interiors themselves are summarily painted in dull earth colors. The figures often span the entire width of the composition creating a frieze-like procession. Perhaps, it is only the interiors of Anthonie Palamedesz, born in Delft, in which we might anticipate something of the cool, blond light characteristic of the School of Delft.
"Occasionally, architectural painters like Dirck van Delen executed secular interiors with companies of merry makers with pronounced perspective effects, but these tended to be large Renaissance-styled banqueting halls which, like their church interiors and outdoor colonnades, reveal their ancestry in perspective recipes. A handful even anticipate the Delft painters' focus on the corner of an orderly interior, but make little attempt to depict natural light or a sense of atmosphere."2
Although modeled on the consolidated left-hand-corner-of-the-room formula that had originated in the broader South Holland, Delft domestic genre interiors display figures that are set further back in the pictorial space. Delft interiors are typically higher than they are wider allowing the painter to concentrate his attention on a few, tightly knit figures. Rather than spirited actors upon an empty stage of earlier interiors who cavort, drink wine and gesticulate for the divertimento of the painter and his audience, the figures of the interior scenes produced in Delft strike the spectator as real people, going about their real lives in a real environment. The figures and their actions in Delft painting are sometimes rendered with such discretion that the storyline, to say nothing of the scene's ancillary iconographic meaning, has proved vexing to interpret. Nonetheless, although generally motionless, the figures give the impression of being in harmony with their environment and themselves, absorbed in their momentary activity, unaware of the spectator.
Although scholars have discovered that these interior scenes are a contrived combination of fact and fiction, most spectators feel as if they are able to witness real events that took place in a Dutch home more than three hundred years ago. Vermeer brought the Delft interior painters' proclivity for understatement and reserve to what has been described by the authoritative Vermeer critic Lawrence Gowing and accepted by the majority of Vermeer experts, as reticence.
In reference to painting the word "school" is used with various meanings. In its widest sense a school may include the painters of a single country, regardless of date such as "the Dutch School." In its narrowest sense, it denotes a group of painters who worked under the influence of a single artists as in, the "School of Raphael." In a third sense, it applies to the painters of one city or province who worked under some common local influence, and with some general similarity of design, color, or technique, such as "the Florentine School.
Painters of a specific geographical area were once bound together more closely than in modern times. In order to sign and sell their works, they were required to belong to the Guild of St. Luke, the corporation of artists and artisans which regulated the local art commerce and assisted painters in illness and old age. Each guild had a clearly defined set of rules, traditions and a system of apprenticeship that compelled young painters to work for a term of four to six years with a recognized guild master. Thus, an important master might stamp his manner of working on a large number of pupils, some of whom would be more than willing to acquiesce to the tastes of local collectors who had guaranteed their master's prosperity.
The "School of Delft," or the "Delft School," belongs to the third type of school, although its "members" would probably not have been aware that they belonged to any school at all. They were, however, bound by their obligatory guild membership and could not have avoided contact with each other is such a small town as Delft.
Favorite themes in Delft interior painting (all of which had evolved elsewhere) were bourgeois courtship, music making, domestic chores, discreet merry making and family life. Drawing on the work of Gerrit ter Borch and/or Frans van Mieris, two of the most successful artists in the Netherlands, Vermeer extended the Delft repertoire to include letter reading and letter writing.
The domestic interior scenes painted in Delft are generally illuminated from a carefully defined window located on the left-hand extreme of the canvas, although Pieter de Hooch also employed an innovative scheme of back-lighting to silhouette the figures against light backgrounds. Light almost invariably enters from the left hand side of the picture following convention. However, rather than serving as a vehicle for dramatizing the actions of the figures as the painters of the School of Rembrandt, the Utrecht Carravagists and a virtual army of the Dutch low-life painters had done, the Delft painters (especially De Hooch and Vermeer) seemed to have studied light for its own sake. This prompted some critics to state that the real subject of Vermeer's painting is light itself. Popular artificial lighting schemes in Dutch painting, such as moonlight, candlelight or torchlight, were of little interest to painters of the School of Delft. Some art historians, including Kees Kaldenbach, have hypothesized that painters in Delft had employed optical devices fitted with lenses, such as the camera obscura, to improve the mimetic quality of their images although thus far, the instrument has only been linked securely to Vermeer.
The overall tone of Delft domestic interior painting is generally lighter than comparable works painted elsewhere. The background walls of many interiors are light gray, the shadows are relatively luminous and cool in tone. The perspectival construction of the architectural features, including floor tiles, windows, ceiling beams and furniture, are far more coherent than those of the bourgeoisies interiors painted previously.
One of the principal achievements of the Delft School was to enhance geometrical perspective—used to create a sense of three-dimensional depth—with the painterly qualities used to suggest light and atmosphere. The over-reliance on geometrical perspective leads to a uniform sharpness of contour creating dryness of atmosphere and brittleness of form. Architectural painters, who constructed their interiors from ground up via strict, one-point perspective, made use of precise line drawings which were subsequently transferred from the paper to the canvas through one or another mechanical procedures, without observing an extant reality. With no visual model to rely on, color, light and shade of the final image were created by following traditional painting recipes which prescribed precise combinations of pigments for anything the painter could expect to encounter.
Instead, Delft painters did not rely exclusively on geometric perspective to achieve the illusion of spatial depth in their pictures. They became aware, most likely through intensive observation of nature, that light, color and contour may be used to further intensify the sensation of depth, with the advantage of contemporarily creating the sensation that natural light and air fill the room and flow around the figures and environment. Delft painters understood that warm colors and lights are perceived as advancing away from the surface of the canvas while cool colors and darks are perceived as receding, near at hand. Out of focus, or summarily painted objects, appear more distant than meticulously painted objects with sharp contours. If an object is rendered with a saturated primary color (a technique adopted by both De Hooch and Vermeer), it will tend to stand out from surrounding objects and appear to advance is space. If the same object is rendered with weak colors, it tends to be overlooked and perceived as being more distant. Even the texture of paint may be employed to define spatial depth. By rendering objects with thick impasto, the eye is provided a sort of visual anchor making it seem tangible and "within reach." On the other hand, objects depicted with thin, diluted paint, often reserved for the secondary figures in the background, are perceived as relatively immaterial and therefore distant.
To increase the sensation of aerated space, the Delft painters rendered their shadows with lighter tones, sometimes with their own color, and equipped with reflections caused not only by the predominating lighting conditions but the colors and reflectivity of nearby objects as well.
Vermeer's Girl with a Wine Glass is a virtual compendium of the space-defining techniques typically employed by the most advanced Delft painters. The lightest passages of the girl's luxurious satin gown are depicted with unadulterated vermilion, the strongest red pigment available to painters of the time. The gown's shadows are not rendered with anonymous deep browns, conventionally used to depict shadows, but "positive" reds. Each fold is clearly delineated and the gown's outer contours are uniformly sharp. The figure virtually pops out of the picture onto the viewer's lap. In direct opposition, the dejected background figure who slouches behind the table, is painted with drab earth tones. The inner contours of his clothes and anatomical features are defined by subtle shifts in tone rather than sharp chiaroscural contrasts. Here and there, the outer contour blends subtly into the gray background. Thus, painted so differently, the two figures break away from each dynamically in space: one, as it were, charging to the forefront, the other, sinking into the ill-lit background. The outstanding impact of spatial depth in this work can only be appreciated when it is viewed directly, where the painting's refined surface qualities, variations in contour and nuances of color can be fully appreciated.
Once the domestic motif had been popularized, a number of painters who specialized in other subject matter, like Jacob van Loo and Jan Baptist Weenix, occasionally tried their hand at the domestic interior.
Although the Delft School is universally renowned for its intimate interior settings, art historians agree that it was Delft church painting, which unexpectedly appeared from 1650 and 1651, that laid the ground for innovation rather than interior painting.
From the 1580s, the church painters of the so-called "Antwerp School" (Hendrick van Steenwyck I and II, Pieter Neefs the Elder and others) had tightly adhered to a rigid one-point perspective presenting a view directly down the main nave of imaginary churches. The uncountable orthogonals, produced by the churches' complex architectural features, race towards the vanishing point—always located within the picture—plunging the viewer's gaze headlong to the back of the painting. This device, which creates an irresistible but somewhat disquieting sense of spatial depth, was continued with some modifications in the 1630s and 1640s by Dirck van Delen and Bartholomeus van Bassen. The latter had worked in Delft from 1613 to 1622. Such works were called "perspectives," a term which later came to describe not only churches or monumental structures, but any painting with a pronounced effect of linear perspective, including domestic interiors, such as Vermeer's Art of Painting.
Pieter Saenredam was the first to break with tradition and record existing buildings. But more than just faithful topographical records, Saenredam's churches may be seen as portraits: an eccentric blend of fact and fiction characterized by nuanced pastel colors, natural light and extreme simplicity of drawing and layout. Saenredam often omitted people and church furniture from his work, focusing more attention on the buildings and their architectural forms. An aura of quiet dignity and mystery, hitherto extraneous to architectural painting, pervades Saenredam's church interiors.
During the first years of the 1650s, a small group of Delft church painters began to emphasize visual experience over fantasy. In a few years, they brought the art of church painting to its apogee. Although Saenredam had no pupils or close followers, some art historians believe his works may have been a common source of inspiration for Houckgeest and De Witte, Delft's most accomplished practitioners of the specialization. Their close-up portrayals of Delft's two venerable churches, the Nieuwe and Oude Kerk, are flooded with a cool, crystal clear daylight suggested by delicately modeled patches of diaphanous grays. Huge columns are placed off-center in the very forefront of the painting, partially obscuring the viewer's access to the rest of the church. The spectator is no longer overwhelmed by the vacuous space of the earlier church scenes, but feels as if he were able to move comfortably in and around these monumental, man-made constructions, the vaunt of Delft's citizenry.
For the first time, figures, which had been previously employed as decorative filler (staffage), become an integral part of the composition. The Dutch men, women and children who inhabit the churches appear dignified and self-possessed, not stylized dolls. The reduced dimensions of the Delft church views—the architectural paintings of the nearby Hague were generally much larger to suit the exigencies of the princely patronage—may have been determined by the desire to create more intimate scenery, by specific demands of the art-buying public in Delft or by both.
De Witte and Houckgeest revolutionized the spatial construction of their church interiors by employing two-vanishing points which form a corner at the nearest foreground column, from which the perspectival orthogonals recede to both sides of the composition. Both lateral vanishing points are located outside the composition. This innovation creates a natural, and intriguing spatial recession which appears to expand "behind" the picture frame creating the sense of spatial breadth as well as spatial depth. By lowering the height of the vanishing point, which had been placed higher in earlier church paintings in order to create a wide panoramic view of the scene, the viewer of De Witte's and Houckgeest's works feel as if he is located "in" the picture, with his feet firmly on the church's pavement rather than suspened at an undetermined height somewhere above the ground.
In various Delft church interiors, De Witte, Houckgeest and Van Vliet, the latter a Delft painter of minor talent, placed hanging curtains, sometime brilliantly colored, to the side of the composition in order to increase the sense of spatial illusion. Sometimes the curtain's hanging rod is also represented creating the illusion that the curtain does not belong to the space of the church itself, but is located in front of the painting, imitating curtains which were hung over precious paintings in order to prevent them from collecting dust. The luxuriously colored green curtain which appears on the right-hand side of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was almost certainly inspired by the church painter's trompe-l'œil motif. The art historian Sergiusz Michalski traced this motif to Rembrandt, who had used it occasionally in representations of mythological or biblical scenes. 3
Due to the unquestionable naturalness of their works, most critics agree that De Witte and Houckgeest worked from life, although most likely in the form of drawing. Painters of the time rarely set up their easels to paint in oils outdoors while records of painters drawing outdoors are relatively abundant. The exact sequence of church paintings created by Houckgeest and De Witte in the crucial first years of 1650–1654 is still open to argument. The so-called "Delft-type" of church interior painting had a significant impact on the development of the artistic types in the Gouden Eeuw, the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
Perhaps the only motif entirely invented in Delft was the urban courtyard scene. Although Fabritius' View in Delft is generally considered to be the earliest townscape to have been painted in Delft, De Hooch brought the type to its splendid maturity. Rather than focusing on the topographical character of Delft's urban courtyards, De Hooch concentrated on rendering the weathered brick and plastered walls, foliage, reflecting water, and shimmering roof tiles in schilderachtig, or "picturesque," manner capturing the silence of daily life and the timeless routine of household work, so cherished by the Dutch people. Delft townscapes and architectural paintings of the 1650s onward have the look of personal impressions, of things too familiar and sympathetic to describe objectively. 4
Although Vermeer never painted courtyards per se, his two street scenes (one is lost) must have been inspired by De Hooch's courtyards.
Van der Poel and Daniel Vosmaer both produced a number of street views of Delft as it appeared after the Delft thunderclap (12th October, 1654), which, in spite of their dramatic subject matter and emphatic treatment are lacking in the qualities usually associated with the School of Delft.
Why one center rather than another gives birth to a new and significant form of painting at a given moment is unknown. In Vermeer's time, Delft was a small town principally known for its prestigious ties to the Dutch nobility, its breweries, porcelain, tapestries, picturesque streets, canals, courtyards and cleanliness. However, Delft had immense historical and moral importance for the Dutch nation: it had been the focal point of activities which shaped the fate of all the United Provinces at the outset of the Eighty Years War . Some of the nation's major figures had been born in Delft: the admirals Piet Hein and Marten Harpertsz. Tromp; Prince Frederick Henry, the son of William the Silent and one of the war's military heroes; Hugo Grotius, the jurist and statesman. Although small, Delft was rich and many of its citizens lived comfortably. The worth of its surrounding lands was calculated to be greater than that of Dordrecht, Schiedam and Rotterdam together. The tone of Delft's civic life, like its art, was conservative and profoundly patriotic. Delft's economic base was shrinking in respects to the booming Amsterdam and no longer had an active role in the nation's affairs.
Artistic production in Delft from 1600 to 1650 had been prodigious in portraiture, history painting, genre, landscape, still life, and architectural painting, but when compared to Haarlem or Amsterdam, both major artistic centers, it had only been of limited importance. Although conservative in subject matter and style, pre-School-of-Delft painting is nonetheless characterized by high standards of craftsmanship, refinement and a tendency toward understatement and reserve. The love of Delft's aristocratic society for rare and well-made objects, including paintings, may have been enhanced by the arrival of exotic Asian wares unloaded on the town's inland dock by ships returning from the Far East—Delft was one of the Dutch East Indies Company headquarters.
However refined, Delft painting of the first half of the seventeenth century lacked the dynamism of the high Baroque art—as Liedtke pointed out, there never was a "Delft Baroque." 5 Modeling of form was sober and brushwork unobtrusive. Delft's principal artists tended to perpetuate established artistic traditions, some of which were imported from abroad, rather than innovate. The revolutionary art of Rembrandt and Frans Hals were completely ignored. Although Liedtke holds that essential qualities of Delft painting before 1650 link the Delft School's art to the art of the town's past, many critics perceive an irreconcilable divide. Until the 1650s, the artistic production of Delft was closely intertwined with that of The Hague, which is no more than an hour's walk from Delft. A number of Delft painters worked for The Hague Court; satisfying the constant demand for high-quality portraits and history paintings.
Montias conjectured that in 1640s, Delft artists still went their separate ways, "exempt for the most part from any leadership or even from strong currents of influence. No more disparate group of painters can be conceived than Michiel Mierevelt, Balthasar van der Ast, Jacob Pynas, Anthonie Palamedesz, Simon de Vlieger and Leonaert Bramer, who were all active -and more or less successful- in Delft in the 1630s." 6
Even during the Delft School's heyday, the heterogeneous group of Delft artists continued to produce a wide range of paintings and artworks: still life, portraits for patrons and the court, sophisticated history paintings for the Court at The Hague and for patrician collectors in Delft, as well as decorative pieces of art, luxurious tapestries and silver objects.
Although Delft lacked the economic prosperity that could sustain a large patronage, some art historians have suggested that the town's quiet order, still noticeable today during tourist off-seasons, had played a role in attracting 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." 7 Even Delft's town plan was orderly, organized as it was around a rectilinear scheme of streets and canals, the opposite of the ubiquitous alleyways which tortured Dutch urban environments. The art historian Peter Sutton claims that "the town's neat and orderly appearance, so suited to the mentality of the inhabitants, found its clearest expression in the works of De Hooch and his colleagues" and that "the quiet and precious art of De Hooch and Vermeer was appropriate to this conservative environment."
Liedtke maintains that the role of chance must also be considered: that is, "The coincidental encounter of artists whose experience and personalities fostered fresh ideas. Potter, Fabritius, De Hooch, De Witte, Steen and others who were familiar with painting in Haarlem and Amsterdam, did not settle in or near Delft by common consent, or for the same reason." The lack of a dominating pictorial tradition in Delft or a charismatic figure may have given sufficient wiggling room for a new generation of painters, with variegated cultural backgrounds and artistic specializations, to mix and experiment. Moreover, three important historic events may have encouraged the group of young artists residing in Delft to break with tradition and explore new artistic venues: the death of Prince Willem II in November 1650, the catastrophic explosion of the Delft gunpowder warehouse in October, 1654 which killed hundreds of citizens and prompted important rebuilding of the town, and the collapse of the Hague court which had deprived various painters in Delft of stable patronage.
In any case, the total number of inhabitants in Delft in 1650s was between 45,000 and 50,000. An appreciable percentage of those citizens were involved in the Delftware industry or other decorative arts.