A Panoramic view of Delft from Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschrijvinge der Stadt Delft, 1667

Delft in Johannes Vermeer's Time

The population of various Dutch cities in 1650 when Vermeer was 18 years of age.

  • DELFT - 15,000
  • AMSTERDAM - 30,000
  • LEIDEN - 12,500
  • THE HAGUE - 6,000
  • HAARLEM - 16,000
  • UTRECH - 27,500

The Background, Delft 1

Oude Delft during the winter
Oude Delft during the icy Dutch winter with the massive tower of the Oude Kerk.

The old Delft, the birthplace of Johannes Vermeer, was undoubtedly one of the most characteristic little towns of seventeenth-century Holland. We say "little town" when thinking of towns such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, which far surpassed her in size and the number of inhabitants, but it would be mistaken to consider her as a more or less out-of-the-way and isolated community, like one of the "quiet towns" of today. Delft, however secluded her situation might appear, was in reality a town full of life and business. When a chronicler such as Dirck van Bleyswijck (see image right) in 1667 undertook to write the history of the place where he lived, that is proof that the town had become sufficiently important, that is to say, had a lively past and present, both worth recording. The author, Vermeer's contemporary, deals chiefly in the second part of his book with the Delft of his day and gives us a picture of its appearance and the many various events in the town during the artist's lifetime.

Vermeer's Neighborhood

This detail of Dirck Van Bleyswyck's
Kaart Figuratief shows the area
around the Groote Markt (Market Place).

Click on the Kaart to view four points
of interest concerning Vermeer's
life and art.

Delft, like that of all other Dutch places, was dominated by its towers: the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, together with many smaller spires of the earlier monasteries and chapels, gave the town her prickly silhouette. Girdled by the high, solid and frowning walls, interrupted by massive gates, bastions and watch-towers, the city lay safe, but with a rather forbidding appearance, in the middle of the verdant Dutch meadows.

The town itself was bisected by the Old Delft (Delft = stream, river), to which the city owes its name, and which in those times carried all the traffic of the neighborhood, by means of ships and boats. Within the solid ring of defense-works the life of an industrious and characteristic citizenry went on. Delft was of old a town of beer-brewing. In the beginning of the century one could count more than a hundred breweries, and about 1670 there were still some fifteen working. Various reasons had contributed to the decline. But the owners did not lose courage. They established a new business in their factories, which since 1600 constantly increased in prosperity until about 1670 it had grown into an industry, which today is tile world-famous: the manufacture of china, the so-called "Delft-Blue." Already in the beginning of the century we read of "faience potters or tile painters" or, as van Bleyswijck says, "makers of Delft Porcelain," the number of which he estimated at about twenty- eight, to prove that the article was in general demand, "because Dutch Porcelain is nowhere wrought more subtly or delicately than in this town, in which they seem to copy the Chinese to perfection."

Delft Porcelain

delft shoe
A Shoe
Faience, 8 x 15.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The "Delftware" was then already sent to Brabant, Flanders, France, Spain, England, and the East Indies. One must not think only of the Delft blue, red and black were also used as well as other colors.

In this same period we read for the first time the names of the "masters" such as Aelbrecht de Keyzer, who later together with Vermeer was on the board of the guild, Frans van Oosten, Gysbrecht Kruyck, Pieter van Kessel, Jan Gerritsz. van de Houven, Jacob de Kerton, Isaack Soubre or Soubree, Abraham de Kooge, Jacob Floppesteyn, Wouter van Eenhoom, Jacobus Kool, Quiryn Kleynoven, Jacob Pynacker, Dirck Jansz. van Yselsteyn and many other names yet which still today are very well known, just as those of the factories The China Bottle, The Fortune, The Greek A, The Three Bells, The Jug, The Young (and The Old) Moor's Head, The Two Wee Ships, The White Star, The Rose, etc. Generally known are the Delft tiles, which as many paintings show us, were intended for an edging to the walls of the living-rooms, so that when the floors were cleaned which the Dutch housewife loved doing-the clean white-washed walls should not be spoilt. They were also used for cellar and kitchen walls and in chimney pieces. They were mostly painted, sometimes with small figures and with a frame of leaves, sometimes too there was nothing but ornament; put together they form a "tableau." Just as popular were the splendid Delft plates, saucers, jugs and pots, objects originally intended for daily life ("kitchenware"). Soon all kinds of other necessaries and objects were made solely for ornamento.

Delft tileA Delft tile showing children playing with bows and arrows

When considering all this it ought to be born in mind that before 1650 there can hardly be any question of Delftware having acquired general fame at all. Although the factories were founded about 1600, richly decorated pieces only appeared at the end of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century the industry was able to display all its technical and artistic capacity. In Vermeer's day Delftware had not yet captured the place to which it is freely admitted today. Vermeer certainly never knew the Delft blue in its best period and has perhaps regarded it as a more of less artistic home industry; at any rate there is very little echo of it to be found in his work. This is confirmed to a row of blue tiles as edging at the bottom of the white walls where they were not put only for the aesthetic effect.

Delft Tapestry

Tapestry depicting the history of Jupiter and Callisto Tapestry depicting the history of Jupiter and Callisto (detail)
The histories of Diana (series title)
From a drawing by Karel van Mander
François Spierinx
Wool, 360 x 260 cm.
c. 1593–1600

Another flourishing industry in Vermeer's day was the tapestry weaving. In 1592 a citizen of Antwerp, the Burgomaster's son François Spierinx, had established this business in Delft. Soon great numbers of "embroiderers" and "tapestry-workers" came from the South. Spierinx' factory was set up in the old Saint Agnes Convent, near the East Gate. He had attached a few well-known Dutch artists to his manufactory, Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom and Karel van Mander (the younger), both from Haarlem, who supplied him with designs for the tapestries. Van Mander quickly got into trouble with Spierinx, broke off his connection, and with the painter Huibrecht Grimani, set up a tapestry factory in the Saint Anne Convent, near the Hague Gate. This combination does not seem to have lasted long. About 1632 a similar business was established in the same convent by Willem Jansz. Coppens and under his descendants the factory remained working until the middle of the eighteenth century. About the same time Spierinx was succeeded by Maximiliaan van der Gucht, whose artistic work was at the height of its glory about 1660.

The products of Spierinx, Coppens, and Van der Gucht are real masterpieces. In the first instance they served to decorate the walls of halls and rooms, which for special reasons required hangings: council chambers, governors' and guardians' halls, apartments belonging to civil authorities, and so on. Furthermore they were much liked for use on special occasions, receptions of princes and ambassadors, at official ceremonies, banquets and the like.

In 1640 large tapestries were ordered far the Burgomaster's room in the Town-hall, built in 1618 by Hendrik de Keyzer. The well-known seascape-painter Hendrik Vroom had supplied the designs for it. In 1661 the town council again ordered tapestries after the pattern of those in the council chamber of the States of Holland. Unfortunately there is nothing left of these orders but six of the forty-one chairs which Maximiliaan van der Gucht made for the council chamber in 1661 However, important works of his are still preserved outside Delft, amongst others those in the governors' room of the Saint Bartholomew's Institution at Utrecht.

a canal in Delft
The Nieuwe Kerk seen from one of the numerous waterways of Delft in the summertime

Much care was bestowed on the weaving of tapestries. They were often great pieces whose measurements can only be expressed in yards. We have already noted that the greatest Dutch artists of that time lent their aid. They not only depicted landscapes, sometimes maps of the plans of towns, but also, and mostly, subjects from local history. In Middelburg there is a gobelin, representing the naval battle off Bergen-op-Zoom by Maximiliaan van der Gucht; in the Musée du Cinquantenaire at Brussels, a large tapestry with the Battle of Newport. But also biblical and mythological representations were liked.

Not only the tapestries which came from the Delft workshops were sent elsewhere, but also small rugs, curtains, chair-coverings, cushions, and suchlike, which were intended for the living-rooms of the citizens, as Vermeer's interiors will witness. Besides the potteries and the tapestry weaving workshops the Saint Luke's Painters Guild flourished in these years, in which all the crafts were included, also the china-makers, the tapestry-weavers, the booksellers, and the glasspainters.

Like every other Dutch town Delft also possessed a Chamber of Rhetoric, where the humanities were practiced by all the craftsmen above mentioned, and in which they could forget the daily drudgery and far a short while give themselves up to the revelations of beauty and genius.

Civic Guard

It goes without saying that there also was a Civic Guard to whom was confided the defense of the city, and whose officers had their portraits painted on great canvases which now adorn the Town Hall by their fellow citizens Michiel Mierevelt and Jacob Delft.

An iron armor with a helmet; a pike ('Een yser harnis met de stormhoet; een pieck') found in the great Hall ("groote zael") during the posthumous inventory of the artist's possessions together with a "Vermeer" on a Civic Guard document strongly indicate that Vermeer was a member of the Delft Civic Guard or 'schutterij' (shooter).1

Monuments and Civic Institutions

We have already remarked that the Delft of that time, besides many new buildings had also a great number which had been preserved from the Middle Ages. Most of these had, in Vermeer's time, been furnished far social and community duties, such as the Orphanage (with the Foundlings Home and the Madhouse), the Hospital and Pest-house, the Charity House (Poor-House and Leper-House), the Old Women's and Old Men's House on the Voldersgracht, the Girls' House and the Workhouse where neglected youth was educated. Other institutions such as the Saint Agnes and Saint Anne Convents were taken into use by the tapestry-weavers, as described above.

a canal in Delft
A canal right behind the Nieuwe Kerk

The canals were, so to say, the arteries of the town along which all the means of transport and all imports and exports were carried. They were flanked by the dwellings of the merchants and trades people, by goods- sheds and warehouses, public buildings and religious and learned institutions. The market, or the market-place, was always the center where the life of the citizens was concentrated. There rose, stately and solemn, the mighty tower of the Nieuwe Kerk opposite the town-hall, burnt down in 1618, but risen again on an even grander scale under the direction of Hendrik de Keyzer, the famous architect. On the north of the Marktveld, between the Nieuwe Kerk and the town-hall, stood the house "Mechelen," where Vermeer lived. From this dwelling he would have been able to follow the life of the Delft community from year to year. In 1647, on May 10th, he may have witnessed the funeral of Frederick Henry in the Nieuwe Kerk. In 1650 there were riots in Delft on the occasion when Prince William Il came to "displace" the town council, i.e. replaced the old council by a new one. In 1653 the famous admiral Maarten Harpersz. Tromp was buried with great solemnity in the Oude Kerk. In 1660, on May 25th, Vermeer will have been present at the entry of King Charles Il into Delft. In 1661 he will have listened to the first playing of the new carillon which had been made by François Hemony for the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk. In 1662 there was a great to-do when the three murderers of Charles of England were caught in Delft. These are the occurrences which for a few moments brightened or disturbed the daily life of the citizen.

"Delft Thunderclap"

View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, egbert van der PoelView of Delft after the Explosion of 1654
Egbert van der Poel
Oil on wood, 36.2 x 49.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

But the greatest disaster and no other struck a deeper wound or caused more destruction and damage was the explosion of the gunpowder magazine on October 12th, 1654, in the morning at half-past ten. That powder-house in which the ammunition for the defense of the town was kept, lay between the Geerweg and the Doelstraat, hidden amongst the trees behind the Doelen. Dirck van Bleyswijck in his description of the happenings in Delft, published in the year 1667, gives an extensive account of this accident. There must have been, according to him, "eighty or ninety thousand pounds of gunpowder stored up at the time of the explosion, and this quantity, unfortunately, exploded, with such a horrible rush and force, that the arch of heaven seemed to crack and to burst, the whole earth to split, and hell to open its jaws: in consequence of which not only the town and the whole land of Delft with all her lovely villages shock and trembled, but the whole of Holland rocked from the ghastly rumble. The houses in towns, boroughs, villages, and hamlets lying some miles away from us, heard the horrible rumble. The sound was heard even as far as Den Helder, yes, on the island of Texel, on the North Sea and in some provinces outside Holland. That (powder) house, which had provided stocks from the days of our Fathers, must now, alas, destroy their children. The misery and disaster which resulted from it are impossible to describe properly and in proportion to the facts; because so great was the noise, to the surprise of all who heard it far from or near this town, from which, after the clap, they saw such a frightful mixture of smoke and vapor rise, just as if the pools of hell had opened their throats to spew out their poisonous breath over the whole world to cover it and darken it. This cloud included a great deal of rubble, chalk, stones, beams, and all sorts of flying bits, mixed with pieces of people, which later were found strewn around, outside, as well as inside the walls, making a sight which the spectators could not face without shrinking emotion and melting hearts. How the accident really was caused has remained a mystery until now. The powder-house had been completely blown away with its foundations, without leaving a scrap or stick or brick or beam or pole behind, nothing but a pool of water measuring in depth fifteen to sixteen feet."

The results of the explosion must have been terrible, the number of victims was very large. It does not require much imagination to form a clear picture of the extent of the damage which we shall endeavor to present through Van Bleyswijck's description: "Not only both the neighboring Arquebusiers houses but for many hundred feet round everything was razed to the ground and demolished. The great and small Arquebusiers streets, also all the newly built houses on the Lakengracht where the old vegetable-frames used to stand, as well as the whole neighborhood of the Geerweg with the Verwersdijk were knocked down on both sides of the road and reduced to heaps of rubble The huge and strong trees in the Doelen (shooting range) were mostly chopped off level with the ground, the gardens there ploughed up, so that hardly a tree or the semblance of a tree was to be found. The numbers of houses which were completely toppled over, was estimated at far over two hundred. Besides these over three hundred houses were bereft of roofs and window panes, furthermore it was said that there was not one house to be found within the whole city, which had not suffered some damage; many were damaged inside, the furniture spoilt, all the china broken with other things too which fell out of their positions from the horrible shaking. Both parish churches, those great imposing buildings, had not escaped but had suffered such a hard shock that they could not be used for some time, without glass, the iron stanchions (which were very thick and heavy) bent and torn out, the roofs shattered, the walls split in many places At the Townhall too all the window-panes had fallen out. Above all in the north- west of the town (where the force of the explosion had been most felt) it was pitiful to see, the more as one remembered all the people who lay shattered and smothered under the fallen and overturned houses. Various accidents and disasters have from old passed over this city, but not one of them, how heavy one might rate it, is to be compared with this great unspeakable blow, because this extraordinary and never-before heard-of thunder-clap swept whole families away, even streets with people, old, young, sick, well, rich, poor." The "Delft Thunderclap," as this disaster has become known to history, has, as is well-known, also cost the life of Carel Fabritius and his family.

From the above we notice that both the Nieuwe Kerk and the Town Hall on the Market-place were badly damaged. The House "Mechelen" must have been damaged too. This is nowhere specifically stated, but it is unbelievable that a house in the immediate neighborhood of the Nieuwe Kerk and the Town-hall got off scatheless. What did Vermeer lose by this disaster? What consequences did it have for him? These are questions which must for the time being remain unanswered.

The Delft chronicler, thirteen years after this disaster, could yet depict his town as one of the most prosperous and flourishing of Holland. He tells with enthusiasm of all the many handsome buildings, which ornamented her streets and canals and squares, of the Prinsenhof, once the palace of Prince William of Orange, of the Gemeenlandthuis of Delfland, of the Town-hall and the churches, of the East and West-Indian houses, of the halls, of the grammar school, of the anatomy or dissecting-room, of the storehouses, of the guildhouses, of the gates and towers, of the Beguinages and so forth.

Delft Citizens

tomb of Piet Hein in the Oude Kerk
The tomb of Piet Hein in the
Oude Kerk, Delft

As though of their own volition the thoughts of the writer wander off to the many great men and women who first saw the light in Delft, or who lived there during their best years and gave their strength for the well-being of its citizens. He mentions the names of Geertruit van Oosten, Dirck van Delft, the famous theologian, Martinus Dorpius, later professor at Louvain, Cornelis Musius, the noble prior of the Saint Agatha convent, Jacob Jacobsz. van der Meer on the Marktveld, who printed the first Bible in Dutch in 1477, Sasbout Vosmeer, later vicarapostolic of Utrecht, Cornelis Pynacker the jurist. Then he comes to the great men of his century and names in the very first piece Hugo Grotius, the world-famous jurist, Prince Frederick Henry, born at Delft on January 29th, 1584, the great military commander and subduer of towns, the admiral Piet Hein, the conqueror of the Silver Fleet. Then follow in procession all the many artists who worked within the walls, who have already been mentioned elsewhere.

In the churches where these great Dutchmen have found their last resting place, their contemporaries have erected worthy monuments, which through the good care of the greatest masters of that time became works of art which are the pride of the inhabitants of Delft. In the first place we mention the monument of the Oranges in the Nieuwe Kerk, designed and executed by Hendrik de Keyzer in 1621; that of Piet Hein in the Oude Kerk, 1629; that of admiral Maarten Harpersz. Tromp, designed by Jacob van Campen and executed by Rombout Verhulst and Pieter Hendriksz. de Keyzer.

  1. P.T.A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft 1632–1675, Utrecht: Spectrum,1950, 41–48.
  2. Kees Kaldenbach, "The Vermeer House." http://www.johannesvermeer.info/verm/house/hz-harnas-helm-eng.htm
Dirck van Bleyswyck'
Dirck van Bleyswijck at
the Age of 31 1671

Johannes Verkolje