Vermeer's Neighborhood

(part one)

Below are listed ten significant points of interest which are related the life of Vermeer. These places can be located with relative security on the period map of Delft to the right. Delft's city plan has changed little through the centuries.

To access detailed information and images of each Vermeer-related place, click on the name of the location below.

  1. Mechelen - Vermeer's father's inn where the painter was born and raised
  2. Guild of Saint Luke - the guild of Delft's artisans and artists
  3. The Little Street - the presumed location of Vermeer's Little Street
  4. Maria Thin's House - Vermeer's mother-in-law's house & where Vermeer lived after Mechelen
  5. Stadthuis - Delft City Hall
  6. Jesuit Church - Vermeer's mother-in-law's house and Vermeer's residence
  7. Oude Kerk - Delft's oldest parish church founded about 1246 and Vermeer's burial place
  8. Nieuwe Kerk - second parish church of Delft founded in 1496
  9. 'Flying Fox' - Vermeer's birthplace and his father's inn
  10. View of Delft by Fabritius - the point from which Fabritius painted his own View of Delft

A detail of Willem Blaeue's City Plan of Delft from Joh. Blaeu's
Toonneel der Steden van de Vereenigde Nederlanden, 1649

For a complete version of the map click on one of these two links below 1.140 KB / 240 KB

The Blaeu family in Amsterdam was one of the great cartographic concerns of the seventeenth century, whose work was well-known throughout the Netherlands. In 1621, he and his sons took over from the sons of Balthasar Berckenrode (who himself was the son of Floris Balthasar, a prominent cartographer and long-time member of Delft’s Saint Luke’s Guild) the printing of Berckenrode’s map of Holland and West Friesland, which appears in several Vermeer works. Blaeu’s sons published posthumously his 12 volume atlas of the world in 1663, in which he wrote: "Geography [is] the eye and the light of history…maps enable us to contemplate at home and right before our eyes things that are farthest away." This metaphorical but very epistemological connection between a symbolic representation of reality (maps) and one’s imagination was an important and recurring Vermeer motif. The 1648 Blaeu bird’s eye map of Delft you are using was again published posthumously by Blaeu’s son, Johannes.

Vermeer in Delft

In an age when every self respecting painter had to travel to Rome to verse himself in the immortal works of Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo, it is surprising to note that not one of the great masters responsible for the rise of Dutch painting felt the need to go to Italy. Esiais van de Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer all stayed in the Netherlands, close to their home painting for their local market.

Vermeer seems to have passed his entire life in his home town Delft, although it is known that he made a brief trip to Amsterdam and The Hague in his last years. Some experts believe that he studied painting in Amsterdam or in Utrecht although there exists no historical proof in regards. In any case, Vermeer must have loved his home town very much. His two "portraits" of Delft, the majestic View of Delft, a hymn to civic pride and nature, and the humble Little Street, which narrates the intimate life as seen across and inner-city canal, are tangible proof. It is known that Vermeer painted another landscape of Delft, a "view of a house standing in Delft" as it was described in the 1696 Amsterdam auction.

the following is from:
The World of Vermeer: 1632-1675, Hans Koningsberger, New York, 1967)

Delft was the third city of Holland to receive a municipal charter in 1246 and it remained in, the forefront of Dutch history for several centuries. As well as being a center of resistance and headquarters for William of Orange during the war with Spain, it was the birthplace of William and one of the war's military heroes; Hugo Grotius, jurist and statesman who established the principles of international law; scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the first microbiologists. When Holland began to flourish in the late 16th Century, Delft shared the new prosperity.

Then in the second half of the 17th Century (about the time Vermeer's ' career was beginning) as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, because of their excellent ports, took over more and more of the nation's trade, Delft slowed down. Its famous pottery industry continued to flourish, but other businesses languished. The number of breweries in the city shrank from more than 100 to 15. It became the home of retired people and a stronghold of conservative Calvinism. Gradually the once-vigorous city went into a decline that left it virtually dormant until the 19th Century.

The one lucky result of this misfortune is that the heart of Delft today looks very much as it did in Vermeer's day, since, by the time the town came to life again, men had learned to value and preserve the architectural heritage of the past. Thus Delft still has a few acres of houses, churches, canals and squares which lead us straight into Vermeer's world. In fact, a plan of Delft, published in 1648 by the map maker Willem Blaeu, so detailed that it shows Vermeer's house, is accurate enough to be used for a walk today.

a bird's eye view of the Oude Kerk
A view of the Oude Kerk from the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk

The center of old Delft is the market, which is shown as a white oblong in the middle of Blaeu's plan. The market square is not particularly large, but it is dramatic because it is the only wide-open, ornamental space within a medieval huddle of houses. Old Delft, which had about 23,000 inhabitants in 1630, actually boasts only three or four real streets; the rest are alleys and canals. The canals were the arteries of Delft, carrying its trade and also its visitors; in fact, Holland's waterways were its safest and smoothest channels of transportation until well into the 19th Century. Marcel Proust described one such waterway after visiting Deft: "An ingenious little canal dazzled by the pale sunlight; it ran between a double row of trees stripped of their leaves by summer's end and stroking with their branches the mirroring windows of the gabled houses on either bank."

Delft light
The light of Delft on houses reflected in one of the numerous canals

Now these narrow canals lie quiet under their humpbacked bridges, but they are still used to carry supplies to the flower market, the butter-and-cheese market and the fish market, all located along the waterside. They are almost straight, but their slight bends provide surprising changes in the fall of the light, which is confined by the houses, reflected in windows and water and sifted through the canopy of the trees.

The light of Delft! Thousands of words have been written about it and its real or imagined secrets. The French playwright and poet Patil Claude wrote that it was "the most beautiful light in, existence." Considered coldly, there is no reason why the light of Delft should be different from the light of The Hague or Rotterdam. But the old town is so still, even today the heavy foliage, the dark water and the old brick walls envelop it so beautifully that its light, many times reflected and filtered, does seem different once it has reached the level of the eye; it seems to have an especially soft, fluid quality.

Voldersgrach, Delft
A view of the Voldersgracht, the small street
where Vermeer was born

Perhaps it is not only Delft, not just the trees or canals, which make this light so special, but also Vermeer. As Stratford-on-Avon or Walden Pond may move the visitor in a manner which has nothing to do with their physical appearances, so the light of Vermeer' s town has been given a magical connotation by his work.