189 – Vermeer… of Delft

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

As I start writing, I am on the verge of flying to Amsterdam. By the time you read this, though, I will have spent the day in Delft, visiting the viewpoint from which Vermeer saw his native city, seeing the streets he lived and worked in, and the churches where he was christened and where he was buried. I will also have been to the Prinsenhof Museum to see the exhibition Vermeer’s Delft, which will be the subject of my talk on Monday, 6 March at 6pm. It puts Vermeer’s paintings into context, looking at the history and culture of the town in which he spent his brief life, including its art and its science – the developments in optics, which might explain his fascination with perspective, for example. However, there will be relatively few Vermeers, as they are all at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I will talk about his own paintings in a talk entitled Amsterdam ’23, looking in detail at what is said to be the ‘greatest Vermeer exhibition ever’. If you’re not free on Mondays, I will give both talks as one study evening for ARTscapades on Tuesday 7 March. By Monday, I might also have worked out what I am doing next (don’t tell anyone, but I know – I just need to be sure – and will post details in the diary as soon as I am). Meanwhile, what better today, in order to introduce both upcoming talks, than to look at the city itself, in a view painted by its most famous son.

One of the aspects of Vermeer’s work which is most attractive is the pervading sense of calm he communicates, a perfect balm for our twenty-first century lives which are, for some of us, all too rapidly reaching pre-pandemic levels of business. As it happens, the calm is sometimes only on the surface, like the proverbial swan, for which all the action is taking place under water. But in this painting, started on a late spring day in 1660 (although some have argued it’s early autumn), it is calm throughout – both above and below the reflecting surface of the ‘Kolk’, the triangular harbour just to the south of Delft. Admittedly the clouds are lowering at the top of the painting – but that is just an artistic device to frame the view and encourage us to look into the lighter distance, where the rooves of the houses, and the spire of the Nieuwe Kerk – the ‘new’ church – shine in the sunlight. All is well in this fair city. On the far right two barges are moored in front of the Rotterdam Gate, to the left is a bridge, allowing boats through the ramparts and into the city centre, and to the left again, is the Schiedam Gate. It might help to look at a detail of a contemporary map, published by Joan Blaeu in 1649.

Flowing out of this detail on the far right is the river Schie, which had been diverted to form a moat around the defensive walls of Delft early in the city’s history. Two separate branches of the river can be seen coming along the bottom left, and vertically down from top centre. On the right edge of the picture, just below the river, are three houses: it is assumed that Vermeer made his initial observations and sketches for this painting from an upstairs window of the house on the left. At the right-angled corner at the ‘top left’ of the Kolk (north-east: south is to the right here) you can see a canal going under a bridge between the Rotterdam gate, with its two towers, above it, and the Schiedam gate, a more compact structure, below. If you came out of the Rotterdam gate, over the small bridge, and turned left, the first right would take you along the ‘Weg na Rotterdam’ – the way to Rotterdam. The Schie could also take you there, as well as to Schiedam, as we will see below. Inside the city three canals lead away from the bridge. The lower one is the ‘Oude Delft’, the old Delft, the name coming from ‘delven’, as in ‘to dig and delve’: the canal was dug out, to drain the marshy land, and to provide a transportation route, in the earliest days of the settlement. By the 17th Century it was the poshest place to live.

On the right of this detail is the Schiedam gate. There is a clock at the top of the stepped gable. It’s hard to read, and probably only has an hour hand – with a counter-balance – but tells us that it is somewhere around 7 o’clock. From the direction of the light we know that it is morning. In the centre of the detail there are two towers. On the right is the Parrot Brewery. Much of Delft’s wealth had been derived from beer, but the business was starting to wane: neither the brewery, nor its tower, survives. To the left is the top of the tower of the Oude Kerk – the Old Church – in which Vermeer was buried on 15 December 1675. The church still stands, as does the tower, just as we see it here. Reaching to the left side of the painting is a long building with a red-tiled roof: this is the Delft chapter of the Dutch East India Company, called the V.O.C. from its name in Dutch: Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie – the United East India Company. They didn’t need to say they were Dutch – they knew that. Founded in 1602, the Company’s success brought wealth to the seven Dutch provinces during their war of independence with Spain. That wealth enabled them to win the war, and in 1648 the Dutch Republic finally become an independent nation state. This new-found freedom led to enormous civic pride, which in its turn led to an interest in celebrating the country itself, not just in terms of landscape paintings, but also with a wealth of cityscapes such as the one we are looking at today.

Further to the right, the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk is given particular prominence, brilliantly lit by the morning sun, and standing proud of the other buildings. But however accurately Vermeer appears to have painted this view, he has been artful in the way he has shown things – the very nature of art not being to reproduce exactly what you see, but to make it look better, or more significant, or more interesting. He made the whole view of the city more frieze-like, for example, and played down the projection of the Rotterdam gate to achieve this. He has also shifted the tower slightly and changed its proportions to make it stand out. It is also worth pointing out that you can see through the upper section of the tower – the belfry – because there are no bells there. They were re-hung between 4 May 1660 and the summer of 1661, which provides one of the clues for dating this painting. However, the prominence of the tower might have another significance – a political one. William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch revolt at the start of the Eighty Years’ War in 1568, was assassinated in Delft in 1584, and buried in the Nieuwe Kerk. He was given the title Father of the Fatherland, and his magnificent mausoleum became a place of Protestant pilgrimage, effectively a tourist destination for the proud, newly-independent Dutch. The tomb appears in many paintings of the period, all of which include gatherings of contemplative onlookers. It seems likely that Vermeer is suggesting that the sun shines on this notable place for good reason: the Father of the Fatherland has illuminated the nation as a whole. However, it is also worthwhile pointing out that this was the church in which he was christened, next to which he grew up, lived, and worked, and in which many members of his family were buried.

Putting the Nieuwe Kerk back into its context, we can see that it stands above the right-hand end of the Kapel bridge, which connects the Schiedam gate (to the left of this detail) to the Rotterdam gate (on the right here), the distinctive twin towers of its barbican topped by conical rooves. A wooden drawbridge to its right crosses the moat around the town, and in front of it are moored two boats. They have been identified as herring buses, and have been cited as evidence of global cooling. The 16th and 17th centuries saw what has been called the ‘little ice age’, one result of which, it seems, was that herring swam further south, into the warmer waters, and so could be fished by the Dutch. It’s even been suggested that the herring were an additional source of revenue which helped to enhance the Republic’s enormous wealth, one product of which was the Golden Age of Dutch art. However, this is not the right time of year for fishing herring, which gives us another clue to the date when Vermeer made his initial studies. The boats are here for refurbishment – the masts have been removed, among other things – and usually they would be nearer to the sea. They worked in and out of Delfshaven, the harbour which was created for the express use of the citizens of Delft in 1389 in order to allow them direct access to the river Maas (or Meuse). Now a district of Rotterdam, Delfshaven it is one of the few areas near that once-powerful port to have survived the destruction of the Nazis in 1940, and that one canal maintains its old world charm. Time was not so kind to Delft’s defences. The Rotterdam gate was destroyed in 1836, two years after the Schiedam gate had met a similar fate.

The detail on the left shows the Rotterdam gate, and on the right we can see the River Schie (marked ‘1’) flowing south, and dividing into three branches – just so you know where it is possible to go: Schiedam and Rotterdam, as the names of the two gates suggest, with Delfshaven in between. Technical analysis has shown that Vermeer originally painted the reflection of the Rotterdam Gate far more sharply. As he completed the painting he made it more diffuse, and also stretched it to the bottom of the painting, creating a visual bridge into the heart of the city. The gate itself was originally painted in bright light, but Vermeer later cast it in shadow, presumably so that our eyes would be led into the sunlit centre of the city, and especially towards the brilliantly lit tower.

You might wonder how this all looks today? Well, every building has more or less changed. The Oude Kerk is the same, but you can’t actually see it from this spot now (unless you were in a taller building) and although the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk looks similar, the original burnt down in 1872 and was rebuilt, taller, and more pointed, by P.J.H. Cuypers, who was coincidentally the architect of the Rijksmuseum. But if you really want to know, here is a photograph I took the last time I was there, in 2015.

One last thought. The people gathered on the quay are heading to one of the three destinations mentioned above. The boat behind them is a recently-instituted passenger ferry. The well dressed group of three would have sat in the covered cabin, whereas the more down-to-earth women, each with an apron, would have travelled in the open air.

I can’t help thinking that I recognise one of the two women on the right. She is wearing a yellow jacket and blue apron, and I think she may be heading off to buy some milk… I could, of course be wrong – but in case you don’t know what I’m referring to, well… tune in next week!

It’s taken a while to write this, and by now I’ve got back from Delft: it still looks pretty much the same. And the exhibition is superb. It is entitled Vermeer’s Delft, and I suspected that it would be more about Delft than Vermeer – but no! It is all about him – covering his life and the life of the city, the people he met and artists he would have known. There are various objects like the ones he painted, and some he might even have owned, not to mention a number of fantastic loans I was really happy to see, as well as some curios that I would never have imagined. It is also beautifully designed. As it happens, I have discussed the View of Delft without much reference to Vermeer or his techniques at all – just to the city. The exhibition has a far more balanced view, though, so I do hope you can join me on Monday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

13 thoughts on “189 – Vermeer… of Delft

  1. Thank you for this detailed description of Vermeer’s View of Delft. As a small child I had a large print of this hanging on the bedroom wall. On waking up I would look at it but hadn’t remembered the details – it must have disappeared to another part of the family since then. I will enjoy rediscovering it thanks to your article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great memory. When I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam (I didn’t go this time) I saw a painting that I didn’t know, but remembered, and it triggered a reminder of a series of reproductions on textured cardboard (presumably meant to look like brushstrokes) that we had in the family home as a child. I think they must have come as a result of collecting petrol tokens, or something like that…. It was a weird re-awakening, a reminder of art I’d seen from before what I really knew what art was!


      1. I remember those reproductions! I had forgotten there was a Vermeer, but I think one was Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the beach at Saintes Marie de Mer, and one may have been a Dufy…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating post, beautifully articulated – thank you. I’ll be joining the ARTscapades iteration of your talks next week and am looking forward to that, particularly as, as a result of my procrastination, I missed-out on securing tickets for the Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam. I’m studying art history at Oxford University’s Continuing Education Dept. and your blog/talks are a wonderful adjunct to the learning I’m attempting as part of that… Off to see the Alison Watt exhibition tomorrow which I’m looking forward to greatly…



    1. Thank you so much! I’m sorry you’ve missed out on tickets so far – but they are trying to extend opening hours, I think, so keep an eye out! I do hope you enjoy ‘A Kind of Longing’,


      1. Indeed! My parents being architects and therefore interested in visual art, we also had Van Gogh (which I now have) and Monet prints to enjoy in a limited way as children.


    1. Hi Amita – I’m sorry, I didn’t get all of your message!
      The talks are for the general public, and you can book a ticket for the first one, tomorrow (6 March) on this link:

      And for the second, Monday 13 March, on this one:

      Both talks are at 6pm GMT (current time in the UK). I’m afraid I do not record my talks.
      Hope this helps, but if you were going to ask something else, do get back in touch! Looking forward to seeing you in a week or so!
      All best wishes,


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