The Little Street (Around 1658) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
We see two 16th-century houses on a cobblestone street.
The houses are linked by a wall, with two gateways providing access to two courtyards behind.
The few figures in the painting are fully absorbed in what they are doing.
The scene exudes a sense of calm and serenity. While cityscapes were popular in 17th-century Dutch art, The Little Street is unusual: instead of a wide panorama, we only see the facades of two simple houses, without any noteworthy activities or events. The work offers a tranquil glimpse into the beauty of daily life in 17th-century Delft. The Little Street is unique in its simplicity.
Vermeer excelled at painting materials, and the various textures in this painting are remarkably realistic and detailed.
Instead of precisely outlining each brick, Vermeer painted the visual effect of sunlight hitting the weathered wall.
On top of a reddish-brown layer of paint, he used irregular strokes of various shades of red and brown to bring the brickwork to life, and added grey and white brushstrokes for the cement.
Vermeer’s loose, fluid brushwork resulted in a highly realistic pattern of bricks.
Delft symbol on the gate
The Delft city colours – black and white – are still vaguely visible in an hourglass motif on the closed gate. Two diagonal lines cross in the middle of the gate.
Vermeer probably deliberately gave this gate it’s weathered look: it matches the other sections of the facades that have also been exposed to all kinds of weather.
Vermeer originally painted a woman sitting down next to the doorpost of the right-hand gateway. Her shape is still visible with the naked eye.
Vermeer removed her from the composition at a later stage, probably to add to the sense of depth.
Children at play
Vermeer fathered a large family – he had 11 children! – but children rarely feature in his paintings. In fact, the children playing in The Little Street are the only children in any of his known works.
As The Little Street appears to depict an actual place, many attempts were made to discover the location over the years. None of the suggestions held out, until art historian Frans Grijzenhout put forward a new theory in 2015. Owners of canal-side houses paid tax for the upkeep of the quayside, with the amount of tax being determined by the width of the houses and doorways. The meticulously-kept quay register reveals only one place where two gateways can be found next to each other, as shown in the painting: Vlamingstraat 40-42. Vermeer’s aunt, Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, lived at number 42 from approximately 1645 to 1670. It’s therefore very likely that Vermeer knew the building well. The houses were replaced in the 19th century; only the right-hand gateway now remains.
If we assume that the painting indeed shows Vlamingstraat 40-42, it is tempting to identify the woman doing needlework in the doorway as Vermeer’s aunt Ariaentgen...
... the woman in the alleyway as one of her unmarried daughters who lived with her...
... and the children playing on the pavement as her grandchildren, whom she cared for from 1663 onwards.
However, we need to be cautious with such assumptions: none of the figures are clearly recognisable, and the painting is usually dated slightly earlier: about 1658. It would appear that Vermeer deliberately chose not to depict specific people, but rather a timeless portrayal of daily life.
Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, who lived at Vlamingstraat 40-42 for many years, provided for herself and her children by selling tripe. The gateway next to their house was still known as the Penspoort (‘Tripe gateway’) into the 19th century. Consequently, it is possible that this is the gateway that Vermeer depicted in this painting.
In the alleyway, we see a simply-dressed woman bent over a cask, busy with the household chores.
The Little Street has also been interpreted as a representation of virtuousness and domesticity. Vines have been symbolic of love and fidelity since ancient times, and in this case, the vines above the windows of the left-hand house could symbolise the women’s absolute devotion to caring for the house and the children. However, there may have simply been vines growing up the front of the house. Vermeer’s paintings often appear to show us slices of daily life, whilst they are in fact carefully-constructed scenes, in which the distinction between reality and symbolism is sometimes blurred.
An auction catalogue from 1696 reveals that The Little House is one of at least three cityscapes by Vermeer. The second is View of Delft, while the third is now unknown. View of Delft is a different type of cityscape to The Little House, being a panorama of the city viewed from afar. A similarity can be found in the many facades positioned behind or next to each other – it’s not impossible that The Little House features somewhere in View of Delft.
Vermeer has signed the work with ‘I VMeer’ on the wall underneath the windows of the left-hand house. The I stands for his first name, Johannes, and the letters V and M are joined together.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.