We really know very little about Johannes Vermeer, which explains why he is also sometimes referred to as the Sphinx of Delft. But we do know some details about his life: that he was born in Delft, for example, and that he lived there all his life.
Here we look from the south over the water of the Kolk towards Delft, Vermeer’s hometown. View of Delft is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. But Vermeer’s depiction of the city is topographically inaccurate: for the sake of the composition, he manipulated reality in places. All the same, it is as if we have travelled 350 years back in time and are looking at Delft from a top-floor window of a house on the Kolk.
This is the Rotterdam Gate, an old mediaeval city gate. Anyone entering the city here had to first cross a drawbridge before arriving at the front part of the building with the two pointed towers. Behind this lay a narrow passageway that led to the main gate, the section of the building to the left. Vermeer painted the walls with light dabs of paint to give the brickwork its timeworn appearance.
Delft had two gates on its south side. This is the Schiedam Gate. It originally had a front section, but this was pulled down around 1600.
The clock on the roof gave the Schiedam Gate its slim silhouette.
In front of the gate lie a couple of sailing boats, which were used to transport goods around the inland waterways.
Vermeer painted the white, lowered sail with a generously laden brush.
Anyone wanting to travel in comfort in Holland took the passenger barge, a shallow barge pulled by a horse. Here some travellers stand on the quayside waiting to board one of the regular services to Rotterdam, Schiedam or Delfshaven.
People are of secondary importance in Vermeer’s cityscape. It is precisely because the people are missing that this busy trading town seems so quiet. Even these two women seem to be making barely a sound.
Originally there was a man to the right of the women, but Vermeer painted him out.
Vermeer was continually striving for the best way to depict something. Sometimes he painted very thickly, other times with only very thin layers. He painted the black boats – herring busses – with thick dabs of paint to suggest the shimmering light on the water reflecting on their sides. For the water itself Vermeer used very thin layers of oil paint that blend seamlessly into each other. This creates the impression that the water is almost transparent.
The edge of the city with its old gates and walls lies completely in shadow. But Vermeer tempts us further into the centre, guiding his viewers over the bridge, towards the city centre that lies bathed in sunshine.
By painting the light in the distance rather than the foreground, Vermeer was able to create depth in his cityscape.
The most important building in Delft was the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), which contained the tomb of William of Orange, the Father of the Fatherland. So it comes as no surprise that Vermeer has bathed the church’s spire in full sunshine. In reality, however, the spire was a little more to the right – Vermeer has shifted it towards the centre.
Vermeer painted the side of the spire bathed in sunlight in a creamy layer of yellow paint.
The cloudy sky is visible through the open belfry windows – there are no bells hanging in the tower. These were hung by the Amsterdam bell founder Hemony between May 1660 and the autumn of 1661, exactly the period when Vermeer was painting his cityscape.
Vermeer’s cityscape looks completely lifelike. But in fact he manipulated reality and adapted all sorts of elements in the city to suit his needs. An example is the reflection of the Rotterdam Gate.
Originally he painted the reflection much shorter, as it would have been in reality. He later stretched the reflection, visually anchoring the edge of the city on the lower edge of the painting.
Vermeer signed his work with his initials VM. Here they appear on the side of the passenger barge.
View of Delft by Vermeer, JohannesMauritshuis
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.