Avoiding the oncoming bikes, I climb a low mound a few feet above water level and look across the city. It’s a clear evening: the sky holds a delicate tang of orange that rises, becoming royal blue, then indigo. before me is a pier where a few boats are moored; beyond that, an expanse of water, and then the city itself, a smudge of bare trees, steep peaks and church spires. It’s fun, but hardly dramatic, and yet I think this attitude has changed the way my brain is wired. Around 1660 an artist came down here and painted what he saw. Johannes Vermeer was not a famous man then, nor would he be for more than 200 years, but that painting, View of Delft, would be pivotal in the history of art.
Delft is a small Dutch city of about 100,000 people, just 40 miles southwest of Amsterdam. Carved out of low-lying land in the 13th century, it then grew into a center of printing, pottery and, by the early 17th century, fine art. Perhaps it was the light that inspired the painters: those great northern skies reflected in the canals and the contrasting gloomy interior filled with men in black hats and women with enigmatic white faces.
I cross a bridge and enter the old town, a maze of narrow canals and arching metal bridges that thunder under the tires of cargo bikes. Lights are on in the old wood paneled bars where office workers are building borrel, a Dutch after-work tradition of beer and snacks. The shops and restaurants here lie within the dimensions of 17th century houses and all seem to be named after what they sell – I love the directness – guess what Bloemen, Voetbal and Hummus can offer. In the center of town, in the market, they are setting up stalls for tomorrow’s market. On one side is the site where Vermeer’s family home once stood. Nearby is the goild hall where the artist was in charge for a few years (now a center dedicated to the man and his work).
Vermeer lived in reasonable comfort, died in poverty in 1675, and a century later was almost completely forgotten
Not much is known about Vermeer’s artistic life. You could write all the important facts on the back of a lace collar. No one knows, for example, who taught him to paint, or how many canvases he produced. No sketches, letters or diaries survive. We know that he lived in reasonable comfort, died in poverty in 1675, and a century later was almost completely forgotten.
Art shows are a huge draw these days. Along with fixtures like the Biennale and Frieze, you have epic one-off moments in your life. One of those will be Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (an hour by train from Delft). Opened last week and running until June 4, this is the first time ever that 28 of the man’s 37 known works are in one place. Even Vermeer himself probably never had that pleasure. And the show itself is a stunner – book now as it will sell out soon. But for me, it’s the backstory in the surrounding area that makes it so compelling.
In the old fourth city of Delft, highlights from Vermeer’s life are clustered around the market. Behind his grave inside the Oude Kerk (Old Church) is the Prinsenhof Delft Museum, the perfect hors d’oeuvre to a visit to the Rijksmuseum with an exhibition that sheds light on where this great artist came from. And it was a turbulent life of wonder and disaster. On the stairs inside the museum there are two bullet holes. In 1584 this was the scene where an assassin sent by Spain to assassinate the head of state of the Netherlands, William the Silent (the first ever political assassination of a leader of a nation by firearm).
I could stroll these streets for days and never get tired but I cross over to The Hague and find more traces of Vermeer
Elsewhere there is a picture showing the devastating gunpowder explosion that destroyed the entire suburb of Delft in 1654, killing over 100 people, including one young artist in his studio, a man who might be able to explain where his contemporary, Johannes Vermeer, that. sublime painting style. When the rescuers came stumbling through the ruins, they found Carel Fabritius dying in his ruined studio. Any paperwork that could prove what many suspected was Vermeer’s tutor was destroyed. Next to him was an oil painting of a small bird attached to a tin box. Someone had the good sense to take it.
In those exciting times, the new Dutch Republic was bringing a new, absurd aesthetic to life that was colorful and had a Catholic flavor. Walking into the magnificent Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft where Vermeer was baptized and William the Silent was buried, you see a starkness all around. In the sculpture of the 16th century, the ornate decorations were stripped back to accommodate new religious views and some artists adopted a common folk aesthetic. At the inn called The Flying Fox (now a private house), down on Voldersgracht, Vermeer was probably pushing for all this change. His father was an art dealer and curator – we know that. We also know where Johannes painted: his studio would have overlooked one of those narrow streets with a canal. These days he would be looking at signs for a fish and chip restaurant. At sunset it may have hit and gone borrel nearby, ordering some bitter poetdeep-fried meatballs, or castlesdeep fried cheese.
A Hague collector bought Girl with a Pearl Earring for two guilders in 1881
I could stroll these streets for days and never get tired, but I want to cross over to The Hague and find more traces of Vermeer. (There are trains and trams for a six-mile trip.) The Mauritshuis museum is in the heart of the Dutch government, right next to their prime minister’s office, a few minutes away from the grave of another great philosopher, Spinoza. . The collection was opened in 1822, soon after the addition of a painting entitled View of Delft, largely because of its local interest – 17th century city landscapes were rare. Twenty years later, a young Frenchman called Théophile Thoré came to visit. He was a radical, exiled for his political views, a self-confessed Bohemian whose ambition was to change public taste.
Thoré came to the Mauritshuis for the Rembrandts, but he liked that View of Delft painting and began an obsessive search to find its forgotten creator, scouring the area and buying works for what he called his private collection. a-brac, rarely. spending more than a few guilders. I wonder what possessed him so powerfully. Was there something bohemian in the combination of the austere and luxurious: bare walls and oriental carpets? Or was it the often seductive look of Vermeer’s people, drawing the viewer into deeply personal moments.
In a collector’s attic, Thoré found a beautiful small portrait of a bird attached to a tin box against a luminous wall painted with a delicate brushwork that reminded him of “Van der Meer”. It was your favorite possession. These days a small obscure painting is in the collection of the Mauritsuis. The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius was later made famous by Donna Tartt’s novel and the film starring Nicole Kidman, but it was Thoré who succeeded and drove it from a selling image to a valuable masterpiece. “When we restored it,” says Mauritshuis senior curator Quentin Buvelot, “we found a small indentation, probably from the debris of the gunpowder explosion in 1654.”
With Vermeer, Thoré excelled, buying several works and praising their talents. Vermeer’s genius was soon recognized by others as well. The Hague collector Andries des Tombe bought Girl with a Pearl Earring for two professors in 1881, which was then donated to the Mauritsuis. (It will be back from the Rijksmuseum on April 1 and in the meantime there is an entertaining show of alternative versions of the painting sent in by the public.) Like The Goldfinch, its reputation was polished by a novel, then a film.
Back in Delft, I walk along the Wateringsevest canal that separates the old and the new, a modern high-tech city full of glass and chrome. What would Vermeer make of that aesthetic? It’s incredible that his “introverted, relaxed world”, as Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits says, is still such a powerful force.
At night when the lights come on inside the buildings, your eye is drawn to the small vignettes of life
Turning down a narrow path, I pass graffiti that nods to Vermeer’s heritage, which then emerges in the network of old canals and streets. At night when the lights come on inside the buildings, your eye is drawn to the small vignettes of life: the flower stems blooming, the baker covering the leftovers, and the animated faces of friends shining. borrel together – fleeting images that Vermeer would have recognised. I check the map: there’s a brewery called – you guessed it – Brouwhuis, and I’m told they make beer and castles, so that’s where I’m going.
Kevin Rushby was a guest of the Netherlands Tourism Board. The Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum runs until June 4. Additional tickets for late openings should be available soon. Delft Vermeer at the Prinsenhof Museum Delft also runs to June 4. Tickets available. The installation My Girl with Pearl runs at the Mauritsuis to June 4. Vermeer on Girl with Pearl Earring back then on 1 April