Discover Vermeer and his hometown

I dodge the oncoming bikes, climb a low hill a few feet above the water level and look at the city. It’s a clear evening: on the horizon hangs a delicate touch of orange that rises, fades to royal blue and then indigo. In front of me is a quay where a few boats are moored; beyond it a expanse of water and then the city itself, a patch of bare trees, steep gables and church towers. It’s pleasant, but hardly dramatic, and yet I think this viewing 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 and he would not be for the next 200 years, but that photo, View of Delft, would prove to be crucial in art history.

Delft is a small Dutch city with about 100,000 inhabitants, just 65 kilometers southwest of Amsterdam. Carved out of lowland land in the 13th century, it subsequently grew into a center for printing, pottery and, by the early 17th century, fine arts. Perhaps it was the light that inspired the painters: those great northern skies reflected in the canals and the contrasting shaded interiors filled with men in black hats and women with pale, enigmatic faces.

I cross a bridge and enter the old town, a maze of narrow canals and arched metal bridges that rumble under the tires of cargo bikes. Lights are on in the old wood paneled bars where office workers go bubbling, a Dutch tradition of beer and snacks after work. The shops and restaurants here all fit within the dimensions of the 17th century houses and all seem to be named after what they sell – I like the directness – guess what Flowers, Football and Hummus have to offer. In the center of the city, on the market, they set up stalls for tomorrow’s market. On one side is the site where Vermeer’s family home once stood. Nearby is the guildhall where the artist was in charge for several years (now a center dedicated to the man and his work).

Vermeer lived in reasonable comfort, died in poverty in 1675 and was almost completely forgotten a century later

Not much is known about Vermeer’s artistic life. You could write down all the important facts on the back of a lace collar. For example, no one knows who taught him to paint, or how many canvases he actually made. No sketches, letters or diaries survive. We know that he lived quite comfortably, died in poverty in 1675 and was almost completely forgotten a century later.

Art shows are a big draw these days. In addition to programs such as the Biennale and Frieze, you have the epic one-off moments in your life. Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (an hour by train from Delft) will be one such. Opened last week and running until June 4, it’s 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 – book now as it will sell out soon – is a blast. But for me, it’s the backstory in the setting that makes it compelling.

In the old city district of Delft, the cardinal points of Vermeer’s life are clustered around the market square. Behind his grave in the Oude Kerk lies Museum Prinsenhof Delft, the perfect starter for a visit to the Rijksmuseum with an exhibition that sheds light on the place where this phenomenal artist originated. And what a tumultuous world of wonders and disasters it was. There are two bullet holes on the stairs in the museum. In 1584, this was where a Spanish-sent assassin assassinated Dutch head of state Willem de Zwijger (the first-ever political assassination of a nation leader by gun).

I could stroll these streets for days and never get tired, but I’ll go to The Hague and find more traces of Vermeer

Elsewhere is a painting showing the devastating gunpowder explosion that destroyed an entire Delft suburb in 1654, killing more than 100 people, including a young artist in his studio, a man who might have been able to explain where his contemporary , Johannes Vermeer, who had a sublime painting style. When rescuers came stumbling through the ruins, they found Carel Fabritius dying in the ruins of his studio. All paperwork that could have proved what many suspect, that he was Vermeer’s teacher, was destroyed. Beside him was an oil painting of a small bird chained to a tin box. Someone was wise enough to take it.

In those turbulent times, the richly allegorical, colorfully decorated world of Catholic taste was challenged by a new austere aesthetic that the new Dutch Republic could call its own. When you walk into the magnificent Nieuwe Kerk in Delft where Vermeer was baptized and Willem de Zwijger was buried, you see grimness all around. During the iconoclasm of the 16th century, the ornate decorations were dropped to suit new religious attitudes and a few artists embraced a cool, simple aesthetic populated by commoners. In the inn called The Flying Fox (now a private house), on the Voldersgracht, Vermeer presumably absorbed all this change. His father was an art dealer and innkeeper, we know that. We also know where Johannes painted: his studio would have looked out on one of those narrow streets with a canal. These days he would be looking at signs for a fish and chips restaurant. At sundown he would have turned off and set out bubbling nearby, order some bitterballenfried meatballs, or cheese sticksfried cheese.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was bought in 1881 for two guilders by a collector from The Hague

I could stroll through these streets for days and never get tired, but I want to go to The Hague to find more traces of Vermeer. (There are trains and trams for a journey of about six miles.) The Mauritshuis museum is in the heart of the Dutch government, right next to their prime minister’s office, a few minutes’ walk from the tomb of another great philosopher, Spinoza . The collection opened in 1822, shortly after a painting titled View of Delft was added, largely because of its local importance – 17th century townscapes were rare. Twenty years later, a young Frenchman named Théophile Thoré came to visit. He was a radical, ostracized for his political views, a self-proclaimed bohemian whose ambition was to change public tastes.

Thoré had come to the Mauritshuis for the Rembrandts, but he loved that painting View of Delft and began an obsessive search for the forgotten maker, scouring the area and buying works for what he called his collection of trinkets, rarely more than a few spend guilders. I wonder what it was that gripped him so powerfully. Was there something bohemian in the mix of austere and luxurious: bare walls and oriental rugs? Or was it the captivating look that Vermeer’s subjects often have, which drags the viewer into intensely personal moments.

In the attic of a fellow collector, Thoré found a beautiful portrait of a bird chained to a tin box against a luminous wall painted with fine brushstrokes that reminded him of “Van der Meer”. It became his favorite possession. Today that obscure painting is a treasure of the Mauritshuis. Carel Fabritius’ goldfinch later became famous through Donna Tartt’s novel and the movie starring Nicole Kidman, but it was Thoré who saved it and propelled it from a flea market statue to a cherished masterpiece. “When we restored it,” says Quentin Buvelot, chief curator of the Mauritshuis, “we found tiny indentations, probably from the debris of the gunpowder explosion in 1654.”

With Vermeer, Thoré surpassed himself by purchasing several works and extolling their virtues. Others soon understood Vermeer’s genius, too. The Girl with a Pearl Earring was bought in 1881 for two guilders by the Hague collector Andries des Tombe and then bequeathed to the Mauritshuis. (It returns from the Rijksmuseum on April 1, and in the meantime there’s an entertaining show of alternative versions of the painting submitted by the public.) Like The Goldfinch, its reputation was polished by a novel and then a film.

Back in Delft I walk along the Wateringsevest that separates old from new, a hi-tech modern city full of glass and chrome. What would Vermeer think of that aesthetic? It seems unbelievable that his ‘introverted, quiet world’, as Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits calls it, is still such a powerful force.

At night, when the lights come on in the buildings, your eye is drawn to life’s little vignettes

I turn into a narrow alley, pass a graffiti that nods to Vermeer’s heritage, and then emerge into the network of old canals and streets. When the lights come on in the buildings at night, your eye is drawn to the small scenes of life: the florist pruning the stems, the baker covering the leftover loaves and the animated faces of friends enjoying themselves. bubbling together – fleeting images that Vermeer would recognise. I look at the map: there’s a brewery called – you guessed it – Brouwhuis, and I’m told they have excellent beer and cheese sticks, so that’s where I go.

Kevin Rushby was a guest at the Dutch Tourism Board. The Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum runs until June 4. Additional late opening tickets should be available soon. Vermeer’s Delft at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft also runs to June 4. Maps available. The installation My girl with a pearl runs at the Mauritshuis until June 4. from Vermeer woman with a pearl earring returns to that April 1st

Leave a Comment