It’s one of my favourite paintings. A view of ordinary houses in an ordinary street, the weathered brickwork, window leads and wooden shutters finely detailed, and a few incidental details of everyday life – two children at play, a woman sewing in a doorway, while another is glimpsed in a side passage reaching into a barrel.
In Amsterdam on my way back from the Bosch exhibition in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last month, losing my way in the Rijksmuseum, I chanced upon it in a distant side-room where it was the centrepiece of a small but fascinating exhibit: Vermeer’s Little Street Discovered!
Vermeer’s Little Street was painted around 1660 and is an unusual painting in his oeuvre, which otherwise consists mainly of portraits of women in quiet interior scenes. This is a portrait of ordinary houses, and like the paintings of his contemporary Pieter de Hooch, it has determined our idea of what a Dutch street looks like. Coming straight from the medieval streets and alleyways of old ‘s-Hertogenbosch, I felt an instant recognition of something familiar.
The painting is primarily a study of surfaces and street furniture: the bricks, whitewash, and cracks of the houses (perhaps due to the explosion that ripped apart the heart of Delft in 1654) are almost tangible as in a modern photograph. Pride of place in this intrinsically democratic painting is not given to an elegant canal or a stately mansion but instead the old, weathered homes of ordinary burghers.
The question which has puzzled historians for centuries is: did Vermeer make up this place or – much more likely – did he really see and know it? And if The Little Street portrays a real house in Delft, where was it located? The actual address of the premises depicted by Vermeer has been investigated for a long time, but no convincing answer found.
But, as this mini-exhibition in the Rijksmuseum explained, new research by Frans Grijzenhout, Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam, has discovered that the buildings in The Little Street were in fact situated on the Vlamingstraat in Delft, a place that held special and personal meaning for the artist at the time.
The exhibition presents the key arguments that Grijzenhout puts forward to support his identification, and compares the Vlamingstraat portrayed by Vermeer with the street as it is today . Other paintings show how Vermeer’s contemporaries depicted the city of Delft, sometimes combining reality and fantasy.
Vermeer’s painting features parts of two façades: one of an old-fashioned building at the right and the other of a house at the left. The two narrow passageways between them lead to densely packed courtyards, houses, and gardens at the back. While 17th-century Delft teemed with gates such as the ones represented here, they were never located right next to one another.
But a 1667 tax register revealed that this unique situation occurred only on the Vlamingstraat, a narrow canal in the eastern, less affluent, part of Delft. Professor Grijzenhout found the answer in ledgers of levies raised to pay for dredging canals and maintaining their quays and surrounding alleyways. These waterways were essential for transport and drainage across the Netherlands at the time, and so records were kept meticulously, with the width of people’s homes listed precisely as that was the basis for the sums charged. In one tax record from 1667, he came across the description of a house on what is now Vlamingstraat in Delft – a house where numbers 40 and 42 now stand.
Research into several other sources confirmed that the location and measurements of the front houses and back houses, the gates, and everything behind them match up exactly with The Little Street. Moreover, Vermeer was well acquainted with the occupant of the house at the right. His aunt, the widow Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, lived there from around 1645 to 1670. So for him, The Little Street represented not simply a visually charming setting, but also evoked personal memories.
Documents revealed that Vermeer’s aunt, who owned the house on the right, made her living by selling tripe in the meat market in the town centre, and that this gate was known as the ‘tripe gate’ – probably because she kept and prepared the intestines there.
Another key fact is that Vermeer’s older sister Geertruyt lived across the canal on the other side of the street, and their mother lived there too during the last months of her life. And indeed, Vermeer views the scene from that side of the canal.
This was a somewhat poorer part of town in those days, and Professor Grijzenhout’s conclusion is that Vermeer’s painting records a way of life that the painter had left behind when he married Catharina Bolnes, the daughter of Maria Thins, who came from a well-off patrician family in Gouda, and Reynier Bolnes, a prosperous brick-maker.
Professor Grijzenhout explains why the discovery of the location of the Little Street is so significant:
It is important because Vermeer has remained a kind of mystery, and we haven’t really got to grips with his oeuvre. This is the first time we can really connect a work of art that is definitely by his hand to personal history and his biography. It gives a better insight into his brilliant technical ability as a painter, and his concept of what was worthwhile painting.
Alongside Vermeer’s original, the Rijksmuseum has displayed a photograph of that corner of the Vlamingstraat today. The houses now on the site were built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The only aspect that can still be recognized as it appears in The Little Street is the gate and passageway on the right.
There are some thirty-five surviving paintings by Vermeer, among them just two townscapes. One is View of Houses in Delft, the earliest known name of The Little Street, in the Rijksmuseum, the other is View of Delft in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, painted at a time when cityscapes were not commonplace.
Alongside Vermeer’s painting, the curators have displayed relevant documents and other views of Delft made at the time. One of them is A View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, one of a number of such views painted immediately after the devastating destruction caused by a gunpowder store accidentally blowing up by Egbert van der Poel. I remembered see one like it in the National Gallery a few years ago in an exhibition called Vermeer and Music.
Another view of Delft we saw that day – but not in the Rijksmuseum display – was View of Delft with Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, painted in 1652 by Carel Fabritius, Vermeer’s colleague and Rembrandt’s most talented pupil, who lost his life in the explosion.
Elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum there are many more paintings of Dutch interiors and street scenes. Woman with a Child in a Pantry, by Pieter de Hooch, was painted between 1656 and 1660. Pieter de Hooch worked in Delft for few years at the same time as Johannes Vermeer, and both artists were fascinated by how to render light and space. In this picture, De Hooch represented a space by means of two ‘through-views’ (glimpses through doorways or windows that he specialised in): one into the staircase, the other into the entrance hall. He depicted the daylight with pure white paint to create the perfect illusion of an interior space.
While he was in Delft, de Hooch turned to a new subject: brightly lit figures in a back garden. The people depicted in Figures in a Courtyard behind a House look like they might have been more at home in one of his interiors. A galant (or suitor) gazes flirtatiously at the girl squeezing the juice of a lemon into her glass: did that image carry the same freight of sexual innuendo then as it did some 250 years later in American blues?
Another of de Hooch’s ‘through-views, A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair (sometimes known as A Mother’s Duty), portrays a mother carefully inspecting her child’s head for lice.
The figures are situated in a sober Dutch interior, with Delft blue tiles and a box bed. In the right foreground is a kakstoel or potty chair. Through the doorway is a glimpse of a sunny back room and garden.
We are, perhaps, in the more elegant front part of such a house in Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House. The door and window of this entrance hall in an Amsterdam canal house are wide open. Daylight falls on a young woman receiving a letter.
Again, Pieter de Hooch links the interior with the exterior. Our gaze moves past the little dog to the canal, on the opposite side of which two men converse and a woman at a window looks towards us. The gateway seen through the right window affords another, even more distant, external view.
A painting and artist with which I was not familiar was The Tailor’s Workshop, done by Quiringh Gerrltsz van Brekelenkam in 1661. Tourists visiting the Netherlands during the 17th century marvelled at the many paintings hanging in the homes of even the humblest of craftsmen, such as the tailor Quiringh van Brekelenkam depicts here in his workshop, at work with two apprentices seated on a kind of raised platform. Hanging above them is a contemporary landscape in a black frame.
Besides The Little Street, there are three other paintings by Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum collection: The Milkmaid, Woman Reading a Letter, and The Love Letter. I remember, with our 12-year old daughter, peering round shoulders and over heads at these paintings in the supershow that brought together 21 of the world’s 36 known Vermeers at the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1996. So many Vermeers had not been seen together since a sale in 1696, three hundred years earlier. Ever since, reproductions of three of the paintings we saw in that crowded exhibition have hung on our walls at home: The Milkmaid, Woman Reading a Letter, and View of Delft.
In The Milkmaid, a maidservant pours milk, entirely absorbed in her work. Except for the stream of milk, everything else is still. Vermeer took this simple everyday activity and made it the subject of a great painting.
The ‘milkmaid’ is actually a kitchen maid pouring milk. It was not unusual for such domestic chores to be praised in Dutch literature and pictures of the period. Experts have suggested that Vermeer’s kitchen maid is making bread porridge, which puts stale bread to good use by combining it with milk and a few other ingredients to make a filling mash or meal. There is certainly plenty of bread on the table.
But there they may be more going on here than a simple depiction of a quotidian chore. Like milkmaids and kitchen maids in much Netherlandish art (and other young women in Vermeer’s work) his kitchen maid was perhaps meant to encourage the male viewer’s amorous musings, and to have her own thoughts of romance – as this essay suggests.
The woman stands like a statue in the brightly lit room: the light that plays over the surface of objects in the room is depicted by Vermeer in hundreds of colourful dots.
In The Love Letter, Vermeer has chosen an unusual vantage point in the foreground – a darkened alcove or anteroom – for his glimpse of another room with its domestic scene. An elegantly dressed woman looks up with a questioning expression at her maidservant, who has just handed her a letter. The seascape on the wall would be a 17th century allusion to the letter’s subject, when the sea was often compared to love, and the lover to a ship.
Another woman, another letter: Woman Reading a Letter is one of Vermeer’s best-known paintings. Every element in it contributes to the reflective mood of the female subject at its centre. Standing motionless at a table before an unseen window, a young woman intently reads a letter, possibly a message from a lover. She is still wearing her blue night jacket. All of the colours in the composition are secondary to its radiant lapis lazuli blue.
The significance of the woman’s rounded silhouette has prompted suggestions that she is pregnant, though that would have been a very unlikely subject for the period. Others point to paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries in which this conical shape, very fashionable in the mid-1660s, was achieved by wearing a flared jacket over a thick skirt turned over at the waist.
The painting is just one brilliant example of how Vermeer recorded the effects of light – in this instance, the morning light – with extraordinary precision.
- The Address of Vermeer’s Little Street: Google Art Project (brilliant!)
- Johannes Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum: study the four paintings in the collection in close up
- The Goldfinch: ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle: Carel Fabritius and the Delft explosion