There’s nothing better than having some slow time on your hands. Many years ago, in late spring, with my university exams finished and the party and vacation mode not yet begun, I bought an art print that perfectly summed up my mood.
It shows a red brick house with step gables. A woman sits sewing in an open doorway while another works at a washtub in an adjoining alley. Children kneel on the street, possibly concentrating on a game of marbles. Warm light floods the scene, and everyone looks completely relaxed and comfortable; like students who don’t need to study any more, I thought at the time.
The painting is Johannes Vermeer’s The Little Street, painted in 1658 in Delft. Having a spare day in Holland, I thought I’d pay that town a visit. Everywhere in the Netherlands is close to everywhere else, and Delft is less than an hour south of Amsterdam.
When my train rolled into Delft, I felt an initial twinge of disappointment; the modern buildings across from the station were nothing like those in Vermeer’s painting. The church tower leaning over the top of them promised better things.
I cut through an alley to a canal called Oude (Old) Delft. This was more like it – rows of little terrace houses with Dutch gables and white bridges arching over the water. Even the glass-topped tourist boat was moving noticeably slower than those in Amsterdam do, inching its way down the narrow canal, either to avoid scraping paint off on the walls or maybe to make the tour of the little town last longer and give the customers better value for money.
The leaning tower turned out to be the spire of the Old Church, where Vermeer now lies buried, and it’s been developing that tilt for nearly 800 years.
The square between the beautiful shuttered town hall and the New Church (well, it was new in the 14th century and people felt the name was catchy) was closed to through traffic because it was market day. Stalls were selling herrings, huge round cheeses and fresh vegetables. Banter was exchanged. Church bells rang.
I could imagine I was stepping back into Holland’s Golden Age of the 17th century, when Delft was a prosperous town of potters, brewers and weavers, and HQ of the Dutch West Indies Company. At least until I noticed that the carillon tinkling from the church tower was playing My Way.
Shops lining the square were unashamed tourist traps, selling fluffy clog-shaped slippers and Delft blue pottery. ‘Bill Clinton ate poffertjes here,’ announced the sign on a cafe, referring to the popular Dutch pastries. A little further along were workshops where I could watch through the windows to where genuine Delft women were hand-painting 100% authentic traditional tiles and vases.
Delft itself has no original Vermeer paintings; they’re all in larger towns, where larger galleries have bigger budgets, but a new Vermeer Centre has opened on the Voldersgracht, the canal thought to have been the inspiration for The Little Street. I was the only visitor until a small tour group joined me.
Inside were annotated prints of all 37 Vermeer works. They include two cityscapes and a couple of early classical scenes, while nearly all the others are quiet domestic interiors, with sun filtering in from the left of the frame, through the same leadlight window. Vermeer’s themes are peace, quiet and a celebration of ordinary activities – writing, reading, making music and doing household chores.
Little is known of Vermeer’s private life, though we do know he was active in the arts community of Delft, as a member of the artists’ Guild of St Luke. He died aged just 43, and his output was relatively small. He’d only turned out two or three paintings a year, so he can’t have been rushing. You’d imagine he must have enjoyed a leisurely existence, but maybe he didn’t. He had fourteen children, always struggled for money and lived at his mother-in-law’s, so perhaps life at the Vermeer house wasn’t quite as laid-back as his work suggests.
Moreover, that quiet little street is probably a fantasy scene. Shortly before it was painted, a quarter of Delft and many of its citizens were destroyed when the gunpowder magazine exploded. Vermeer’s images of peace and quiet may well be a result of wishful thinking.
Upstairs in the Vermeer Centre, I learned how he mixed his paint, adding sand grains to the red he used to portray masonry, thus creating the effect known as ‘brick Vermeer’. Sorry.
There was an explanation of the double perspective in his characteristic chessboard-tiled floors. A slightly embarrassed volunteer from the tour group sat at the table by a reproduction of Vermeer’s leadlight window so a guide could explain to us the play of light and shadow, and we examined a camera obscura.
Outside, armed with a small map from the tourist office, I took a Delft walking tour with a Vermeer theme – a pleasant short amble, though there’s little left of the town Vermeer knew, other than those two churches. The city wall and gates he depicted have been demolished, as has the house where he lived. A rather nondescript church stands on that corner now.
There was still time left in the day to see the real paintings. There was no rush. I knew there were Vermeers in The Hague, just a fifteen-minute train ride away.
The Mauritshuis in The Hague is the most beautiful art museum in the Netherlands, according to many, and they’ll get no argument from me. It’s small; a former nobleman’s residence, with polished wood staircases and intimate rooms lined with deep green or red wallpaper.
It holds some of the greatest treasures from Holland’s Golden Age, including two Rembrandt self-portraits and his famous anatomy lesson. I’m afraid I walked past them and went straight to Floor 2, Room 15.
There was Vermeer’s brilliant View of Delft. Two women chat in the foreground as a cloud shades the buildings across the harbour, leaving those behind them in the light of the low sun. As a fully-fledged expert I could now admire the technique at close quarters – thick grainy paint for the bricks, contrasting with the almost translucent reflections on the water.
On the opposite wall was a small painting, bought in 1881 for 2.30 guilders. Even allowing for 128 years of inflation it was still a bargain price for ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’. Vermeer’s work, only moderately successful in his lifetime, had fallen into obscurity, valued only by a few connoisseurs, until in the nineteenth century he was rediscovered by German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen and French art critic Theophile Thore-Burger.
I had the girl all to myself and, at the risk of cheapening great art with popular language, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. The painting is so simple yet powerful, the world-famous pearl rendered by just two brushstrokes in a dark shadow.
It was disappointing to learn that the girl herself is likely to have been invented, because she’s someone you want to know more about. Small wonder that Tracy Chevalier’s novel about her was so popular. I understand too that the evocative film version of the story, starring Scarlett Johannsen and Colin Firth, was largely shot not in Delft, but in Luxembourg.
Finally, back in Amsterdam I dropped into the Rijksmuseum, to take another look at The Little Street. It hangs beside his lovely Kitchen Maid (the girl in yellow pouring milk), and is surrounded by work of his contemporaries, notably Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen. Steen is famous for crowded scenes of raucous activity, but de Hooch, like Vermeer, specialised in quiet interiors.
That’s a pity for de Hooch. His work is fine, but it’s unfair to hang it on the same continent as a Vermeer, let alone on the same wall. It just seems flat when compared to the master’s magic.
Vermeer’s amazing handing of light does the trick, conjuring up watery sun and still air, and capturing forever those wonderful moments of precious slow time.
Getting there: Return train ticket Amsterdam-Delft via The Hague is EUR19.30.
Entry ticket for both Old and New Churches in Delft costs EUR3.20.
Vermeer Centre entry is EUR6.
Mauritshuis entry is EUR9.50, including audio guide.
Rijskmuseum Amsterdam entry is EUR10.
Tip: A museumkaart (museum card) costs EUR40 and gives free entry to most Dutch museums, including the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum, and discounts to others including the Vermeer Centre. It can be bought at larger museums and is valid for a year
First published -Sun-Herald, Sydney