One wanders from the station through the old town of Delft past churches along canals.
The Vermeer Centre is housed in a building that was the place where the painter’s guild Vermeer headed was based. There is of course a shop selling the predictable bric a brac as well as books.
I hire an audio-guide and wander downstairs, admiring a large reproduction of “View of Delft” on the way. The view is barely unrecognisable now, much having changed since the 17th century when Delft was considered one of the most beautiful townscapes of its time.
On entering the basement level, there is a short video playing on a loupe, Dutch and English. It recreates the historical setting, what the town looked like then and the influence of the Dutch East Indian Company. It also recounts the fatal explosion of 1654.
Vermeer’s first three paintings were biblically and mythologically inspired. Caravaggio can be seen as an influence but it is not known who his teachers actually were. Leonaert Bramer is one suggestion. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer and weaver. There were many talented artists living and working in the city. Copying or being directly inspired by other artists was a recognised practice.
Although the paintings are only reproductions, one can see details I had not noticed before such as in “A girl reading a letter by an open window” in which her face is reflected in the window giving a different albeit vague view of her face. In “woman holding a balance” it can be seen that the woman is pregnant, a taboo subject at that time.
The Little Street is full of detail and the commentary argues against the likelihood of camera intervention because of the composition although the very isolation of this part of the street does to me suggest a camera as in a narrow confine photographs often have no option but to reveal a cropped scene. It seems likely that Vermeer added details to The Little Street since the street scene bears characteristics not likely to have existed in Delft at that time. The location was finally rediscovered in 2015!
The Milkmaid stands out from other works as it features someone of more humble origins.
Wine and pewter jugs are a repeating detail; as in “The Glass of Wine”.
Vermeer’s skill in reproducing light is evident in the view of Delft where the clouds come under scrutiny. This appears to have been a time when the Dutch were not only discovering and exploiting the outside world they were also becoming more conscious of the interiors of their homes and placed a high value on family life.
There is mention of Vermeer’s friend, it is assumed, van Leeuwenhoek who was a contemporary of Vermeer (they were born a few days apart in the same area of Delft) and pursued the science of that time. However, no mention of van Leeuwenhoek’s interest in and acquisition of optics and the likelihood of Vermeer becoming interested in using the camera obscura as a result!
“The Art of Painting” (see above) has a special place in the work of Vermeer. It was never sold and on his death, documentation reveals it was passed by his widow to a close relative. It is now in Vienna. No evidence of any use of optics here!
“Girl with a Pearl Earing” has achieved iconic status; it suggests a young woman on the edge of adulthood!?
The “guitar player” is a personal favourite which I have tried to recreate on more than one occasion. She is described by the Vermeer Centre as “not being disturbed in her playing” and that “it is perhaps Vermeer’s most cheerful painting”. The landscape painting in the background might be significant.
Vermeer made a number of paintings featuring women and music. His last three covered this subject! Earlier works include “The Music Lesson” and “The Lute Player” also “The Concert” and “The Love Letter” in which a woman holds what appears to be a lute.
On the second floor, one is invited to unlock the secrets of Vermeer’s paintings. What Vermeer saw and what he showed us were two different things!
The first part of this floor is dedicated to Vermeer’s application of light; we are asked to believe that “Vermeer is light!” I think that elevating Vermeer to the level of Christ is misleading but analysis of his approach to light interesting.
“Clear and Bright” coming from one side hence directional. Initially more important and striking than subject matter.
“Light on light” so that there can be different tones of white some of which can be altered with additional blue. Figures have white backgrounds whereas Rembrandt often employed black backgrounds.
“Falling light” is never harsh often being broken by window panes, curtains etc Different intensities with different effects.
“Mirror images” is another device Vermeer uses and reflected light plays an important part in some paintings. Of course, the reflected images may be manipulated by Vermeer into enlargening the narrative of his paintings!
“High light” refers not to the fact that the light is coming from above although this is sometimes the case owing to high windows, but to the specular highlights that feature in his work and are illustrated with a blob of white paint.
All these kinds of light are actually illustrated by light falling on to a wall in a cubicle. An outstanding piece of museum creatorship in my view.
Details of the colours used by Vermeer. To a photographer these are of interest as Photoshop allows for refinement of colour either for effect or correction. The main colours he used in varying intensity are blue, red and yellow; a CMYK view rather than RGB. His tools however are not so appealing to the photographer !
The museum contains a working camera obscura through which one can see the street outside. The curator however questions whether Vermeer actually used one as there is no piece of hard evidence to suggest he did. Experts however do agree that Vermeer did; the question is as to the manner and extent of that use. What Vermeer was good at was his handling of space; quiet encounters in constructed spaces.
It seems he did use a technique of the time which involved stretching string across the canvases to aid in creating perspective as in the floor tiles. X rays of paintings show holes to the edges where pins were placed to support this practice. Another argument against extensive use of the camera obscura which the Vermeer Centre does not encourage very much.
There is a fascinating film about restoration work carried out at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of Woman in blue reading a letter. Various levels were encountered in the surface of paint and different kinds of photography were used to decipher the original. The restoration made the original size of the painting visible as well as the original blue!
There is also an intriguing setup to allow one to make a Vermeer selfie.
On the top floor, an exhibition space explores the different kinds of love found in Vermeer’s paintings. The Romantic with allusions to landscape and music as in The Concert also A lady seated at a Virginal and a Lady Standing at a Virginal, the last containing Cupid images; Seductive Love in which a glass of wine featured also fruit and musical scores as in The girl with a wine glass and the Wine Glass as well as Officer and Laughing Girl; Paid Love is the subject of The Procuress; Unattainable Love is the subject of The Love Letter in which various symbols are evident including a musical instrument, slippers, a broom, a ship and a figure walking away.
After visiting the Vermeer Centre, I walk around the town of Delft, visiting some of the spots associated with Vermeer. There is the place of his birth near the Vermeer Centre which was formerly The Guild of Saint Luke of which Vermeer was a member and twice head. The New Church (a few hundred years old) is a significant landmark nearby.
There is also the place where he painted his view of Delft although little of the original view remains however. One of the old city gates still exists but elsewhere.
I spend a whole day in Delft and arrive back in The Hague at nightfall, feeling somewhat exhausted … too much culture perhaps … yet it is good to get a clearer understanding of Vermeer … there is so much to Dutch painting from the 17th century and yet one can not know it all … a taste helps!