One of the artist’s rare outdoor works ‘The Little Street’ is back in his home town as an academic investigation reveals the exact spot where it was painted. Peter Morrell reports.
There has been much speculation about exactly where Johannes Vermeer painted The Little Street, one of only three outdoor subjects he executed. The original house in the painting had definitely been demolished and been replaced by a more modern building, but which one?
The answer came as a result of some clever detective work by Professor Dr Frans Grijzenhout, Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam. After much research the final clue as to the location of the house came from an obscure tax ledger dating back to 1667. It recorded the precise width of every house to determine how much each owner had to contribute to the dredging and quay maintenance of the canals.
I went to Delft recently to meet Professor Grijzenhout, hear about the research and to see the exhibition Vermeer is Coming Home at the Museum Princenhof. One of the things that makes Holland such a fascinating place to visit is the the rich history woven into the fabric of its buildings. Museum Princenhof is no exception, it was the home of William I, Prince of Orange, know as the ‘Father of the Country’. It was the Prince who led the Dutch revolution against Spanish rule which resulted in the country’s independence.
It was in the Princenhof that William met his demise, Philip II of Spain had put a 25,000 crown bounty on the Prince’s head. In 1584 William was assassinated by Frenchman Balthasar Gérard and holes from the assassin’s bullets can still be seen in the wall at the site of the killing.
Professor Grijzenhout is a lively academic and he recounted the great excitement generated when, after identifying the house, Vlamingstraat 40-42, he found that it had belonged to Vermeer’s aunt and it was across the canal from Vermeer’s mother’s house.
Just before taking a look at the museum I spoke with Patrick van Mil, Director of Museum Prinsenhof who said “The exhibition enables you to track every step of the study. ‘It is not a Whodunit but a Where is it’ and we present theories of other historians too. People have been looking for this location ever since 1921, when The Little Street became part of the Rijksmuseum’s collection.”
The exhibition itself tells the story and also adds a lot of local context. For example there are works by Pieter de Hooch showing everyday life in Delft at the time The Little House was painted. Another shows a catastrophic event in the history of the town, a huge explosion at a gunpowder store. It killed many people including artist Carel Fabritius (painter of The Goldfinch) whose style was emulated by both Hooch and Vermeer.
This is a very well curated exhibition which culminates in a chance to see The Little House at the end. In addition there is Escape Box which has been specially designed for the exhibition. Small groups of visitors visit Vermeer’s studio in the box and receive an assignment from Vermeer’s aunt which they need to fulfil within fifteen minutes by solving puzzles and riddles in order to unlock the door.
It was time to take a look a Vlamingstraat 40-42 and the short walk gave me an opportunity to take a look at Delft, a charming and picturesque town. The first highlight on the route was the Oude Kerk, the Old Church, with its 75 metre high tower leaning some two metres from the vertical. This is Johannes Vermeer’s final resting place where he was interred in 1675.
A stones throw from the church is a building dating from 1645 and covered in heraldic shields. It’s the offices of the Delft Water Board and they were responsible for the maintenance of the canals. It was then on to Markt, the large, cobbled town square, dominated at one end by the Town Hall where Vermeer filed his marriage papers. Johannes married well, into a rich Catholic family which may have been the reason he converted to Catholicism from Dutch Reformism.
The artist would still recognise many parts of Delft apart perhaps from the plethora of shops selling the world famous pottery and others stacked with piles of ripening cheeses. Vermeer spent time at the St Lucas Guild Hall of Painters and Artists just off Markt. Now in the same spot is the Vermeer Centre which has a wealth of information about the artist and reproductions of all his works, including his most famous, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Vermeer had been overlooked in many art history books and it wasn’t until the 19th century that he became recognised as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. This lack of early recognition means his house was not preserved and even his grave was unmarked until relatively recently.
A few steps after passing Nieuwe Kerk, the New Church at the other end of Markt, I arrived in Vlamingstraat, a pleasant street with a narrow canal with a quay on either side and two lines of neat 19th century houses. I stood on the opposite side of the canal to 40-42 approximately where Vermeer would have pitched his easel to paint. Having heard the story behind the painting it was quite atmospheric to be standing in the very spot 356 years after the work’s creation.
My tour was over, as I sipped a beer in the charming LEF Bar around the corner from Vlamingstraat I reflected on what a thoroughly rewarding experience it had been. To see the painting and then, as a result of painstaking research, to be able to visit the actual location of the work had been a thrill. The added bonus was Delft itself with its rich history of the Princenhof, the Oude Kerk and its timeless canal and street layout.
The exhibition Vermeer is coming home – The Little Street back in Delft runs from 25 March – 17 July 2016
For more information on Delft visit www.delft.nl/delften/Tourists
Getting to Delft
Transport to Delft from the UK is easy. There are frequent daily flights from many UK airports to Amsterdam Schiphol. On landing go to the railway station under the arrivals concourse of the airport where regular trains go direct to Delft with a journey time of about 45 minutes.
For more information about tourism in Holland go to www.holland.com