LITTLE STREET, BIG WORLD : An examination of Jan Vermeer's 'The Little Street' and 'View of Delft'. by Clinton De Vere
‘The Little Street’(‘Het Straatje’)(c.1657-59)
54.3 x 44 cm.
We caught the train from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam, beneath the low grey Northern sky, and the next morning rose early to be at the Rijksmuseum just as a queue was forming. The museum was undergoing renovations and the collection had been downsized for the duration. The first gallery space was dominated by Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’. After walking further into the gallery I came upon Jan Vermeer’s ‘The Little Street’ (‘Het Straatje’). The paintings around it seemed to recede into the background.
I began to sketch it, focusing on the diagonal lines of the rooftops stretching off into the distance, and the white grey Northern sky above them. Both the rooftops and sky played off the grid of the buildings which dominated the picture plane.
One of the first things that struck me was the painting’s palette and compositional simplicity. Vermeer, the supreme colourist, had outdone himself. Why was I so fascinated by this painting? Had I already been softened up by the fact that I knew it was a Vermeer? Had my brain taken over and instantly pushed the painting to the front of the queue? Was I going to like this painting whether I liked it or not? What I do remember was being captivated by its beauty and simplicity.
I would argue that the continuing power of ‘The Little Street’ derives from both its exquisite rendering and the contrast between Vermeer’s idealised vision of home as presented in the painting and the power of the Republic of the Netherlands in the Golden Age of the 17th century. Like his other great landscape masterpiece the ‘View of Delft’, it is a love letter to his hometown and an externalized vision of his mind’s internal model of ‘home’. I will look briefly at the life of Johannes (Jan) Vermeer, then describe ‘The Little Street’, and finally discuss Delft and its place in the vast global trading empire of 17th century Netherlands. To highlight my argument concerning the tension between home and empire, I will briefly examine the ‘View of Delft’ and place both paintings in the context of the Dutch Golden Age.
We know very little of the life of Johannes Vermeer and what we do know comes from city and Guild records. He was born in 1632 in the prosperous city of Delft, near The Hague, in the province of Holland in the newly formed Republic of the Netherlands. He was christened on October 31 1632 in the Calvinist New Church in Delft. His father was a sometime silk worker, inn keeper and art dealer.
On April 5 1653 he married Catharina Bolnes in the Catholic Old Church after first converting to Catholicism. On December 29 of the same year he was received into the Guild of St. Luke for painters. We do not know to whom he was apprenticed. Vermeer, as a master painter, art dealer and twice head of the painter’s guild, was solidly middle class. However,
with 13 children to support it was difficult to make ends meet. Although the family lived rent free in his mother-in-law’s house, and Vermeer received rent from the property he inherited from his father, money was always short.
Vermeer painted slowly, which accounts for the relatively low number of paintings attributed to him. There are only thirty five fully authenticated Vermeer’s and of these only three are landscapes. One has been lost so we are left with two Vermeer landscapes: ‘The Little Street’ and ‘View of Delft’. In 1672, when France, England, Münster and Cologne declared war on the Republic of United Netherlands, and the economy collapsed, so too did Vermeer’s livelihood. Broke and in debt, with a large family to support, Vermeer, exhausted with worry, died after a short illness. He was 43 years old and was buried on the 15 December 1675 in the Catholic Old Church in Delft.
‘The Little Street’ is a 54.3 x 44 cm oil painting on canvas. It is undated. The fact its textual elements are less pronounced than in his later works indicates it was painted around 1657-58. The Rijksmuseum dates it at circa 1658. One clue is that Pieter de Hooch was painting his courtyard scenes in Delft in the late 1650s and Vermeer would have known de Hooch and his paintings.
It is a streetscape, in portrait format, showing a street, pavement, two houses with windows, doors and shutters and four figures. There are rooftops, the sky, a vine, benches and an entrance into a courtyard. The two domestic dwellings sit parallel to the picture plane. Neither of the houses is fully shown implying a world beyond the frame. The door of the house to the right has been moved to suit Vermeer’s compositional aim. Indeed, the green shutters to the left of the main building have no room to open. Vermeer did this in order to present us with the dominant compositional component in the painting: the red shutter to right of the doorway on the main building. With this shutter Vermeer makes us to stop and contemplate the scene he has set. This red shutter anchors the painting. Vermeer uses colour here in the purest possible way.
The shutters of the house are all closed suggesting a world to which we the viewer are not privy. We get a peek through an open doorway. There is a mood of calm in the painting which is created and maintained by the painting’s palette and compositional simplicity.
One of the surprising aspects of ‘The Little Street’ is the seemingly arbitrary nature of its framing. This apparent randomness gives the painting a photographic feel. This is something a modern viewer would be familiar with but must have been
surprising to the 17th century viewer seeing it for the first time. Perhaps they felt unease, or knew they were looking at something unusual, but couldn’t put their finger on what the quality of difference was. This photographic feel is partly a result of Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura and the distortion caused by the use of the lens.
The framing also has the effect of letting us meditate on the scene in front of us. We don’t want to walk down the street. In fact the rest of the street holds little interest to us. All we want to do is look at this perfectly composed scene.
As art critic Martin Gayford writes: "Vermeer was not painting what was in front of his nose, or what appeared off the glass of his camera odscura. He was constructing paintings out of tone, color, light, rhythm and space, using as a starting point his immediate surroundings. Just as much as their overwhelming delicate naturalism, a key feature of his paintings is their tightness of structure: the pattern of light and dark, the scaffolding of geometry and swooping perspective." Through observation and translation Vermeer creates his version of reality.
Vermeer leads us into the painting with the vertical brush strokes on the road at the bottom of the painting. He takes us from one side of the street, from the outside world, to the frontiers of the closed domestic world on the opposite side. Our eye follows the line of the shallow drainage ditch further into the painting, beneath the archway into the courtyard to the figure of the maid washing clothes and behind her to the white garden wall. The converging horizontal lines give the painting depth. The framing by the archway of the courtyard space also has the effect of creating a painting within a painting. From a certain angle it appears as though this component has been painted on the wall of the building. This part of the painting, as well as the strong grid playing against the roof and sky, gives the painting a quality of collage.
The painting is dominated by the façade of the building to the right of the painting with its red brown bricks, windows,
shutters and doorways. The use of the complementary green and red on the shutters in the lower half of the building adds to the Mondrian-like quality of the painting. According to Terry Sullivan, “‘The Little Street’ is a brilliant example of the use of the grid. What makes his landscapes so magical is that every form depends on another to achieve its balance.”
The grid is broken by the diagonals of the rooftops. The sky becomes an unstable triangle, balanced on its tip, tessellating with the stable triangular forms of the roofs. It was these rooftops and the clouds above them that I sketched at the Rijksmuseum. According to art historian Edward Snow, Vermeer “…is one of the most profoundly dialectical of painters.” This can be clearly seen in ‘The Little Street’. Snow writes of variety and unity, horizontal and vertical, open and closed, structure and looseness, brick and vapour, and explains that “…these tensions are not a question of meanings that issue from the paintings in a language perhaps foreign to them, but their very substance, the raw material out of which their world is constructed, and the inner dynamic in terms of which it coheres.”
And what of the four figures in the painting? They are each fully concentrated on their tasks. Their placement further strengthens the painting’s compositional unity. In the doorway a woman is seated perhaps making lace. Two children sit on the pavement engrossed in their game (or are they scrubbing the pavement?). Their faces are hidden from us, further adding to the painting’s mystery. The positioning of the children also mirrors the angles of the bench on the pavement. The figures form a triangle which plays off the squares and rectangles in the painting. The painting is full of these subtle, yet powerful, compositional touches.
Curator Arthur Wheelock writes that: "‘The Little Street’ draws one into this world. Vermeer encourages us to explore its simplicity, its variety, and its measured beauty. Vermeer’s particular concern, with the physical and psychological relationship of the figures to their environment is evident in this work. The woman framed in the courtyard and in the doorway, as well as the children bent over their activity on the sidewalk, are not extraneous elements in the painting - they are essential to its mood." He further comments that the painting captures “the poetic beauty of everyday life.”
In the courtyard a maid washes clothes. Beside her stands a broom, a symbol for spiritual purity. There are other symbols in the painting. The vine, for example, would for the 17th century viewer have been immediately recognizable as a symbol of fidelity. The fact that all four figures are engaged in activity highlights the virtues of ‘keeping busy’. After all ‘idle hands makes the devil’s work.’ The virtues of domestic duty and the care of children are all part of Vermeer’s examination of ‘home’.
The palette of ‘The Little Street’ adds to the overall atmosphere of calm that pervades the painting. The grey ground is in parts covered by lead white and in other parts by umber and azurite. There are different shades of ultramarine, yellow, red and green. The textures of brickwork and woodwork are captured with simple marks and brushstrokes.
Vermeer rejected the obsession with detail normal in Dutch painting at that time. In creating the brickwork, for example, he painted first a layer of reddish brown paint, then light grey for the edges and thin lines for the mortar. Some bricks are highlighted in orange. No single brick has been painted in detail. It is all implied. The lead between the glass panes of the windows is shown with quick lines of grey paint. The blue green of the vine is formed with dabs of paint. He is interested in capturing the textures and moods of the scene. As John Nash writes: “Vermeer’s art depends on a curious balance of the literal and the imaginative.”
The pairing of complementary colours adds to the overall liveliness of the painting. As mentioned earlier there is the red and green of the shutters on the main building as well as the blue, green of the vine contrasting with the red of the bricks and the orange of the tiles on the wall. The pale yellow is contrasted with the pale violet of the child’s bonnet and the pavement tiles. The orange of the maid’s blouse is paired with the blue of her skirt.
The partly whitewashed walls of the building’s façade form a strong horizontal band across the painting. This white is picked up in the bonnets of the women, the clouds and in the white wall at the rear of the courtyard. The white of the sky has the effect of making the building stand out. This use of the white over a grey ground is another way that Vermeer gives the picture its compositional cohesion.
And what of the startling, expressionistic, blue green vine on the lower left of the painting and the graffiti on the bench? According to Madlyn Millner Kahr the vines were originally yellow and have faded with time. Yellow or green blue they
are still startling. There is something so modern and fresh about both these features.
On the subject of the use of colour in Vermeer’s paintings, Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in
1885, with reference to ‘View of Delft’, that “ …if one sees his town view at The Hague close up, it is incredible, and painted with entirely different colours than one would suspect at a few steps’ distance.”
The sky has been painted in broad strokes of thin paint, smoothly and transparently and has been picked up by other shades of blue throughout the painting. Blue appears in the sky, in the apron of one of the women in the foreground, and interestingly, and almost expressionistically, in the foliage of the trees.
Unlike in many of his paintings, light, and the play of light on objects and surfaces, does not play a huge role in ‘The Little Street’. In this painting Vermeer seems more concerned with capturing a mood through composition and colour.
It is difficult to examine ‘The Little Street’ without referencing Vermeer’s other great later landscape masterpiece, ‘View of Delft’, which is also a vision of home. This painting is also an intimate, restrained, love letter to Delft and the United Republic of the Netherlands. Like ‘The Little Street’ it is a window into a moment, a snapshot of the Netherlands in 17th century during the ‘The Golden Age’ of Dutch society, economy and culture.
In both ‘The Little Street’ and the ‘View of Delft’ Vermeer, with perfect calibration, captures his internal vision of his hometown. In the process he creates landscapes which have the intimacy of one of his interiors. Through his detailed observation of a specific time and place he produces paintings with universal resonance.
Now let us turn to an examination of ‘The Little Street’ and its relationship to the Dutch ‘Golden Age.’ It might be useful at this stage to look at Delft and its place in the Dutch global empire.
Delft, with its location, harbour and a canal system linking it to the world beyond, was part of the vast Dutch global trading empire. It produced beer, textiles and ceramics and had regional chambers of both the East India Company, for trade with Asia, and the West India Company for America.
It was William of Orange who chose Delft, because of its medieval fortifications, as the seat of his court during the Dutch war for independence against Spanish rule. Although the seat of government and the court later moved to The Hague, Delft kept its special status in the province of Holland. His burial monument in the New Church was a renowned tourist destination throughout Europe at this time.
How did this small Northern European country with few natural advantages emerge, after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which signalled the end of the eighty year war of Independence with Spain, as the world’s leading trading nation?
There were several factors which combined to create the booming economy. Dutch agriculture had become more
efficient with the development of new crops. The Netherlands was able to import grain relatively cheaply from the Baltic States. By the early 17th century, fruit and vegetable cultivation, which had once been the province of aristocratic gardens,
began to be undertaken at the village level. Whole villages were dedicated to horticulture. Land reclamation continued. Waste from industrial activities began to be used as fertilizer.
The herring trade was another important factor in the rise of the Dutch economy. According to historian Tim Brook the
global cooling that occurred at this time, creating a mini ice age, meant fish stocks moved south to the benefit of Dutch fishermen. He cites leading climate historians who argue that the windfall from this event provided the investment
for the trading empire. Improved technology also meant that Dutch fisheries were highly efficient and competitive.
By the seventeenth century the newly independent Republic of the Netherlands was the most urbanized society in Europe
with half the population living in cities.It had the highest literacy in Europe and was in the process of shifting from an aristocratic society to a bourgeois one. As Brook writes, Dutch society was in transition, “…from military to civil
society, from monarchy to republicanism, from Catholicism to Calvinism, merchant house to corporation, empire to nation, war to trade.”
Other sectors of the economy were technologically innovative and competitive. Textile manufacturing was one of
these. According to Michael North forty percent of the working population in the province of Holland was employed in the textile industry. The Dutch specialized in the highly profitable activity of dyeing and finishing. Another area of innovation was brick making. By the late 16th century the Dutch shipbuilders were leading the world in design, innovation and were to remain so until the mid 18th century. In the area of ceramics Delft faience gained international renown as the first imitation of highly valued Chinese porcelain. The appearance of ‘Delft blue’ in Vermeer’s paintings reminds us of the fame of Delftware and of Vermeer being among the first generation of Dutch artists to come in contact with Chinese art. Some have said this influence accounts for, in part, the off-white backgrounds against blue, the distorting of perspective and the enlarging of the foregrounds. If this is so, then the influence of Chinese art, and the broader experience of intercultural exchange in the 17th century, can be seen ‘The Little Street’. As Brook points out, the 17th century was a time of interaction and innovation.
By the late 17th century the tertiary activities of shipping, trade and finance were absolutely central to the Dutch economy. Amsterdam became the warehouse for the world. The Dutch, for example, handled most of the trade between England and its West Indies colonies.
Formed in 1602, the Dutch East India Company was the world’s first large joint stock company and one of the Netherlands contributions to the development of modern capitalism. Brook writes that the VOC was: “…the most powerful trading corporation in the seventeenth-century world and the model for the large scale business enterprises that now dominate the global economy.” This event, according to Brook was: “…to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin’s kite is to electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have been predicted at the time.” The red rooftops atop the middle horizontal band of Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ belong to the warehouse of the East India House, the home of the Delft chamber of the Dutch East India Company, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).
The VOC was a powerful monopoly consisting of six regional chambers of which Delft was one. The company was central to both the Delft and Dutch economy and put Delft at the centre of a commercial network that stretched across the globe. If one was aiming to paint the portrait of the commercial centre of Delft you would paint it here and those rooftops would be a part of it. The VOC traded in the highly profitable commodities from South East Asian and India. The Dutch established a
colony in Batavia in Dutch East India and had a lucrative trading relationship with Japan.
This period saw the creation of other structures of modern capitalism. In 1609 the Amsterdam Wisselbank was founded providing the financial framework for the empire. Exchange banks also dealt in precious metals.
As explained earlier, in 17th century Netherlands to be a member of the painter’s guild and a master painter, as Vermeer was, was to be solidly middle class. As a master painter he was permitted to sell both his own paintings and the works of others. According to Alpers’, paintings were central to this society. Over 70,000 paintings were produced in
this period. Vermeer was a leading figure in the main creative profession of his time in one of the provincial
centres of a powerful empire.
As Westermann writes referring to the ‘View of Delft’ and equally relevant to ‘The Little Street’, “Though not an
interior scene, as most works by Vermeer are, the painting draws us into his mental and social world: into his artistic vision and into his city.”
In ‘The Little Street’ Vermeer, the hometown boy, reveals his inner vision of home and we the viewer are given a privileged glimpse into his personal reality. It is as though ‘The Little Street’ is an interior and we are looking into it. He shows us his world in all its beauty and complexity, its connections and secrets.
Will Storr, in his book ‘The Heretics’, writes that, incredibly: “…up to 90% of what you are seeing right now is constructed from your memories.” He goes on to explain that, “The world that you experience as objectively real is your own
personal model of reality, and your brain tends to assume that everything new that you experience coheres to that model.” It is as though by looking closely at reality Vermeer is able to override his brain’s internal model and to see what is really in front of him. He somehow sees the true nature of reality. Whether it is a room or a town, or a street, Vermeer observes the world in a modern psychological way.
This quiet pride and evident satisfaction at the creation of this society is there in Vermeer’s every brush stroke. And being a good Calvinist boy, Vermeer presumably knew this pride was wrong but he couldn’t help himself. In this he and his works
embody the central tension of his age: how to fit the truth of the extraordinary wealth of the society with its Calvinist foundations. How did Vermeer resolve these tensions? Perhaps ‘The Little Street’ is his answer to this irresolvable
tension in which he restrains his bursting pride and in so doing adds to the drama in the painting. This gives his work a familiar feel to the modern eye. He is not being ironic but it feels like irony.
Imagine his psyche as he painted this work, boiling away with talent and intelligence. How did it feel to be Vermeer at that time? He must have felt as though he was rallying all his talent and skills to pull this one off, to paint this love letter to ’home’ and to values and beliefs of his culture.
In 'The Little Street' there are none of the motifs for which Vermeer is famous. There is no window with light streaming through it, no Turkish rug draped on a table, no wall with a map, no close ups of human beings. And yet there is a strong sense of interiority about ‘The Little Street’ as though the rest of the world is outside this reality; as though we the viewer are both inside and outside the painting. In its balanced composition, the inference of a world both within the painting and outside of it, the use of light, can all be seen to be used to great effect in Vermeer’s exteriors.
In the ‘The Little Street’ Vermeer creates an iconic image of ‘home’ which still resonates powerfully with this modern viewer. With his masterful handling of colour and composition he is able to convey to us a well ordered world, poised in a moment. It is a portrait of a small street, an idealized vision of ‘home’, created at a time when the Dutch trading empire was the most powerful in the world. This contrast between the simple vision of domestic virtues and the juggernaut quality of the trading
empire creates a tension, quite apart from the technical finesse displayed in the painting. It is a simple street scene but it must be imagined in the larger context of a prosperous city at the centre of the vast network of the Dutch 17th century global trading empire.
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 Ibid.: 63.
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 Ibid.: 95.
 Ibid.: 97.
I am an Australian artist living in Düsseldorf, Germany.