Johannes Vermeer emerged around 1655, aged just twenty-three, and already fully formed as an artist. After a couple of historical works, by the end of the decade he had completed most of his best loved paintings: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is attributed to 1657, The Little Street and The Milkmaid to the following year, and the glorious View of Delft to about 1660.
Vermeer married Catharina Bolenes at twenty-one, they had fifteen children together, and when he died at the end of 1675, aged forty-three, he left his family in debt, after a short illness which his wife believed to have been caused by the Franco-Dutch War and financial pressures related to the collapse of the art market. Only thirty-five paintings remain definitely attributed to him, and many of the facts of his career are uncertain, including the nature of his apprenticeship, and his preparatory methods when embarking upon a project. What we have is his art.
He spent the whole of his short life in Delft, and the vast majority of his paintings show domestic interiors, featuring the same window, always to the left of the composition, the same floors, the same furniture and decorations, and a small group of people, most of whom are women. The Little Street and View of Delft are his only surviving paintings of the outside world. His practise is characterised by a slow pace and the use of unusually expensive pigments, especially natural ultramarine, but also lead-tin yellow, lapis lazuli, madder lake, and vermilion; his art by the quiet grace of his figures, his vivid colour combinations, and his mastery of light.
The precise location in Delft of the peaceful scene depicted in The Little Street has long been the subject of critical debate. Studies regularly suggested Voldersgracht, where Vermeer lived until the age of nine, and the site today of the Vermeer Centre; others posited Nieuwe Langendijk, numbers 22 to 26. Now Frans Grijzenhout, Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam, has unravelled the mystery.
Grijzenhout spent two years consulting seventeenth-century archives, and came upon De legger van het diepen der wateren binnen de stad Delft (‘The ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft‘), the city’s register of quay duties for 1667. The document records the tax paid by each Delft homeowner for dredging the canal and maintaining the quay by their property, and provides detailed measurements of all relevant houses, passageways, and ports. Grijzenhout concluded that the location of Vermeer’s Little Street is Vlamingstraat, a street with a narrow canal, at present-day numbers 40 and 42.
The dimensions of the two houses which stood there during Vermeer’s lifetime, their adjacent passageways, their ages, predating a 1536 fire, and the positions of the small gardens behind were unmatched in the register: they are the only two properties on record which correspond exactly with the details of Vermeer’s painting. Grijzenhout also noted that Vermeer’s aunt, Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, lived in the house shown on the right, operating a business selling tripe, with the passageway beside the house known as Penspoort (‘Tripe Gate’). Vermeer’s mother and sister lived along the same canal, in houses diagonally opposite.
The Little Street, originally known as View of Houses in Delft, is in the collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, alongside three other works by Vermeer: The Milkmaid, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, and The Love Letter. And last week, the Rijksmuseum opened a new exhibition to commemorate Grijzenhout’s findings. Vermeer’s The Little Street will run until 13 March next year, before moving – along with The Little Street – to Museum Prinsenhof Delft from 25 March to 17 July. Museum Prinsenhof Delft is within easy reach of Vlamingstraat, which has already received a surge of tourists.
Pieter Roelofs, curator of seventeenth-century paintings at the Rijksmuseum, noted ‘The answer to the question as to the location of Vermeer’s The Little Street is of great significance for the way that we look at this painting and for our image of Vermeer as an artist.’ To mark the exhibition, Grijzenhout’s discovery, and the role that Google Maps technology played towards it, the Rijksmuseum have produced a special Google Art Project looking at the present-day Little Street in Delft.