A few steps away from Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk is the former Saint Luke’s Guild, built in 1662 and now a center dedicated to the town’s most famous artist: Johannes Vermeer. His 1660 View of Delft was called "the most beautiful painting in the world" by Marcel Proust.
The Vermeer Centrum Delft has every one of Vermeer’s 35 known works shown in the order in which they were painted. None are original – you will have to go to Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Paris, New York or Washington D.C. for that – but in the reproductions I can notice how the same details, such as window or a yellow dress, appear in more than one. “What makes a Vermeer is the special fall of light, the stillness of people – young women reading, sitting or standing, but always still – with the light coming from the left,” says Herman Weyers, director of the center. “They tell you what he wants us to be told.” Vermeer is called “The Master of Light’ and I ask why. Is the Dutch light special? “We like to think so, but there are clouds in England too,” he says. “No, Rembrandt was working at the same time and he always showed people in front of a black background. Vermeer set his people in a different kind of light, with a colorful backdrop.”
Professor Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and author of Vermeer and the Art of Painting, explains why his light was so different. “There is a nuanced color quality that reflects the way light occurs in nature. Vermeer understands that natural light, daylight, has subtle colors to it. In the shadows it has a blue-ish cast.”
I ask him why Vermeer makes the sudden change from his first few paintings of historical scenes to his trademark interiors. “In the 1650s all sorts of things were happening,” he says. “After the Prince of Orange dies, there is a period when there was no court. Paintings of European history or biblical subjects were part of the collective world of people connected to the court. When the court disappears, that type of painting became less sought after and may underline why he made the shift.”
That Vermeer was painting for a market is easy to forget when one becomes wrapped up in his artistry but Professor Wheelock explains the high Golden Age demand for art. “There was not much land in the Netherlands, and almost all was swampy, so people did not invest in it,” he says. “They invested in trading ventures like the Dutch East India Company (VOC) but where else do you put your money? Art became one of the primary places to do that. The Dutch are still very matter of fact about the world about them, so artists who could portray that world were appreciated.
“The Dutch are very proud of the Netherlands, very proud of the fact that this swampy little place has somehow, with the grace of God, been transformed into this very prosperous land. You have a spiritual underpinning of the art, God looking down favorably on who we are and what we do, our hard work and the bounty that comes from that. It was a way to feel good about yourself and what your country stands for. All that added to the desire to own and hang paintings like that on your wall.”