1) The fortified City of Delft
2) Artisans and the Guild of St Luke
3) Science and Technology in Delft
4) Vermeers Private House
5) Women - Courtship - Music
6) Beer - Bread - Markets
7) Hidden Corners in Delft
8) Selected Bibliography
This chapter begins with a discussion on how Vermeer infused his light-filled interiors with men and women who use music in courtship. The contents of these paintings seem to circle around the themes of music and Eros. In Dutch society, there were many accepted ways for young people to meet and pay court to another. A few of these are discussed, as they appear not only in emblem books but also in reports captured in private diaries and documents written by the notary public.
As a well-to-do Catholic matron, Maria Thins (ca. 1593-1680) initially felt that Vermeer was not quite the right match for her daughter Catharina Bolnes for a number of reasons. After exerting pressure on her, the couple was married anyway, and we will describe how against all odds, Vermeer became her confidant.
This chapter also explains how a family passion for music may have started when Vermeer’s paternal grandmother remarried a man who was a professional musician. Perhaps Vermeer played music himself, but no instruments were included in his 1676 inventory. The appearance of many instruments and sheet music in his paintings certainly mark his serious interest.
Finally we discuss how music was performed in Delft public places. This ranged from organ and carillon concerts in churches, to poetry readings and to cheerful singing sessions in inns and Guild halls. ‘Classical’ chamber music must only have played a relatively minor role in private concerts of some of the wealthier groups in town.
At first glance, Vermeer’s subject themes seem almost too simple: interiors with portraits of young women and men, some alone in quiet contemplation, others basking in each other’s pleasant company, almost sensual in their interaction. The beauty of these men and women in their calm, refined, light-infused interiors invites the viewer to enter these paintings.
In all world cultures, attracting and impressing the opposite sex is of crucial importance in attaining a desirable life partner. A stylized form of this mating game is often played out both in the arts of correspondence and in making music together. Not only does music play an important part in world cultures as a faithful companion to Eros, but also forms a world of its own, a platform for raising human perception and answering human yearning to experience a higher sphere of life.
Vermeer paintings combine these worlds on many levels. They circle the themes of the meeting of the sexes in music, exchanging letters, embracing both erotic lure and a yearning for the sublime. At the same time, they celebrate extraordinary visual phenomena in oil paint
One may therefore describe Vermeer paintings as works in which the dual theme of Eros and music in the eternal mating game between the male and the female are made visible.
In communicating what is happening in his paintings, Vermeer never makes use of the obvious. Even in such a seemingly domestic, quiet painting such as the Love letter (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), his reticence is evident. In this painting the maid may or may not just have handed a love letter to her mistress. The lover may or may not be at sea - as one of the paintings-within-paintings may indicate. The world of music is represented by the interruption of the mistress’ lute playing, and the folded music score on the chair in the right hand foreground. Worlds of music, harmony, and the meeting of the sexes become interwoven in series of “Vermeer stills”. These are not explicit scripts but remain open to the observer’s private imagination of what has just occurred and what will happen next. His subtle hints are sufficient to spark our personal curiosity - and because our private musings cannot be faulted by anyone, the outcome always represents our own deep private truth. This is what makes Vermeer paintings work so well.
On one Vermeer painting highly inspired by the theme of love, the Woman Standing at the Virginal (National Gallery, London), she stares quizzically, half smiling at the viewer. She may just have interrupted her virginal playing, and in a moment of stillness makes eye contact with the painter, or is it the viewer of the painting? In the background of a simple but refined interior, a telltale painting-within-a-painting hangs of a standing Eros holding up just one playing card, the ace of hearts. Vermeer may have taken this striking image from an emblem book, the popular morality literature of his time.
In Dutch culture, many emblem books such as the one shown here were printed and distributed widely. A great number of other moralizing and admonishing books were also published, successfully dealing with such issues as human virtues and vices, qualities and shortcomings, and the meeting of the sexes. Emblems gathered in these books were often shown in three parts, with a title on top, an image and then a rhymed commentary below the image.
If we wish to study how people actually behaved in the Republic, there isn’t that much to go on, as hardly any seventeenth century diaries and letters have survived on the ideas and practices governing this private area of life. We do however, find useful reports in depositions written by the notary public. As described before, due the lack of a functioning police force, incidents in society were reported in this way. These archival sources shed light, not on how official morality would have had people behave, but instead on how people actually did so. Other existing sources are snippets of diaries and books written by local and foreign travelers.
In 1669 the traveler William Aglionby noted the appreciable prevailing Dutch leeway in the field of amorous relationships: "Girls are allowed to walk the streets at night with their boyfriends, and in winter they go out skating with their young men, they often spend the night in an inn in a suburb or even another town".
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A fascinating 'slice of life' dating from January 28, 1691 was reported in the village of Graft in the flat green polders of North-Holland. There, just after midwinter, a group of adolescent boys and girls joined each other for a major excursion in a large ice sled. These young people belonged to the religious group of Mennonites. There were seven unmarried boys and girls in the age group between 17 and 20 years old, who were 'seeing each other' and they were unchaperoned. Setting off for the village of Landsmeer after at 4 o'clock in the afternoon (after church services, when evening was falling) they were all sitting in their large, horse drawn sled, lit by one or more lanterns. After their pleasant journey they returned home well after midnight. Obviously this sort of nighttime excursion was seen as a normal way of passing leisure time among unsupervised adolescents. Adults allowed a great deal of freedom in the meeting of the sexes and marriages were usually not arranged.
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Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and Catharina Bolnes (ca. 1631-1688) probably met in 1652 or early in 1653, just after Vermeer had returned from his studies outside Delft. The couple obviously went through a period of courtship before deciding on marriage in 1653. As Johannes Vermeer was only 20 he was considered very young when he married. Normally men got married at the age of between 25 to 30, first needing to secure a career and income.
Catharina was about 22 years old, which was a usual age for a woman to marry. Although in the Republic young people were free to choose their own partners, social pressures and family interests existed, and parents would sometimes voice their opinion as to a prospective marriage partner.
There are signs that the betrothal of Johannes and Catharina did not run smoothly. In an archival document dated April 5, 1653 it shows that Catharina’s mother Maria objected to the prospective marriage. Vermeer must then have sought assistance from a member of the Guild of St Luke, which he was about to join on December 29 of that year. The local painter Leonard Bramer (1596-1674) made a friendly attempt at mediation, pleading with Maria Thins to give her consent to the two lovers.
Initially, Maria probably had good reasons not to grant her consent: Vermeer was too young, of a lower social class, economically not yet on his feet, and last but not least, not of the desired Catholic religion.
Despite all this, the two lovers persisted and on April 20, 1653 a Catholic-style marriage took place near Delft in the nearby village of Schipluiden where the Jesuits had a staff member present. There and then, Maria Thins chose not to sign the marriage certificate. It was however appended some days later with this text in Dutch: "5 en 20 april 1653. Den 5den Apprill 1653: Johannes Reyniersz. Vermeer J[ong] M[an] opt Marcktveld, Catherina Bolenes J[ong] D[ochter] mede aldaar." The crucial last two underlined words: "also living there" indicate Mechelen Inn at “Market field” as the house where Catharina already lived. For an unmarried couple to live together just before being married was highly irregular, but we accept that this text was correct.
The words 'also living there' may tell us that Catharina had run away from home before April 5 and had already begun to live with Vermeer in the 'Mechelen' Inn on Market square. Alternatively, Johannes may have 'abducted' his beloved Catharina across the square to his inn, and Catharina had consented to this elopement. This provided a definite twist to the uncertain situation so that Maria no longer refused her consent to the intended marriage.
Later Johannes and Maria were to get on surprisingly well, and he quickly became her confidant in business matters. At some point between 1653 and 1660 the married couple took up residence in Maria’s spacious home on Oude Langendijk canal, just one street south of Market square. Vermeer may have also continued to help his mother Digna Baltens run the inn during those years from time to time as his father had died in 1652. If that had been the case, Vermeer might have also slept there. The marriage was finally settled in 1661 when Maria was visiting the town of Gouda and had the Vermeer marriage officially ratified so that a future inheritance would not present any problems.
Why did Catharina choose premarital sanctuary and romance in Mechelen Inn? Was her mother too unyielding and domineering? We do not know, but in marrying, Catharina gained her freedom. Vermeer also had much to gain by marrying into wealth. The legal age for being considered an adult was then normally 25, but it was immediately granted upon marriage. At the tender age of 20, Vermeer became independent of his own mother. As an adult he could also sell his own goods and continue in his father’s footsteps as an art dealer. This gave him his chance at financial independence.
For their day and age, Vermeer’s genre paintings were considered modern although by no means revolutionary or even Vermeer’s own invention. Painters one generation earlier, notably Willem Buytewech (ca. 1592-1624) had paved the way. Vermeer paintings also echo modern appreciation of individualism and quiet reflection in Western society. They also tie in with the feminist and post-feminist movements, as Vermeer succeeds in communicating essential and enduring qualities of female experience. In most of his paintings, women are quietly meditating on their own, existing within their inner circle of stillness, holding letters or pearls, perhaps pondering their position in life or the state of their inner life. Images of single women are portrayed with a great sense of respect for their individuality and worthiness. Vermeer presents a series of exceptional portrayals of these women, depicting their physique, dress, erotic lure, but also their inner life, stillness and introspection.
Vermeer paintings may be attractive and esthetic art objects, but they can also provide meaning and balm for the heart and soul. Around the year 2000, one of the judges sitting in the International Law Court in The Hague was confronted in court with horrific stories of atrocities perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia. For consolation he visited the Mauritshuis museum daily to see the Vermeer paintings, which served as an antidote, partially restoring his belief in the enduring powers of humanity.
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To foreign travelers and visitors who kept diaries, the Dutch population stood out in Europe for two characteristics: their love for singing together and their passion for rhyme and poetry. In that sense they resemble the Irish. The national song-booklet of 1588, the Geusen Lieden Boecxken, (The Geusen Song Book) was very popular, expressing fiery and heroic sentiment. Geusen (the name deriving from the French Gueux, beggars) was taken up as the proud nickname for the Dutch revolutionary anti-Spanish movement.
Santa Claus Rhymes
Dutch national enthusiasm for singing together has decreased markedly over the centuries, but poetry and rhymes are still a popular tradition. On a grass roots level, rhyme making still goes on throughout the country on December 5, at Sinterklaas (the original Santa Claus), mainly aimed at children. St Nicholas, white beard and all, is clad in a red bishop’s mantle and mitre. According to legend, he rides his white horse from chimney to chimney over the snowy rooftops, showering children with gifts. They magically make their way down the chimneys and are usually unwrapped in a joyful family get together, when the anonymous gifts are accompanied by rhyming poems which are then read aloud. Sometimes they are funny, other times sarcastic and critical, saying things otherwise left unsaid throughout the year.
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The Vermeer passion for music began with the family of his father. Reynier Jansz was born on Beestenmarkt 14 in a house called Nassau. Reynier was the son of the tailor Jan Reyersz and Cornelia (called Neeltge) Goris. After Jan Reyersz died in 1597, Neeltge married Claes Corstiaensz, a professional musician who lived in De Drie Hamers (Three Hammers)on Beestenmarkt 26 at the corner of Broerhuisstraat. Claes Corstiaensz owned a variety of musical instruments.
In 1623 Reynier Jansz owned a painting of “an Italian piper in a gilded frame”. Valued at just 3 guilders, it was only a simple painting. Its presence does however show the family’s ongoing interest in music. Reynier Jansz himself may have regularly played the pipe or flute in family concerts, harmonizing with other instruments played by his stepfather Claes Corstiaensz and stepbrother Dirck Claesz van der Minne.
This interest was also passed down to Reynier, which in turn, served to introduce Johannes Vermeer to the world of music. An inventory dated 1657 gives us a wonderful list of the instruments once inherited by Claes’ son: a lute, a trombone, a shawm (a precursor to the hobo), two violins and a cornetto. All of these instruments were later sold or inherited by another branch of the family.
Music was certainly of prime interest to Vermeer. He dealt with music as an important theme in his paintings, especially in the form of chamber music played by the upper middle class – young refined ladies and their squires (“juffers en jonkers,”) with ample leisure and an avid interest in pursuing the opposite sex.
Strangely enough, the 1676 inventory made after Vermeer’s death fails to list a single musical instrument. Although he painted quite a few harpsichords, we may be sure that he never owned one as they were too expensive. He may however, have owned several less expensive musical instruments before 1672 when he suffered financial problems. In analyzing the entire Vermeer inventory many objects seem to have gone strangely ‘missing’ when the notary or his direct assistant took stock. The author’s web site www.johannesvermeer.info discusses these missing items.
Sheet music is also present in a number of Vermeer paintings. In an exceptional case, one painting in the Frick collection, NYC, is so clearly painted that it even allows us to read parts of the score.
In seventeenth century Delft, music was performed outdoors by street musicians playing small instruments such as flutes, or ringing the bells of church tower carillons. Most music was performed indoors in inns and private homes.
A great deal of inebriated singing went on in guildhalls, inns and taverns, where the bulk of music was performed and enjoyed by the Dutch working class. All music existed only fleetingly during the actual moment it was sung and played. Artisans and journeymen also embraced music as part of everyday life, singing on many happy occasions, and crowning festive occasions with musical performances. Fiddle, pipe or fife players were hired for weddings and other celebrations. Popular songs were often rowdy and made fun of human sexuality, shortcomings and fallibility. The town militia used drums in formal Sunday parades.
Although quite few people could pick out a tune on an instrument, professional musicians were limited in number. Vermeer’s step-grandfather Claes Corstiaensz was one of them.
Another musician who set out on a personal quest to widen the scope and quality of public performances in Delft was Dirk Jansz. Scholl (1641-1727). Born in the southern town of Brielle, he became the organ player in the New Church and leader of the Collegium Musicum in Delft. As a professional musician he mastered the organ, violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord. He was also active composing chamber music to be performed by his Collegium Musicum. Printing scores was one of his ways of reaching out and spreading his music beyond the borders of Delft. Some of Scholl’s scores were printed in 1678 by his neighbor around the corner, Pieter Oosterhout who ran a specialized printing firm.
Initially Scholl lived in better neighborhoods, at Market Square, then at Oude Delft, but later on in the less conspicuous west side of Jacob Gerrits street, at the corner of the Kromstraat alley. In 1666, in the prime of his life an inventory was made of his earthly belongings. Apart from the many music books one would have expected to find in the home of a musician, there was also a remarkable group of very costly instruments including a double harpsichord with pedal; a single clavichord and a harpsichord on a trestle support along with a silver clavichord hammer, all placed with pride in the large front room downstairs.
Much earlier in his career, Scholl had worked in Arnhem, a city in the east of the Netherlands near the German border, where he was part of another "Muziek Collegie". Members there entered their painted family coat-of-arms in a festive memorial book. Scholl added this caption under his own drawing: ‘If love is being drunk, then I am seldom sober’. ( “Is liefde dronckenschap, soo ben ik selde nuchter"). Scholl published a quite a few works, including solo songs, mixed work, music for tears of mourning and love, and songs of old age and youth. As an active professional musician, he was very much in touch with his feelings.
Cornelis Graswinckel was an active amateur musician, who left his children a number of musical instruments and printed and handwritten scores upon his death in 1644.
During his lifetime, Vermeer painted many harpsichords with casings and ornamental casing designs resembling those made by the Ruckers family, the Antwerp musical instrument builders who dominated the market. Specialists in this field also distinguish a type of spinet called a ‘muselaar’ where the keyboard was placed on the left hand side, perpendicular to an oblong string box. Vermeer may have seen one at Scholl’s home where he probably studied and sketched the various musical instruments he wanted to paint.
Although Vermeer had moved up in society due to his marriage and thus belonged to the middle class, he probably had no access to really wealthy upper class circles in Delft and The Hague, with their limitless leisure hours.
Chamber music played on what we now call classical instruments, was performed privately in the homes of the better classes. Public concerts did not exist at that time, at least none are known in literature on Delft, which was then a bit of a provincial backwater. The painter and draughtsman Leonart Bramer had access to these events. He had interceded when Vermeer sought his mother in law’s permission to marry Catharina. In order to attend large public music concerts, one had to travel northwest by tow-barge to the seat of government, the nearby city of The Hague.
However, organ concerts were regularly given under the auspices of the board of the New Church. The carillon in the New Church bell tower was another expression of public pride in music. From 1655 onwards two professional musicians, hired as first and second carillon players, were paid to perform four public carillon concerts a week. This act on the part of the Delft municipal government may be compared to that of the Leiden town fathers. They had initiated regular carillon concerts in order to keep townspeople away from beer and alehouses.
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Sheet music was published widely in Delft and in other Dutch towns. Due to its central place in popular culture it was also widely sold in bookstores.
A MP3 music file of two suites of dances from Triumph of Peace / Vrede-triomph can be downloaded from the Internet site www.johannesvermeer.info. This piece comes from Thalia's Garden of Delight, Dances in A major, by the composer Dirk Jansz. Scholl who published the score in Delft in 1678. Specialists consider this score to be the only remaining published sheet music from Vermeer's age in Delft. The sole surviving printed copy of the score is in the Cathedral Library, Durham Cathedral, England.
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A large brass clockwork drum in the New Church is set to play a short piece of carillon music, automatically played with intervals.
Full size carillon concerts are normally given on Tuesday evenings at 19:00 hours from mid June to mid August; one should double-check this at www.delfttoerisme.nl
Contemporary church music in Delft may be accessed through www.kerkconcertendelft.nl
There is a Delft Chamber music festival in the month of August, see www.delftmusicfestival.nl
Orthodox and more liberal Calvinists battled over the question of whether or not to allow music in church, and if so, what kinds of music. Initially, the orthodox frowned upon church music, because it took attention away from prayer, preaching and words of the Holy Scripture. The liberal group advocated moderate use of serious church music including the use of organ and trumpet (which seemed to have been an approved instrument as it could be found in bible texts). In 1633 the organ was permitted as an accompaniment to singing during services in the Delft New Church. In other church buildings local Calvinist ministers and church councils remained free to define their own policy.
Vermeer painted a series of women reading. This does not so much indicate that women in the Vermeer home were avid readers, as that it served several aims. A person who is reading is entirely still at that moment, and this adds to the life-like value of the painted situation. Psychologically the viewer also identifies more easily with what they see, and at the same time wonders what the woman is thinking about.
We know very little as to the reading habits and preferences of Vermeer’s family. Their children must have been sent to school, but one generation later some of Vermeer’s grandchildren were illiterate. By then they were at the lower end of the social scale that had started to rise when their grandfather first branched out into the art market half a century earlier, and their father married up into the Thins / Bolnes family.
The switch from Catholic to Protestant rule in the 1570s caused Republican city governments to support changes in educational policy. Individual bible reading stood at the core of the Protestant faith, making literacy necessary which had not previously been the case. City fathers actively promoted mastering the art of reading and writing and it was made part of both religious and educational policy.
As a result of this successful campaign, many young people in the Republic could read. In European terms this meant that an exceptionally high level of public literacy was attained. Although printed books were generally expensive, a copy of the Holy Bible could be found in most Protestant households.
Writing paper remained costly and thus the art of letter writing became a new and popular means of exploring love and communication among the more affluent. In Vermeer paintings, his sitters are obviously ‘juffers en jonkers’, young women and men of the better classes.
Letter writing is a means of communication with delayed gratification, and therefore strengthens the virtues of patience and contemplation. As a result, reflection and introspection automatically take place. Vermeer also alludes to this quality by including mirrors in his works, both as everyday household objects as well as symbolizing contemplation and self-knowledge.
Stories on the role of Dutch women abound in travel journal entries by foreign visitors who recorded what they found interesting in economic and social life. As outside observers, they were particularly amazed by the freedom exercised by women in society. In one oft-recounted incident, a foreign visitor knocked on the door of a private home. When the maid came to the door, she told him that he could not cross the hall because it had just been mopped. She then proceeded to pick him up and carried him in, right across the hall.
On market days fishwives and other female venders were proverbially loud and quite visible. Some married women sold Delftware in shops at the front, while their husbands worked hard at the kilns and other parts of the workshops. Widows who had inherited and continued their husbands artisan companies were somewhat more restrained. A point in case was certainly the strong-willed character of Maria Thins, Vermeer’s mother in law. Self-aware and self-sufficient women abounded in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic
Some of these positive qualities are shown in the women portrayed by Vermeer, although his sitters are usually upper class ladies and gentlemen. Exceptions to this include his two paintings of a Geographer and an Astronomer, men who are fully focused on their scientific work, and of course the earnest Milkmaid at work in her kitchen.
Vermeer’s successful reticence and magic can be demonstrated by juxtaposing the Vermeer work stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with a painting dated 1671 by Jacob Ochtervelt, a painter originally working in Rotterdam, later Amsterdam. Although containing many similar elements to the Vermeer painting, the Ochtervelt work has quite a different, almost fluffy atmosphere, and tonal value. The presence of the dog, although theoretically conveying fidelity and trust, detracts strongly from the central mystery of Eros as a force in human life. The Ochtervelt woman is overtly pointing at the musical score while she is busy flaunting her many physical charms.
The Concert by Vermeer of about 1664, still lost, is a monument to reticence. The back and the hair of the sitting, presumably singing man is all we can see of him. He is wearing a military or civic guard sash, stressing his strength. The slender woman to his left playing the virginal is seen in profile. The standing female singer to the right is moving her right hand to the beat, directing the group while holding and reading the score with her left hand. Heavy furniture in the left hand foreground, blocks our visual entry into the scene, a Vermeer mainstay. We are thus forced to remain at a distance, intruding on the intimacy of this musical group.
More is needed in life than love alone to sustain body and soul. Marketing for food was a regular task for any household. The next chapter discusses how this was done in Delft.
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Published online, July 15, 2011. Updated July 15, 2011.