COMPLETE BOOK on Vermeer of Delft & the 17th Century city of Delft

Western art history and social history by Vermeer specialist, art historian Drs. Kees Kaldenbach, Amsterdam.



0) Introduction
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


Updated June 9, 2016.

Chapter 1

Calvinism, the Dutch Republic and the Fortified Town of Delft




This Chapter discusses the rise of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, that emerged in the northern Netherlands. In this book on Delft and Vermeer a discussion of religion is necessary as the Dutch Republic was rooted and conceived in the middle of a powerful religious struggle. Vermeer lived in the midst of this struggle for religious and political independence and was citizen of a major military fortified town.
The struggle for religious freedom led to political consequences, a Declaration of Independence and a clean break with the ruler, the Catholic king of Spain. This struggle for freedom started in 1568 and was to continue for 80 years. It was this continuing military struggle that shaped much of the character of the Dutch Republic. Within the Republic, the town of Delft was a major military stronghold. Behind its fortress-like walls, Delft initially formed the seat of the revolutionary government. It was located at a safe distance from the border with the southern Netherlands that still remained under Spanish Habsburg Catholic rule.
All major towns in the Republic functioned as independent powers, almost like city-states, their governors proclaiming and enforcing local laws. Delft was no exception, and the way Delft government was set up and policing was organized is also discussed here.
The burghers of Delft flourished economically. Initially beer brewing was a major source of income, and later Delft Blue workshops formed the main economic driving force. This chapter also discusses the wealth amassed in Delft through international trade.
Documents produced by a notary public still provide us with a window on civic society as to how people behaved and misbehaved. In this roundabout way we discover some detailed information on Vermeer’s family, and that of his wife Catharina. We look at their childhood, religion, marriage and activities in their house, which was owned by Vermeer’s formidable mother-in-law, Maria Thins.
In the decades around 1600 to 1650, the field of painting was in flux in The Netherlands, both stylistically and thematically. This chapter finishes with an overview of some of the major art movements and artists within the Republic and abroad.


Lowlands by the sea

Napoleon Bonaparte, who had conquered much of Europe around 1800 described the lowlands by the North Sea as mere mud deposits of the great rivers Rhine and Meuse. He may have put his finger, albeit in a less than graceful way on the essential crossroads position of The Netherlands. With sand and clay having slowly been deposited in layers over the millennia, the whole area had become mainly flat, fertile and waterlogged, and was covered with shrubs and woodlands. At the end of the Middle Ages, monks constructed the earliest dykes and pump systems and after 1300 water management was increasingly taken over and organized by the secular inhabitants. Their collective effort in building water pumping windmills and large polders increasingly yielded mastery of land winning. Step-by-step, polder by polder, new areas of land were reclaimed from interior lakes and the sea. It is therefore said that whereas God created most of the world, the Dutch had gradually shaped their own lands with their waterworks engineering.

At the end of the Middle Ages these lowlands by the North Sea had become part of the Habsburg empire, and was governed under a centralized Catholic ruler, the faraway Spanish king. Throughout his Spanish kingdom, religion was perceived as pivotal to existence and a public interest affair, absolutely central to the well-being of civic society, the state and church institutions. Religion affected public life, morality, human existence and the ever vexing question of eternal afterlife in heaven or hell. 

Whereas the rest of continental Europe was predominantly agricultural in nature and remained sparsely populated, urban life in the northwest was strongly developed, and the fertile and flat lands by the North Sea bristled with settlements. Especially in the southern Netherlands (now north-western Belgium), commercial towns were thriving in the fourteenth century. The sixteenth century saw the economic rise in the northern Netherlands of harbor towns and other settlements in what would later become the Dutch Republic.

Religious changes

City air produces a sense of freedom, especially in commercial towns, as new voices and winds bring in new philosophies. Initially spiritual change came from within the folds of the all-embracing Catholic mother church. New forms and styles of prayer emerged in the north, such as the New Devotion or Modern Devotion initiated by the preacher Geert Grote (1340-1384) whose followers began one of their schools in Delft. Another influential author and preacher was Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471), a mediaeval Christian monk. Their philosophy and methods focused on a highly personal and individual form of soul searching and prayer.
Renaissance philosophies provided further private pathways and invited an open inquiry into the physical and philosophical world. This in turn opened up a keen interest in the life and private thoughts of individual men and women. By the year 1500, Humanism had further widened the scope of this critical and independent inquiry outside the strict boundaries of the church. In university philosophy classes, teachers and students began to question concepts that had stood un-assailed for centuries. Although by then many rusty tenets could safely be attacked, students and teachers held back from open confrontation with Catholic teachings, as its institutions still heavily dominated the temporal and spiritual world. There was mortal danger in proclaiming religious dissent.
As a result of these new winds of change, a number of critical religious movements began to crystallize all over northern Europe in the sixteenth century. As religion was considered as absolutely central to life in those times, and had a major influence on politics on both the level of city and central government, we shall begin to take a look at a number of religious movements.


Protestant Religious Movements


The Anabaptists


A small but headstrong religious movement was that of the Anabaptists. In 1525 this Protestant group was first established in Holland - the name referring to the baptism of members of this group by personal and conscious choice at an adult age, as opposed to traditional Catholic baptism performed by the child’s parents not later than a week after birth. With hindsight the Anabaptist movement was just a small but wild stream in the wide estuary of Protestant movements. Later, the pacifist preacher Menno Simons (1496-1561) toned down its sharp revolutionary ardor and became the spiritual leader of this group, thereafter known as the Mennonites. In time they would become an influential player in Dutch politics, representing the more  liberal frame of mind within Protestantism.


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Anabaptist revolutionaries

Initially the German and Dutch city and state authorities and certainly Catholic clergy looked upon the Anabaptists with mixed feelings. When an over-zealous group of Anabaptists proceeded to take over city power by force in the town of Münster, just across the eastern border of the northern Netherlands, alarm bells went off in all other Dutch-speaking towns, in which small Anabaptist groups already lived.
After this initial zealous, sometimes violent phase the Mennonites changed and became law abiding, pacifist citizens. Today the Mennonites (still named after Menno Simons) have close spiritual relatives in the Amish, who began as a reform group within the Mennonite movement, live a pure and rural life in the USA.

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A broader and much more influential Protestant movement was based on the teachings and writings of the German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546), who became increasingly critical of existing practices of the Catholic church. In 1517 he handed in a written document to the authorities, listing his analysis, grievances and criticism. This was a major act of religious revolt and defiance. He must have tapped into a deep critical undercurrent for he immediately met sympathetic ears, his followers rapidly gaining influence in the central and northern German territories. By the end of the sixteenth century the Lutheran branch of Christianity had found strong foothold in most German speaking lands.



Similar but sterner teachings by the Swiss-French law and humanities scholar John Calvin (1509-1564) increasingly resonated in the lowlands by the North Sea. The core tenets of his teachings can be summarized as follows: a stress on direct prayer by the individual man and woman to God, a realization of the basic sinfulness of mankind, individual development of faith by reading the bible, and a life infused with a serious work ethic. All of these ideas resonated in the northern Netherlands. In the end this stern and quite pessimistic strand of Protestantism known as Calvinism took root in both the ‘kerk’ of Holland and overseas in the ‘kirk’ of Scotland.
Tenets of this fairly strict set of Calvinist teachings dovetailed with the inner workings of a market-oriented society. Organized as the Dutch Reformed Church, there was a pervasive focus on earning a living by working hard, being content with a frugal life-style, having an inward looking attitude of piety, a full realization and inner knowledge of one’s helplessness, sinfulness and mortality, and the willingness of sheer surrender to faith in order to overcome this precarious situation.

Initially in the 1550s Protestant preaching activities took place in Holland inside farmyard barns or from carts placed in the open air in the countryside just outside villages - so that preachers were raised above the crowds and could address flocks of people. These crowds learned of new ways of understanding Old and New Testament bible stories and were instructed about the grave errors of the Catholic Church. Preaching defiantly out in the open, speaking Dutch instead of Latin, lay preachers and ordained Protestant preachers from German lands successfully spread their fiery brand of gospel.
By the 1560s their messages had resonated deeply and Calvin’s tenets found their way into the hearts and minds of growing numbers of men and women in the Dutch speaking provinces, now roughly comprising modern-day Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium.

Requests were made by Protestant leaders to the authorities in city, state and church to allow open expression and celebration of their particular form of faith. However, neither the Spanish king Philip the Second, nor his local governors and church authorities were willing to give in to these church and state undermining activities.
As no proper leeway was provided to accommodate or vent this surge of religious reformation, pressure mounted. One early and shocking outpouring of public dissent was a wave of iconoclasm, the destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments. This movement swept through northern European church buildings in city after city as the news of the attacks spread like wildfire.


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Iconoclasm in Delft


Protestantism frowned at the Catholic tradition of using crucifixes for directing prayer to Christ and using paintings and statues of saints as a channel for veneration. In Protestantism only the holy trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) could be directly addressed in prayer. All other prayers to saints were considered misguided, Popish and idolatrous; grave religious errors to be henceforth stamped out.
In this vein of highly critical thought a surge of iconoclasm took place in Delft in October, 1566 when angry throngs of people entered the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church, located at Markt 80) with hooks and ladders and proceeded to remove and smash all sculptures and painted ornaments, even grimly destroying altars and stained glass windows. One major Delft masterwork, a large altarpiece by the painter Maarten van Heemskerck was saved just in time and was hidden away by members of the Painters’ Guild of Saint Luke, who had paid for it in the first place. Although the furor abated not everything remained calm.

One year later, on All-saints day 1567, the guilds in Delft were forced by Catholic city authorities to hold a public nighttime candle-lit procession in honor of the recent victory of the Catholic Spanish troops against the Protestants of the French town of Valenciennes. This enforced homage made for more bad blood in a town where public opinion was partially favorable to the Protestants.

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Thus a growing conflict festered between the rule of the centralized Spanish Habsburg state and Catholic church institutions on one hand - and the repressed expression of religious beliefs of various minded civic groups on the other. This tension led to a situation of near civil war in the countryside outside towns where armed bands of Protestant civilians roamed, attacking Catholic travelers on roads between towns and villages. This violence was intended to spread fear and provided as an immediate personal advantage in the form of food, money and other goods for the roaming insurgents. In 1567 the Spanish throne responded by sending an officer, the Duke of Alva, who brought members of the Inquisition with him and instigated a bloody campaign of repression, terror and retribution. Violent measures under Alva’s rule, that included executions, created much anxiety and ill will against Catholics among both Protestants and Humanist circles of the enlightened public.

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Execution in Delft


On July 13, 1568 a local Protestant activist, the Delft book printer Herman Schinkel, was publicly beheaded in Delft on Markt for the crime of having published and sold Protestant newsprint flyers and papers. This capital punishment caused more bad blood among Protestants and members of learned, enlightened, humanist dissenting circles.

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The Abjuration of the Spanish King and Creation of the Dutch Republic


Stadhouder William of Orange

Initially, William of Orange (1533-1584) functioned as the Stadhouder  (viceroy) to the Habsburg King of Spain, a hereditary military and political function. Initially William remained loyal to his liege lord and tried to come to terms with the tensions in the country, proposing a workable agreement between his subjects and the Spanish king. However, later, when the Inquisition had become increasingly bloody, he dared to turn against both the Duke of Alva and the Spanish king. Initially, William was militarily outnumbered in strength and had to bide his time with his army, staying in northern German territories, waiting for further revolutionary developments to unfold in the northern Netherlands. In the meantime, motley guerilla bands kept pressure up by aggressive attacks from the 1570s onwards, and as they gained in strength, continued attacking Catholic travelers in the countryside. Finally the situation reached a boiling point.


Insurgences in each Cities: ‘Alteratie’

In 1572 one Dutch city after another toppled, with the arrest  and removal of existing Catholic authorities in bloodless but decisive coups. This lightning process, repeated in town after town is known as “alteratie”. Former government authorities were simply taken from their beds at an early hour – at days and dates different for each large town - and put into a cart, boat or ship with the emphatic message never to return.
Members of the Dutch Reformed religion, locally endorsed by powerful families, took over city power from one moment to the next and immediately became strongly entrenched in political and military institutions. All energy was then gathered to overthrow the powers of the Spanish rulers. Winning over town after town and thus growing in power, the central role of Protestant religion in the formation and fabric of the Dutch Republic took shape. These two institutions, the Protestant church and the Republic as a Protestant state would remain intimately linked and bonded for some two centuries, all the way up to the Napoleonic period in the 1790s.


The Alteratie in Delft

In Delft this “Alteratie” took place during the week of July 26 to August 3, 1572 when the heads of the foremost families in Delft were polled and voted to switch their allegiance from the Spanish king to the revolutionary insurgence leader William of Orange. This is how Delft became a hub of Protestant power. The administration and daily use of church buildings was immediately transferred into Protestant hands. Remaining imagery in these churches was quickly removed or whitewashed over, resulting in austere unadorned walls. However, some flags, text shields and family crests remained, as acceptable ornamentation.
Strangely, by then only a minor percentage of the Delft population classified itself as Protestant; most would still have considered themselves Catholic. There was an appreciable gray area in between of people who were still undecided. The process of self-identity, separating Catholics and Protestants slowly took place in individual families and minds in the decades up to 1650.

As an immediate result of the “Alteratie”, local convents and monasteries were also closed down. Their inhabitants were chased away into the countryside, where each monk or nun had to fend for survival. As convents had expanded widely over the preceding centuries, owning major sections of real estate within towns, their dissolution immediately cleared the way for new urban developments in many Dutch cities.
In Delft the building of the St. Agatha Convent on St. Agathaplein 1 was not demolished but used as the quarters for the Prinsenhof, the first court and home of William of Orange (1533-1584), later nicknamed William the Silent, Father of the Fatherland. William was assassinated within its walls and the site of this political murder can still be seen in a stairwell in what is now the Prinsenhof Municipal Museum.



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Municipal Prinsenhof Museum

(((((image Prinsenhof, outside architecture))))))
The Prinsenhof Museum is housed in the picturesque buildings of the former St. Agatha Convent. Architecturally, one should note the thick walls made of relatively large bricks. The museum collection is comprised of paintings and other art objects, and is especially rich in Delft Blue faience. The museum succeeds in displaying a fairly good overview of local artists, and some exemplary paintings of Delft artists are on view. Up-to-date exhibition and opening time information can be found on its Internet site, www.Prinsenhof-Delft.nl.
However, to see Vermeer paintings one needs to go elsewhere and visit both the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.


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Other convent areas in Delft were demolished as the need for public squares and space for housing emerged. The Franciscan convent was demolished and on its site the Beestenmarkt (Small Cattle Market Square) was built, which became the place Vermeer’s paternal grandparents chose to live.
There is no single letter, diary or document available that tells us whether Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) came from a Catholic or a Protestant family. However, when looking at documents concerning his parents and uncles, enough pointers indicate a solid Protestant background.
Vermeer married a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolnes. They decided to bring up their children in the Catholic tradition - in a home with a crucifix. In Vermeer’s masterwork The Art of Painting (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the whole issue of Catholicism versus Protestantism is skirted, as in almost all his works. Only in one painting, clearly made on commission and with proscribed contents, probably for local Jesuits or their followers; The Allegory of Faith (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) where a clearly Catholic Matron is crushing an evil snake underfoot.


In Dutch Protestantism, individual private reading of the Old and New Testament was strongly advocated. Every person was expected to learn how to read so that they would be able to read the bible personally, and therefore become intimately familiar with the word of God. Thus after the Alteratie, city authorities made a serious effort to provide education for all its inhabitants, with a main focus on reading skills. This schooling system in the Republic provided a uniquely high level of literacy, then unparalleled in the Western world.
Next door to the Prinsenhof is the Schoolstraat (School street). In 1634 the Latin School was housed there – see the commemorative plaque. The initial school housed on this site was founded in 1460 by the religious order inspired by Geert Grote, the lay preacher who advocated private prayer as a foundation of religious practice for every man and woman.

In our day and age people usually read silently to themselves from books. Indications are that reading aloud was quite normal in the seventeenth century, even when one was alone. At the dinner table the head of the family read portions of the bible aloud for family members (see the table prayer).



Hidden churches

Although it did not become the state religion in the full sense of the word, the Dutch Reformed Church became entrenched as a key element in all cities in the Republic. Full religious rights were given to Calvinists, Lutherans, and to those French-speaking Protestants who had fled from the Wallon region in southern Belgium and from France. However, only limited freedom was granted to existing local religious groups, such as Catholics, Jews and to Anabaptists who had later turned into pacifist Mennonites. They were generally not persecuted as long as they kept a low profile and conformed to the city’s written and unwritten rules and regulations.
Thus in the ensuing years after the Alteratie all the way up to the end of the eighteenth century, the Catholic church was partially suppressed in the Republic and the only accepted way of holding a mass was in so-called ‘hidden church’ buildings. These hidden churches could be simple private rooms or even quite large and ornate halls on the inside, but their existence was only tolerated as long as they were not recognizable from the street. The sounds of prayer, songs or organ music was not permitted to be heard outside on the streets.
One hidden church in Delft belonged to the minority Catholic branch of Jansenist doctrine, and was managed by secular priests who lived at the Begijnhof or Beguinage at Oude Delft just north of the Prinsenhof. The Jansenist religious viewpoints were more or less compatible with Protestant teachings. The female inhabitants of the Beguinage performed essential social work for the townspeople regardless of religion and were highly esteemed. One of Vermeer’s daughters actually became a Beguin nun.
The other hidden church was manned by the Jesuits at Oude Langendijk, located at the border of the Catholic quarter of Delft, called the “Papenhoek” (Popish corner). Vermeer moved into this house after marrying Catharina Bolnes, Maria Thins’ daughter. Founded as a spearhead pro-Catholic order, the highly educated Jesuits were instructed to increase the quality of Catholic life, especially among lay people and promoted the Counter-reformation movement throughout Europe. This second hidden church was located just a few doors east of the home of Maria Thins (ca. 1593-1680), Vermeer’s mother-in-law on Oude Langendijk.


Religious orthodox and liberals

Under Menno’s influence, Mennonite Protestants were influenced by humanistic ideals of peaceful co-existence with Catholics and thus became more enlightened, whereas orthodox Protestants went fiercely all out for religious and political confrontation. In that vein they wanted very little to do with Catholics or other minority religions.
However, most inhabitants of Dutch cities felt that that living together within the same city meant give and take and thus evading sharp definitions. The idea in any commercial town was finding a workable middle ground for doing business.

Essential to Dutch society was the basic attitude of tolerance in which people of many faiths had to work together seriously, literally pooling resources in order to keep their feet dry, maintaining and managing systems of water pumps, dikes and water engineering in perfect order. This need for physical survival was an ultimate practical goal overriding many religious and philosophical differences. This principle of harmony may still be observed as pervasive in Dutch society and politics.
Some city governments such as those of Leiden and Delft became hard-line anti-Spanish and fiercely pro-Calvinist. They barred Mennonites from official town functions and this strict practice excluded a man like Van Ruijven, the great Vermeer patron, who we will discuss further on. Other city governments, including that of Amsterdam, were much more inclined to be tolerant, and remained predominantly flexible, preferring business as usual and gentle coexistence. This highly practical attitude is exemplified in Rembrandt’s 1662 group portrait of the Staalmeesters (The Sampling Officials, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), depicting five officers appointed by the city who represent the major faiths found there.

Nevertheless, in-group fighting was also fierce in the Republic. In 1604 religious controversy within Dutch Calvinism came to a bitter, sharp schismatic confrontation all over Holland between followers of the orthodox theologian Gomarus and a more liberal faction headed by Arminius. Theology was not just an academic matter for church leaders or theologians, but was felt as a vibrant subject matter crucial for the entire society. On the surface the old vexing question was whether a place in heaven could be secured for an individual soul. This controversy was also felt sharply in Delft, the poorer classes advocating more aggressive warfare against Spain. In the National Synod of 1618-1619, a representative of this hard-line attitude from Delft was the Calvinist minister Henricus Arnoldi.
Offset against this was a group of well-to-do liberal burghers, striving to achieve periods of relaxation in the struggle against Spain. Educated citizens were often part of this tolerant group as they noted across the borders in France and Germanic lands to what blood-stained excesses religious persecutions could lead. 

Nevertheless, deep down the conflict became as much political as religious, separating political hard-liners from those willing to compromise. The clash took place in public debate and a toxic mix of religious and political interests unfolded as followers of all groups failed to mince words in their heated discussions and in print. Intense discussions and flurries of pamphlets filled the political, spiritual and emotional landscape. The Republic was on the verge of civil clashes.


Mix of Politics and Religion


With hindsight it is clear just how seismic a shift this was for the new faith to do away with the idea of an intermediary between the individual and God. The Protestant Synod meeting of 1619 supported the hard-line, allowing the liberals - then called Remonstrants – to continue their religious practice in hidden churches and retain their dissenting ministers. Many Remonstrant adherents paid a price and lost important positions in city government in towns with a stricter policy, including Delft. Amsterdam was more lenient in this respect.



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Maria van Jesse church

The massive nineteenth century Maria van Jesse Catholic church now stands on the former spot of the house on Oude Langendijk in which Vermeer  and his family lived up to his death in 1675. The church’s triumphantly outsize brickwork construction was only made possible after the full emancipation of the Catholic church and the institution of formal bishoprics in 1853. This church was built from 1875-1882 and has been awarded the status of a national architectural monument because of its size, and well-preserved interior and exterior. Stylistically, it is a perfect example of the opulent activity of the Catholic church that emerged in the Netherlands after 1870. This blossoming but rather inward-looking era of the Catholic life has been called “The Rich Roman Life”. A large commemorative plaque referring to the former Vermeer house can be seen at the corner of Oude Langendijk and Molensteeg.


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Insurgence against Spain


Religion had come to play a crucial role in Delft. Its position as a stronghold came into full focus when the Acte van Verlatinghe - Act of Separation - was published in 1568, and allegiance to the Spanish King  Phillip II was unilaterally severed by the Dutch. This was a momentous and revolutionary step. For the king it presented a casus belli, a reason for going to war if ever there was one,  unleashing the “Eighty Years War” between the king on the one hand and tenacious insurgent groups in Dutch cities and provinces on the other. The insurgents sought religious liberty and when it was not granted, resorted to rebellion, violence and to shaping a state of their own, the brand new political entity of the Dutch Republic. At various times in history, these seven united provinces went by different names – “The Republic”, “the Netherlands” or “Holland”, the latter referring to the dominant province on the western coastline. The province of Holland in the west and Zeeland in the southwest held prime seafaring positions, and excelled in fishery and in developing international trade.

During the Eighty Years War, the battles between the Spanish troops and the Dutch armies led to a victory here and there, a town was won and lost, taking the district or an entire province along. The major east-west flowing rivers and estuaries of Maas and Rhine initially formed natural borders between the Republic in the north and the Spanish Netherlands in the south, and thus became the focus of a military buildup. Towns at key points on these rivers, such as Gorinchem (aka Gorkum), were turned into strongholds. Fortified Delft was some 40 miles inland from Gorinchem, and thus safe and secure. Military successes in the 1630’s by the Republic gained them territory and the border moved to a point south of the cities of Breda and Den Bosch.


Urban life

Safe and sound at an appreciable distance from the enemy border, seventeenth century urban life took a central position in the Dutch Republic. Self assured and self-reliant, Dutch cities managed their own politics and business. Towns were especially predominant in the western coastal province of Holland where an unparalleled 61% of the entire population lived in urban centers. Scores of cities had risen in the thirteenth and fourteenth century and blossomed from the 1500s onwards when trade and artisan activity were already on the rise. Delft, located in the south-western corner of the coastal province of Holland, had already attained a unique political and military position and boasted of a venerable political history by the middle of the seventeenth century. Although bristling with military life, when the painter Johannes Vermeer appeared on the scene in 1653 it had become a peaceful commercial town.


Delft population grew from 17,500 in 1600 to a peak of about 25,000 in 1670, when the total number of inhabitants of the entire Republic reached about 2 million. Compared to other Dutch cities, Delft was just medium-sized, whereas Amsterdam had expanded from 30,000 inhabitants around 1560 to 219,000 in 1670. Throughout Holland cities prospered as industry and trade boomed through hard work in cities and in the countryside. During his travels through Holland in 1711, the Englishman Burnet reported the bustle of life in his diary: "On Sundays people traveled, windmills were in operation, farmers were seen at work and shops were open just as on weekdays." Perhaps he exaggerated a little as Sunday was a leisure day of going to church for most people.

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Setbacks in Delft: Fire and Plague


The early history of Delft began in the 1200s with homes built along newly hand-dug or ‘delved’ canals aligned north to south. It was from the Dutch verb for delved that the city of Delft actually got its name. The western-most canal is still known as Oude Delft, and lined with beautiful old houses, especially at the center section near the Oude Kerk, (Old church located at Heilige Geestkerkhof 25).
Delft had its share of setbacks. In the sixteenth century it had suffered from the devastating fire of 1536 that destroyed massive areas in the western part of the city and even some parts of the center. The extent of this damage is shown on a historical map, now in the Prinsenhof Museum. After this fire, municipal regulations were toughened, insisting on lining wooden walls with bricks, and replacing thatched roofs with tiled roofs. As we shall see later on, the Vermeer painting Het Straatje (The Little Street, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) shows such a fireproof brick facing of a much older half-timbered structure.
Sickness and disease also took their toll. Later in 1624-25, only a few years before Vermeer’s birth, the plague had taken a brutal toll in Delft, wiping out more than a tenth of the cities’ population. Nevertheless, urban life continued and there was no breakdown of institutions in religious or civil society, nor in economy. All debts were professionally recorded by a notary public when someone died and property matters were duly settled by law.

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Strongest set of fortifications

From 1400 onwards, Delft was on the rise economically. The construction of walls, gates and wall towers had begun and progressed so that by 1500, its outer perimeter was fully built up and strengthened, and finally modernized in 1590. By then Delft boasted the strongest fortified system of walls and towers in the entire Republic. In defense strategy, Delft had become a crucial part of the province of Holland, the foremost province of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. It was actually one of six cities with a major say in the affairs of the province. By extension, it also became influential in the central government body the Staten Generaal (States General) that convened just 10 miles north of Delft in The Hague.
The leader of the insurgence, William of Orange (1533-1584) selected Delft as the seat of government because of its safe inland location and superior fortifications. Military forces within Delft existed on no less than three separate tiers, making it a quintessential military town. First there was the Civic Guard of Delft itself, organized in platoons with officers from the wealthy and troops from the solid middle class. Secondly there were professional troops and armament stockpiles of the economically and politically most important province of Holland. Thirdly Delft maintained troops and armament stockpiles of the Republic itself, under the leadership of its central government body, the States General.

Thus in the military stronghold of Delft one could not help but run into military personnel. Vermeer’s father and Vermeer himself had various personal acquaintances from the military ranks. As early as 1653 the names of Johannes Vermeer and military officers appear together in financial documents denoting close ties between them. A direct link existed through Vermeer’s maternal uncle Reynier Balthens.

One document – listing the Vermeer surname, not his first name – strongly suggests that quite late in his lifetime Vermeer had become a member of the Civic Guard. In the 1670s the Vermeer name is listed in the first squad of the third company in the orange banner quarter of Delft. The orange banner quarter was the second transversal slice of town, counting from the south end. Each transversal slice cut through the wealthy district in the west end and also included some less wealthy areas in the east. Officers were selected from the wealthier district as they were considered to have better leadership qualities and would obey the instructions of the city government in times of trouble. All members had much to lose in a material sense and therefore had a greater commitment to protect the city and its property. Wealthier inhabitants could more easily afford the fine uniform and weapons that went with the appointment. City officials could however not count on the platoons being at their beck and call: during upheavals such as iconoclasm and the ‘Alteratie’ the population was so divided that the Civic Guard took a back seat and often just let events run their own course. This left the municipal government with little practical power. An inventory made of the objects in the Vermeer-Thins family home shortly after Vermeer’s death in 1675 included iron armor, a helmet and a pike (a type of lance). These details seem to support his  having been a Civic Guard member. 


In 1660-1661 Vermeer had depicted the southern gates of the city in his largest townscape, the View of Delft, an audacious celebration of urban power and pride in Delft’s independent strength. These two main gates safely protected the town from enemy invasion over water or land. In fact, the city was so well positioned and so strongly defended with walls, towers and weaponry that it has never actually been attacked by armed troops.

Vermeer’s father Reynier Jansz ran an hostelry called the Mechelen Inn. His personal and business contacts of included a solid middle-class clientele. These contacts are documented by the co-signers  who guaranteed loans and related documents. They included such influential and successful men as Reynier van Heukelom, a former art painter who still owned a large art collection and also had dealings with military contractors and fortification engineers at the cities of The Hague and Gorinchem.
Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. At around the age of twelve in 1644, he must have begun his six-year professional training as an artist. Only one archival document is known about Vermeer from his birth to 1653. This exception is a contract dealing with the situation of one of the children possibly being treated as an orphan should one or both of the parents die. This may indicate that Vermeer spent part or all of that six-year training period plus a few extra years as a fine art painter, outside Delft. Where he studied exactly, and with whom, is still an enigma. The city of Utrecht seems to be a good candidate, although how Vermeer picked up the almost Venetian color and painting technique would still be an unsolved question. In 1653 Vermeer co-signed a document with two army captains, Van den Bosch and Melling  Having just returned to Delft in 1654, Vermeer witnessed and co-signed a document in which one of the other parties was Lambertus Morleth, an army captain from Cleves in the eastern border region. Other examples of Vermeer freely mixing with persons from various walks of life can be seen in dozens of Delft achival documents, mostly concerning financial matters.


The Vermeer painting Officer and a Laughing Girl  (Frick Collection, New York, 1657) may also be seen as an expression of his familiarity with military life. At the same time this painting marks the beginning of the famous series of small interior views, that - during the next 20 odd years - would become his signature field of specialization. This small work thus stands at the beginning of this new series of paintings.  Far from being a trial piece, it is seemingly effortless, strong and convincing as it expresses many remarkable qualities: a finely honed sense of space, clear perspective, razor-sharp clarity in details such as the map on the wall, both psychological and erotic strength in the meeting of man and woman and an all-pervading luminosity that always impresses the viewer of this fairly small painting. It works well on many levels and succeeds in reverberating in the viewers’ mind.
In 1657, when the Officer and a Laughing Girl was painted, a loan of 200 guilders was recorded from the Delft inhabitant Pieter Claesz van Ruijven to Vermeer. Although this loan document does not state it in so many words, it may well have been an advance on a Vermeer painting to be delivered in future. Van Ruijven and his wife Maria de Knuijt (see box) played an important role in Vermeer’s life, buying up and hoarding about half his total output of paintings in their private home. This provided Vermeer with a fairly high long-term income as well as a good reason to remain in Delft. The only limitation was that Van Ruyven did open  his collection to the public as a private museum. By actually keeping half of Vermeer’s works from public view and out of the art market, he seriously reduced Vermeer’s visibility and fame both inside Delft and beyond. 


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Vermeer’s Patron

Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-1674) married Maria de Knuijt in 1653. The couple was independently wealthy and in the course of time they became Vermeer’s single most important patron. Early in the artist’s career in 1657, Pieter and Maria lent him 200 gulders, presumably as prepayment for paintings.
Van Ruijven and his wife purchased Vermeer’s paintings at the rate of perhaps one a year. A group of art lovers visited the Vermeer studio in 1669 and (as logic would probably dictate) went to the Van Ruijven collection of paintings as well, a visit described in the diary of Pieter Teding van Berkhout.  A member of this group of art lovers was the famous art patron Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Princes of Orange and the person who had already launched the careers of the painters Jan Lievens and Rembrandt.
Although van Ruijven’s wife Maria was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Pieter’s family adhered to the Mennonite minority, which barred him from a political career within Delft.
Initially the couple owned two houses in Delft on the Voorstraat canal. The one located on the west side was modest in size, the other on the east side, the former brewery De Os (The Ox) was somewhat larger. In 1660 van Ruijven also bought the brewery De Gouden Aecker (The Golden Acorn) on Voorstraat 39 for 2,100 guilders. The couple probably settled in De Gouden Adelaar (The Golden Eagle), worth 10,500 guilders. Is this the house on the east side of Oude Delft near Boterbrug? In  the years 1664 and 1665 they still lived on the east side of Oude Delft.
Maria died in 1681, leaving her estate to her daughter. When this daughter died in turn, her collection was left to her husband Jacob Dissius, on Markt 32 (see Chapter 7).


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Delft Government and Policing



As Delft was strong in a militarily sense, and at the same time well away from the border, this massing of soldiers yielded a relatively peaceful life for its inhabitants. The relatively sophisticated local government and policing also contributed to the stability of society. The government headquarters were located on Markt. The old Stadhuis  (town hall) building on Markt burned to the ground in 1618. After this fire, the only part remaining standing of the original medieval structure was the massive high central tower towards the back. In 1620 a new edifice was built around and in front of it, its architecture celebrating a festive northern Renaissance style, full of joyous gold-leaf ornament. The impressive new building was designed by the foremost Dutch architect, Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621) who also designed and produced the grave monument to William of Orange, in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).


Thanks to the full text listed in the Description of Delft, a history book written by the Delft historian Dirck van Bleyswijck and published in 1667, we are able to take a tour of the town hall as it functioned during that Golden Age era. This tour is now also available in English on the Internet. Go to Google and type: delft town hall tour
Van Bleyswijck, sheriff, public official in charge of orphans and mayor is a perfect example of a successful man from the inner circle of powerful and rich patrician families, the governing ‘burgher-elite’.


The city was governed by a council of forty men. The members of this council were chosen and co-opted from within the fairly closed circles of the elite and powerful families in Delft. Requirements for admission into this circle were adherence to the Protestant religion and private or family wealth. Government posts necessitated having a great deal of free time (= otium), which set these people apart from those who were not wealthy and had to make money in trade (= negotium). A set of four acting mayors or ‘burgomasters’ were selected from among this council, who in turn were responsible for the day-to-day governing. The sheriff and aldermen responsible for the public order were also chosen from their ranks.
Family wealth was further secured and strengthened by collecting sinecures, formal city governing posts bringing in good sums of money annually, but requiring little hands-on management or daily attention.
Marrying into the right families also served to increase family wealth, thus creating a political and business network that was in fact an extended family affair. By and large, adult men had a better than average survival-rate as they did not suffer from childbirth complications. Pregnancies were frequent for women and all too often mortally dangerous for both babies and their mothers.


The governors of Delft not only had the powers to create, administer and enforce laws, but also ruled much of the agricultural land around the city. Their jurisdiction stretched eleven miles south to the harbor town of Delfshaven, adjacent to Rotterdam, with direct access to the mouth of the Maas River and thus to the North Sea. A canal with a towpath formed a highly efficient transportation link between Delft and Delfshaven. The close political and geographic ties between Delft and Delfshaven were also shown in the Orphans’ Room, the office that dealt with orphans, in the town hall. One function of the Orphan room was to take custody of children, even if only one of the two parents died. This seizure was often a nightmarish scenario for the remaining parent and child. Vermeer’s parents signed a mutual agreement in order to prevent this from happening.  A painting depicting another nightmare, the terrifying ice mountain that had threatened buildings in the town of Delfshaven on January 2, 1565 was exhibited in this Orphans’ Room.



Policing without Police



In terms of keeping the peace, we read time and time again of men in Delft and for that matter any Dutch town, as rowdy beer and gin imbibing knife-toting louts. In July 1625 an example of this type happened to be the weaver, Reynier Jansz, who was to become Vermeer’s father seven years later. In Delft during the 1620s there were fewer than 10 master caffa weavers (caffa is a silk and wool-satin weave, often with pictorial elements), and it is logical that they knew each other by name and drank together.
Willem van Bylandt, a soldier quartered in Delft, ran into a fight with two such caffa weavers, Dingeman van der Plaat, and Vermeer’s father Reynier Jansz, plus a third man; Jacob Jansz. During this brawl, that escalated into an ugly knife fight, Willem became seriously wounded with deep knife wounds.
As  modern police and police procedures did not exist at that time in Delft, those involved could not go directly to the authorities for justice. The parties had to deal with things among themselves. Thus the wounded soldier, his three assailents and their respective mothers met to settle the matter. Reynier’s mother Digna Baltens was there, as well as the mothers of the other two attackers. Together, this group also appeared before the notary public and the three culprits mutually agreed to the financial compensation of six Flemish pounds valued at 6 guilders each (making it 36 guilders or almost a month’s income per assailant). The agreement furthermore stipulated that no further acts of revenge would be taken by Willem’s family, should he die from the wounds. He showed his good will in inviting the three assailants to a round of drinks worth five guilders should he reach complete recovery. This compensation was later lowered - after being paid four Flemish pounds a head, the soldier declared he was completely satisfied and considered the debt to be settled. However, the deep wounds inflicted by the three led to Willem’s death later that year in November, 1625.
Although now this situation would leave the possibilities of a charge of manslaughter or a charge of murder by the authorities wide open, the three men got away with no further punishment at all.
This 1625 knifing incident is a perfect example of how Delft society as a whole kept public order with a system of written documentation. This implied policing a society without actually having a police force. Authorities only took charge in really serious cases such as murder or serious financial wrongdoings. In case of murder, there was a city official at hand, the schout (sheriff) who had powers to prosecute. The seventeenth century town historian Van Bleyswijck had once been such a schout. This self-policing system depended on both a close-knit mutual sense of neighborhood with a system of vigilant neighborhood watch as well as on individuals to report all odd events to a notary public. One only went to the city magistrates after things repeatedly got out of hand, proving this by means of a stack of notarized documents. Retribution of criminal acts was primarily up to the wronged party and their circle of family and friends. The archival records of the notary public contain many slices of problematic daily life.
Ten years later Reynier Jansz, then 43 years old, was reported in a more favorable and peaceful way in archival documents. On a cold January day, Reynier and three other caffa weavers were out on the ice, each holding a colf stick, playing an early form of ice hockey. One of the caffa workers, Cornelis Theunisz got into a knife fight with Robberecht Post. Post repeatedly attacked and was told to calm down, which he initially did. Then he returned to the scene, knife in hand, stabbed Cornelis again and hit him on the head several times as he fell. Cornelis then got up and left the ice, followed by Robberecht, who called him nasty names. When he felt that enough was enough Robberecht then disappeared. This violent scrape of four persons shows how flaring emotion and a potential dangerous knife situation was successfully de-escalated. Reynier must have contributed to this outcome. The archival researcher, the late John Michael Montias, who has uncovered this and other stories, adds that this Robberecht was a captain in the service of the Admiralty. He had a personality and attitude problem, to say the least, and a reputation of being a man looking for a fight.



Delft Economy

Initially economic wealth in fifteenth and sixteenth century Delft was based on the quality of the local beer, whose successful production was made possible by the good quality of the Delft canal water. In the course of time however, human habitation seriously polluted the water tables and canals so that even well water pumped up in kitchens became bacterially unsafe. Beer brewing continued on a smaller scale during the seventeenth century.
Traditionally, Delft formed a hub for luxury products. Initially tapestry-weaving workshops produced expensive wall hangings and furniture fabrics either with pictorial or floral scenes. The market for these costly items was mainly in government circles in The Hague who often purchased these tapestries as gifts for ambassadors and other important parties. Other patrons were official orders for town halls and the boardrooms of guilds and other institutions. Some of the tapestries shown in Vermeer paintings may have been locally made. The one shown in The Procuress (Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Dresden,1656)  was an oriental import and may have come from Ushak in western Turkey.
When the VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company, see box) started to import the first Chinese porcelain, demand was great and prices were high. Although genuine China faience and porcelain was imported in huge quantities, the demand remained. In the 1620s and 1630s faience makers in Delft developed a process of making products that resembled those made in China. This production line of Delftware was to become a pillar of Delft economy.
Another line of luxury products were oil paintings bought by local inhabitants as investments. By the beginning of the century one Delft painter, Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1567-1641) had cornered the portrait market. The town government also ordered his paintings as decoration for city buildings and gifts for important visitors.
A small but influential sideline in Delft was in the field of optics. Later on in this book we will discuss a number of lens makers.


United East India Company, VOC


The United East India Company (VOC) was founded in 1602 by a group of individual traders who organized their activities in local chambers located in six harbor towns. The Amsterdam chamber was by far the largest and most influential.  Stock was sold widely so that even servants and others from the lower and middle classes were able to afford a share in the business. Stocks soared after the fully laden spice ships returned from the east, and the dividend payments were fantastic.
All chambers worked under the name and logo VOC. In Delft a ‘D’ was added to the logo in order to attach a property identification mark to all goods belonging to this local branch. Each chamber was represented by a number of seats on the central board, 'Heeren XVII', (the Governors Seventeen). Far reaching powers were given to this central board with regard to setting up trading posts, outfitting forts with troops and making treaties with local rulers in distant countries. Thus the powers of the VOC also involved a military branch and in trade stations abroad its power almost resembled that of a state.


In the course of the years from 1602-1650, this Delft chamber built and outfitted a total of thirty ships for the voyage to the east. In the following decades an average of one to two ships per year sailed out of the Delfshaven harbor. Later this number even increased. Buying stock in the VOC could be a risky investment, as each single ship might not return, but the successful return of cargo with expensive spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and exotic products including Chinese porcelain and silk meant a princely return on investment.
VOC Delft operated from two locations. The major headquarters, the 'Oost Indisch Huis' (East India House) was at Oude Delft 39, near the southern harbor. This was the management and storage facility for costly goods. Directly across the water was the VOC warehouse positioned right on the water's edge where hoisting tackle could reach right into the holds of the ships.

The other location of VOC-D was in Delfshaven, Delft’s own harbor on the river Maas. The warehouse building erected there in 1672 served as storage for everything ships might need when going on a long eastward voyage. Delfshaven was also the location of a important shipbuilding yard and the home base of the herring fleet. Upon the return of a great East India ship, goods were offloaded near Delfshaven into smaller inland ships, which sailed to the Delft location for storage, trade and distribution.
In terms of ships and personnel there was a fluid mix between private enterprise and military shipping. During a sailor’s or captain’s career one could move freely from trade to privateering, and from to national defense on the high seas to sailing commercial routes.
Two well-known admirals chose to make their home in Delft. The first was Piet Hein (1577-1629), who was hired by the West India Company. He became famous for his 1628 capture of the Spanish Silver Fleet valued at 15 million Dutch guilders. This fortune was a major boost in the Dutch struggle for independence. He settled at Oude Delft 171, an expensive and beautiful building that cost him a rental sum of 350 guilders a year. His grave monument may be seen in the Oude Kerk.

Cornelis Tromp (1629-1691) was the son of Admiral Maarten Harpertsz Tromp (1598 - 1653) whose monument is also in the Oude Kerk. Cornelis also became an admiral in 1673 and lived at De Papegaey (The Parrot) at the site of Oude Delft 15-21 between 1655-1691. His house can be seen on the left hand side of the View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague). The slender tower that formed part of that building was demolished. You can now see it about 20 houses over to the north, rebuilt during a twentieth century renovation.



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Largest Birds-Eye View Map


Delft sense of competition and pride of place is perfectly expressed in the grand Kaart Figuratief (Figurative map) and includes ornamental and figurative parts in the right hand lower corner. This very large map was produced in 1675-78 by a team of specialist craftsmen for the city magistrates as a visible declaration and celebration of Delft’s architectural beauty and as an expression of her important position in politics, history and trade. In the end this map project has proven to be the largest and most impressive birds-eye view map of any seventeenth century Dutch town.
On it, we are able to fly over Delft and identify all its key locations. The right hand bottom depicts images of local sources of wealth, including Delft Blue porcelain.


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The Dutch Golden age began about 1580 and lasted until the political and military crisis of 1672. This was a period when trade and industry blossomed, producing an unheard of accumulation of wealth. The military crisis of 1672 affected the economy and had a major impact on Vermeer the painter and art dealer.



Protestants and Catholics

The paternal side of the Vermeer family must have respected Stadhouder William of Orange and his insurgent House of Orange as paintings of members of the reigning Stadhouder family are listed in Vermeer’s father Reynier Jansz’s inventory in 1623. Itemized are portraits of the Prince and Princess (the future Stadhouder Fredrik Hendrik and his wife) and the military leaders, Stadhouder Prince Frederik Hendrik and his brother Prince Maurits. During military campaigns Frederik Hendrik captured the towns of Den Bosch (1629), Maastricht (1632) and Breda (1637) from the Spanish and thus succeeded in moving the borderline of the Republic further south.

Vermeers father Reijnier Jansz initially made his living as a caffa or silk satin weaver. He went on to branch out as an innkeeper, and it is obvious that in that line of work he dealt with customers from all walks of life, Catholics and Protestants, locals and foreigners. Later on he decided to become a professional art dealer as well.
We know of no diaries, or letters discussing the Vermeer family, so windows into their life only exist in documents written by the notary public; most include financial contracts and some show inventory lists.
Reijnier’s son, the painter Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. Christian tradition required that baptism of the infant take place within days, preferably within a week. In Delft baptism took place just after the end of a weekday noon service. As a boy Vermeer was undoubtedly raised in the Protestant faith.
It is highly probable that as an adult he converted to Catholicism in order to obtain permission to marry his beloved Catharina Bolnes. We do however have problems in understanding how Vermeer converted in the extremely short span of just a few months. Conversion may have been only a formality on paper just before marrying. Subsequently, with the one or two exceptions mentioned below, Vermeer opted not to touch upon Catholic subject matter in his paintings. There is a distinct lack of Catholic themes in his work. One of the two exceptions is the much-criticized Allegory of Faith (Metropolitan Museum, of Art, New York). A crucifix is shown in the painting against the backdrop of a sheet of gold-tooled leather.

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Allegory of Faith


The Allegory of Faith has presented many problems because of the strange contents. On one hand it is an example of illusionism in its almost photographic realism, leading us to accept that we are observing a well-appointed Dutch interior. The actual scene that Vermeer has painted is however clearly impossible to believe that the objects shown are from an everyday home. He depicts a matronly lady squashing an evil snake underfoot, surrounded by such odd paraphernalia as a globe on her platform, a glass sphere hanging from the ceiling and other unlikely objects.

This Allegory of Faith may well have been ordered by local Jesuits who had admired his Art of Painting, a masterpiece of art and illusion, and wanted something at least as exciting and impressive. Its allegorical theme and the main figure fiercely proclaim Catholic values. This points at counter-reformation propaganda in many respects: in its large size, formal structure, iconography, and finally its breathtaking illusionism. Nevertheless, it stands out strangely in the body of Vermeer’s work because of the juxtaposition of reality and myth.

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A second Vermeer work with a Catholic theme that also depicts a crucifix, his St Praxedis (Princeton, New Jersey), is painted in an early ‘Italian style’. This painting is currently accepted as a Vermeer by a minority of specialists.
Calvinists generally dismissed a crucifix as a prayer-focusing object. As a crucifix is listed in the inventory made in 1676 upon Vermeer’s death, it speaks of the Thins -Vermeer family leanings in matters of faith. The one Vermeer owned may have actually been the one shown in the Allegory of Faith (see above).
Catharina and Johannes decided to raise their children as Catholics. They even gave three of their many children specifically Catholic first names; Maria, Franciscus, Ignatius. The most expressive name in the list is the latter, referring to Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order.


Fear of the orphanage


There is only one known document that mentions Johannes Vermeer during his childhood. In 1638, when he was 6 years old, his parents signed a document designating the surviving parent as the recipient of the other’s estate, and the sole guardian of their children. By doing this, they avoided the chance that if even one parent died, their children would be taken away and put in an orphanage. They also stipulated that their children had to be properly fed, clothed, sent to school to learn to read and write and learn a proper trade up to either the point of their adulthood or marriage.
This was certainly a costly promise as well as a heavy burden. Paying for vocational art training in Delft (at the home of a Delft painter, so that Johannes could still live and eat at home) involved the cost of some 50 guilders a year for at least six years. Finding a master outside Delft in another city would have easily doubled the price because of the additional costs of room and board.
In addition, this also meant delaying the point at which a child could start to earn an income, as would have been the case when training as a manual laborer such as a blacksmith, shoemaker or cooper. A painter could not hope to make much money from his artwork during the early years of his training. It is clear that Vermeer’s parents were willing to make sacrifices for his costly education.
Furthermore, the surviving parent (either Reynier Jansz or Digna Baltens) also promised to provide a wedding feast for their children.
This document barred the Orphan’s Office from succession rights and Vermeer’s parents had good reasons for doing so. Life for orphans was hellish, working like slaves in workshops or being sent away by ship to the East or West Indies.

The year 1641 was a momentous for Johannes, then aged nine and a half, as his family moved from their small rental house on the tiny Voldersgracht canal to an important building called ‘Mechelen’ on Markt. The parcel of land on which Mechelen stood stretched all the way from the front on Markt to the waters of the Voldersgracht in the back. This large, relatively wide house at a prime location boasted no less than seven hearths and large windows, each of which was taxed by the city. Vermeer’s father Reynier was able to operate a large inn within this building. He only needed to pay 200 guilders up front and succeeded in getting good permanent loans for the remaining sum, the major amount of money coming from a family member of his good friend the notary public, Willem de Langue who lived a few houses over on Markt. Annual mortgage payments only came to 125 guilders, making it a very reasonable price for real estate at such a prime location. The Vermeer family would be happy there for a long period of time and only after some twenty-five years, did widow Digna Baltens have to sell the property.



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Work at Mechelen Inn

Day-to-day work at the inn entailed cleaning, preparing and serving food and drink, and airing and then making quite a number of beds. This work may have been shouldered by both Vermeer’s mother Digna Baltens and by his older sister Gertruy Vermeer (1620-1670). There may also have been a maid.
Gertruy married a nearly illiterate but otherwise successful ebony frame maker, Anthonij Gerritsz van der Wiel (1620-1693) who lived on the south side of Vlamingstraat. Perhaps she was considered an “old maid”, too experienced as an innkeeper, having had to endure many years of the alcohol-enhanced attentions of the inn’s customers.
Beer was drunk daily but up-market wine was also served at the inn. During the last year of Reynier’s life there was a large debt outstanding of 250 guilders to the wine merchant Simon Doncker. This sum was equivalent to about a year’s worth of income for a journeyman.

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Vermeer as a family name

All throughout the Middle Ages people often just went by their patronymic, as in ‘Reynier Janszoon, shortened to Jansz. As society became more complicated, family names became necessary to distinguish between persons. In the Dutch Republic there was a gradual need felt in public life to work with family names. In a 1638 document Reynier Jansz had already added the surname ‘Vos’ or Fox to his own name, perhaps referring to the inn’s name De Vliegende Vos (The Flying Fox). Perhaps it also playfully alluded to Reynier’s first name, which easily sparks a literary association with the well-known medieval story of Reynard the Fox. In signing his documents he also went by the last name of ‘Van der Minne’. Reynier’s brother Anthony had already been using the name Vermeer fifteen years prior to this. Later, in 1640 Reynier permanently changed this new family name to Van der Meer, later shortened to Vermeer. Among the other witnesses who signed that particular document were the landscape painter Pieter Groenewegen and the floral painter Balthasar van der Ast. This indicates that by then Reynier was a respected art dealer and part of a close network of painters.
There is a direct connection between the painter Groenewegen and Vermeer’s work. The virginal shown in the painting Lady standing at the Virginal (National Gallery, London) is decorated with a Groenewegen landscape as a painting-within-a-painting. Vermeer may have actually owned this landscape as a painting that hung on his own wall. Balthasar van der Ast was a high-quality painter of floral still-lifes.

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Art movements during the seventeenth century


A number of interesting things happened in the art of painting around 1600. The works of master artists from the German speaking countries and from Italy were often known in the Netherlands through prints (woodcuts, etchings and engravings) that were collected both as works of art in their own right and as reference material. Famous collectible names included that of many Italian masters and also northern ones, printmakers Lucas van Leyden and Albrecht Dürer. Later, the single most influential painter was the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). In his work he advocated an uncanny almost photographic realism, a preference for figures from the lower walks of life, including subjects with dirty fingernails. He used strong emotional contents and an expressive juxtaposition of very light areas versus very dark areas within one painting. The latter quality became known as chiaroscuro or clair-obscur. Through travels by northern artists to Italy and then back, this clair-obscur method found its way throughout Europe. It fell on especially fertile soil in the central Dutch city of Utrecht where a handful of well-traveled painters worked in his style.   In the rest of Western Europe most painters relied on commissions by political rulers, large state institutions, and by church institutions and clergymen. Many commissions were intended to mark the reign of a local ruler. The art market was also heavily influenced by commissions for works of art intended to instruct and glorify the Catholic faith, a propaganda effort known as the Counter-reformation. Counter reformation painting made use of various theatrical methods to capture and amaze the viewer, and its main purpose was to depict positive contents supporting church teachings. Image was used as a weapon in the battle against the enemy, the Reformation, which abhorred imagery and relied upon the written and spoken word.

After the revolution or  “Alteratie” in cities in the Republic in 1572, and the resulting sudden switch from Catholic to Protestant rule, this situation changed overnight. Painters and sculptors in the Guild of St Luke immediately lost commissions for church and convent decorations and thus had to discover new markets for their work. They increasingly began to work for individual collectors eager to invest in paintings for home decoration. Thus artists had to veer away from traditional form and content that had developed gradually from the Middle Ages on, and discover scenes from daily life that would entice the middle class citizen into buying paintings as adornment and investment.

During the first decade following the Alteratie of 1572, the guilds still honored their patron Saint’s Day, such as the annual St Luke’s day, October 18, by ringing church bells. Under fierce Protestant criticism this age-old tradition was ended in 1582. The guilds had thus become entirely secular bodies, and public street processions were no longer permitted. Instead, guild members celebrated their annual alcohol-filled festivals indoors, away from the public eye. Only civic guard platoons were allowed to hold public processions of a secular nature, often on Sundays. 

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Dutch Painters outside Delft


In the seventeenth century Dutch Republic, major innovations in the art of painting took place in various major Dutch cities outside Delft. As discussed above, in Utrecht a group of painters championed and emulated dramatic paintings by the Italian painter Caravaggio. In Rotterdam, Willem Pietersz Buytewech (1591/92-1624) painted refined interior scenes of well-dressed sitters of a type called ‘Merry Companies’, and he introduced what is now known as ‘genre painting’, showing scenes from everyday life. In Leiden, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) excelled in making super-refined illusionist high-gloss fijnschilder paintings, extremely detailed and realistic, thinly painted, highly finished paintings. Another fijnschilder is Dou’s favourite pupil Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) whose miniature format allegory of Pictura is shown here.


In The Hague Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) opened up new avenues in landscape with a limited tonality of color. In Haarlem, Frans Hals (1581/85-1666) developed a wild painterly streak in his portraiture. Finally in Amsterdam, the prince of painters, Rembrandt (1606-1669) developed a wide range of specialties including portraiture, landscape and history painting, mastering a variety of artistic techniques: oils, works on paper, including drawing and etching. His popularity in the art market peaked from 1632-1642 but then sagged and against the major fashion he preferred the freer, painterly rough style later in his life.


Paintings of William of Orange’s funeral monument


Delft boasts the major funerary monument to the founder of the modern Dutch Republic, William of Orange. The States General gave orders for funding and erecting a major marble monument full of statuary, placed in the middle front section of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft. This monument designed by architect Hendrick de Keijser shows the key role of this politician and army leader had in the history of the northern Netherlands.

The monument of William of Orange is linked to the art of Delft painters by way of a new viewpoint method developed by Gerard Houckgeest, a painter of church interiors. From 1650 onwards William’s monument in the New Church was repeatedly painted by this gifted Delft architectural painter. Single-handedly Houckgeest shifted and revolutionized the art of painting church interiors, choosing not the normal straight view down the center aisle, but an oblique viewpoint, which yielded a wonderful new array of visual tension and a powerful set of at least two receding perspective lines to either side of the main subject. This visual invention, combined with high-key lighting proved to be highly inspirational for hosts of other painters, both architectural painters and other specialists. It is in this field of new visual excitement and artistic innovation that Vermeer entered town in 1653.


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State funerals in Delft


In the 21st century, state funerals of members of the Dutch Royal family in the vault of the New Church in Delft is the occasion for a highly formal and widely televised public event with a touch of un-Dutch grandeur. Security measures disrupt daily life in much of the center of Delft during the days leading up to this Royal event.
In 2005 the burial of Prince Bernhard, husband of the former Queen Juliana of Orange-Nassau of the Netherlands, was performed with full military colors and honors. Prince Bernard had played a major role in the Netherlands military establishment from the days of the Second World War onwards.

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Delft & Vermeer


This chapter has shown that Vermeer the man was a product of his times, country and city. In Chapter 4 we will however see by contrast that as an artist he exceeded these limitations and set his and our minds free in visual and psychological ways. Being gifted with a wonderful visual sensitivity and a creative mind, he had the advantage of returning to Delft in 1653 just when promising new artistic winds had started to blow (see the next Chapter) and he was enveloped in a combination of circumstances, not only historic, economic and artistic but also personal which created for Vermeer the fruitful environment in which his great talent could flourish so he could create something unique and long lasting.

Thus Vermeer blossomed artistically in Delft, explored the then new fashion of paintings showing private home interiors, but remained untouched by the key struggles of his days over political and religious controversy.
He produced just a few townscapes, the View of Delft successfully expressing an emanation of strength and pride of place and exulting a celebration of human endeavor.
Vermeer was a quintessential Delft painter, having re-entered town in 1653 to find an exciting new movement in the art of painting, sparked by Van Houckgeest, Fabritius, Steen, Potter, De Hooch and others.
Having said that, the immediate links from his paintings to his town - apart from his cityscapes - are few and far between. In the background of only a few of his paintings we notice Delft blue tiles and Delft pottery, a local signature mark.
Delft was a military town far away from the border, a town also catering luxury products to nearby seat of national government in The Hague. All of these elements came together to create a relatively wealthy, stable, free-thinking urban society into which Vermeer was born and thrived.
The next Chapter will discuss how the inner workings of the Delft Guild influenced his professional life.





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Published online, July 15, 2011. Updated 15 February 2017.