In the steps of Vermeer: discovering Delft in winter

The magical low light of Delft was an inspiration to Vermeer

The magical low light of Delft was an inspiration to Vermeer

 

Our trip to Delft corresponded with a clear, crisp, brutally cold day: ideal for retracing the footsteps of Vermeer, the master of light, who was born and died in Delft in the 17th century.

Despite trendy shops that occupy old merchants’ quarters and hotels and hostels in Delft that have replaced travelers’ inns, the carefully preserved old town has not changed much.

 

A View of Delft, then and now

 

The Oude Kerk (Old Church) dates to 1246, is famous for its leaning tower, and houses the grave of Johannes Vermeer

 

The Oude Kerk (Old Church) dates to 1246 and is famous for its leaning tower. It also houses the grave of Johannes (Jan) Vermeer.

 

Delft street architecture

A Delft street today…

 

Vermeer's The Little Street Delft

The Little Street, by Jan Vermeer

… and then.

 

Delft City Hall (Rathous) in the Markt (Market Square)

 

Delft City Hall (Rathous) in the Markt (Market Square) was constructed during Vermeer’s lifetime.

 

The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) of Delft and Markt Square

 

The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) – that’s “new” as in 1396 – seen to the far left here in the Markt, or Market Square, is most famous for its carillon bells. At least 18 of the 48 bells were around in Vermeer’s time.

Take a listen to their gorgeous sound by pasting this url into your browser: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/music/carillon/soundfiles/Van%20den%20Ghein-Preludium%20V.mp3

 

View of Delft, by Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft, by Vermeer

 

Interestingly, when Vermeer painted his famous “View of Delft” he excluded the bells: you can see straight through the bell tower (lit by sunshine on the right) to the sky beyond. Landscapes were not very popular during this time, but this painting is remarkable for other reasons: It is incredibly detailed and provides a painstaking study of light, and exhibits the technique of pointillism – small dots which create brilliance and depth – centuries before it became fashionable.

 

Who was Vermeer?

 

We know that he was born in 1632 and died just a few decades later of a heart attack, in 1675. We know he lived in Delft the majority of that time, even when many others left due to financial strife (he was blessed with a couple of benefactors, one of them being his mother-in-law).

 

He had 15 children (some speculate that he produced few paintings because he was such a busy man), and the family was left destitute at his sudden passing and was forced to sell off each and every one of his masterpieces. There are currently only 34 known works by Vermeer in existence, and the authenticity is questioned on a couple of those.

 

Oh, yes. And he was fascinated by light.

 

And that’s about all we know. No journal. Not a single drawing. We don’t know who he apprenticed with, or what he looked like.

 

The artist’s nebulous biography is but one enigmatic facet of his work. He used only about 10 pigments, yet created works of extraordinary color and luminosity. His use of symbolism often leaves open several possible interpretations. His decisions are mysterious (Why leave the bells out of the bell tower?) as are his subjects (Just who was the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the subject of his most popular work today?)

 

Girl with a Pearl Earring as seen at the Vermeer Centre

Girl with a Pearl Earring as seen at the Vermeer Centre

 

Things to do in Delft

 

Get cultured

How did I learn most of the above? Most comes from The Vermeer Centre. While the Centre doesn’t have any Vermeer originals, it does have museum-quality reproductions of each painting. The chance to see his entire oeuvre at once is a unique gift. The interactive museum is a mini art-history class, providing information on Delft, Dutch culture at the time, and his technique and imagery.

 

The Vermeer Centre

The Vermeer Centre educates by highlighting similar elements from within a piece, or from various works

Go shopping

When it comes to cute shops, Delft has it covered. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Knotten (Voldersgracht 23, next to the Vermeer Centre) – If you’re a knitter, you’ll want to make this your new home. Fantastic yarns and a big common table for sharing tips or company.
  • Verkade & Jacques Cheese Shop (Brabantse Turfmarkt 75) – Literally hundreds of varieties of cheeses, and nearly as many samples. Not to be missed!
  • De Delftse Pauw – (Delftweg 133, Rijswijk) - Last but not least, that which draws most shopping enthusiasts to this corner of the world: Delft pottery (or “Delftware”). The detailed hand painting and famous “Delft blue” color have fascinated monarchs and laypeople for centuries. This factory, located just outside of Delft, offers tours, a shop, and worldwide shipping.

 

delft blue

Delft pottery (Photo credit: bertknot)

 

Take a walking tour

The thing I love about self-guided walking tours is that you’re free to detour into any bakery, sale, or photo-worthy distraction at a moment’s notice. The tourist information center offers a downloadable city map online as well as themed self-guided walking tour maps at their office near the New Church.

 

Eat Indonesian food

Indonesian food is prevalent in The Netherlands due to colonial ties, but nowhere does this history seem closer than in Delft, ex-headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. It seems there is one Indonesian restaurant on every street in old city Delft, so locating one will not be difficult.

For something different, wander out of the northwest corner of the Markt to find the fusion restaurant that made me do a double take:

 

Delft Indonesian Mexican restaurant

Oh yes – ThaiMexican. Who knew?

 

 

*Special thanks to Ben for the new wide-angle camera lens. A great Christmas gift!

Learn More

Hop over to fellow bloggers and Netherlands residents Gayla and Mike’s site to learn about what to eat in Delft (rijsttafel) and where to stay.

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Comments

  1. I have a feeling that the Thai-Mexican cuisine is pretty hot stuff! Wonder what they wash it down with?

  2. Jen, your photographs are exquisite and I’m sure the new camera lens was a plus. I’m intrigued by Delft and all it has to offer, starting with the history and Vermeer Centre. I’m sure I’d need a day for that, and one each for a walking tour, the yarn shop, cheese shop, and the Delftware factory. Oh yes, and time for meals. It must have felt inspiring to stand in the middle of such beautiful architecture and history.

    One note, I couldn’t l open the link to listen to the bells but found them online. Beautiful.

  3. That first photo of the winter light through the trees is ‘prachtig’! Delft is one of our favorite cities in the Netherlands, though we’ve yet to visit in the winter. Maybe we’ll make a winter trip before spring arrives. The Indonesian-inspired ‘rijsstafel’ alone is worth a visit. But, I’m also very eager to take a walking tour (and stop by the Prinsenhof) to better understand the history of the city. It fascinates me…as does the idea of Thai-Mexican fusion cuisine ;-)
    Gayla recently posted..It’s Mardi Gras (Carnival) Time again!My Profile

  4. Please promise that you had Thai/Mexican cuisine. I love that you always have an eye out for the most unusual things.

  5. Hilda – I have to admit that I did not :( I stumbled across this gem as I was heading to meet Ben for dinner in another city, and something told me he would suspect I had already eaten if I showed up with lemongrass and tequila on my breath.

    This will have to be one of those places that some considerate reader can investigate and report back to us on….

  6. Hi Gayla, I had to Google ‘rijsstafel’ and now I’m pouting about not having tried it. I did some searching on your site and came across your post on places to eat and stay in Delft. It’s a great resource, and I’ll add it back in to this post so readers can reference it.

  7. Kristen – Thanks for pointing out the glitch with the bells! I removed the link and left the complete url so that others can take a listen now, too.

  8. Wendy – I agree! Something tells me there’s plenty of tequila and Singha on the menu to compensate :)

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