It is hard to underestimate how much the Dutch Masters have contributed to the way we see the world today. They had it all: landscapes, seascapes, portraits, still lifes, but all largely eschewing religious or mythological influences. Their methods embraced new technologies (the camera obscura), their subjects were apparently ordinary. Their fascination with depicting the majestic skies of their newly-formed country led directly to the Impressionists’ exploration of light and colour.
Vermeer takes a pride of place in the Dutch Golden Age. But he is often associated with intimate portraiture, the kind made famous by the 2003 drama film directed by Peter Webber, Girl with a Pearl Earring. His View of Delft is thus perhaps as surprising as it is breathtaking as Vermeer shows us his capabilities extend to painting the precise opposite of his sometimes slightly claustrophobic household scenes.
This panorama is not devoid of the emotion of his portraiture. Far from it: you can’t deny the sense of sheer pride belied in this work, as Delft appears to drift over the harbour and shine brightly in the water’s reflection. To the eyes of his contemporaries this picture displays a bustling thoroughly new town and we must adjust our own view of it accordingly. Vermeer is painting his equivalent of a view of Canary Wharf.
The sky dominates the painting, making up more than half the canvas (and that isn’t counting the reflection). The composition draws us to the entry gates of the citadel, where the commercial lifeblood enters and departs. The flecks of light and distortions betray Vermeer’s use of camera obscura technology. It is not hard to see here the inspiration the Impressionists could have taken from it.
To this day, Delft is relatively unchanged and the artist’s loving devotion to detail has stood the test of time. Vermeer is not widely known for his landscape work; it is surely a pity he did not bequeath more of them to history.