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Monday, August 27, 2012

Delft Artists

View of Delft, 1660-61, Jan Vermeer
When someone mentions the name Delft, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is the brilliant blue ceramic decorations seen on Delft tile and dinnerware. It would seem that what we know about Delft comes mostly from the Dutch scenes depicted by these ceramic artists. That's strange because, in fact, we can learn much more about this city by looking at its paintings. Located in Holland just three miles from The Hague, which was the capital of the country at the time, Delft was a sort of bedroom community for those of some importance who wanted to be near the seat of government, but not too near. During the late 1600s, when the area reached its cosmopolitan peak, Delft was a city of reserved, sophisticated, and wealthy art patrons--merchants and traders newly prosperous from the beer and linen trade. Pottery was only a sideline at the time. The real art of Delft then was painting. And the consummate Delft painter of the day was Jan Vermeer.

View of Delft, 1683, Fabritius--Delft by a lesser talent.
Jan Vermeer turned out only 34 paintings in his whole lifetime. Although he died young, in 1675 at the age of 43, that's still not very many. Typically he worked up to four months on a single painting. That compares to his colleagues at the time that seldom spent more than two or three days, never more than a week or two, on theirs. Consequently, his work, even then, sold for prices equal to a year's wages for a skilled labourer--and there were plenty of people waiting to buy. Vermeer was blessed with a couple of discerning (and wealthy) clients each of whom bought nearly a fourth of his work. Today, if you want to see Vermeer's work, you need go no further than New York--to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or just down the street to the Frick, which owns three Vermeers. The Met at one time displayed as many as 15 works by the painter alongside some 70 other Delft paintings and 35 drawings by 30 other artists who lived and worked there during Vermeer's short lifetime.

The Little Street, 1658, Jan Vermeer
It's not hard to see why Vermeer was the preeminent Delft painter of his day. There is an intense beauty in the work of the average Delft painters, the exquisite, gem like qualities in those of the best; and then there is Vermeer, rising well above both groups. The luminosity of his highlights, the transparency of his shadows are both breathtaking. Such masterpieces as his 1667 The Art of Painting (below, left), The Procuress (below, right, 1656), and his The Little Street (left, 1658), are seldom shown in this country, but in just these three paintings, we see that the term "genius" is not used lightly with regard to Vermeer. And when you see Delft itself, through the eyes of the other exceptionally talented artists the city richly supported, you see why. You see drawings of the city, a city with the highest literacy rate in Europe at the time, with an economy surging ahead like never before, and a city in which the best painting was on canvas, not on ceramic tiles.

The Procuress, 1656, Jan Vermeer

The Art of Painting, 1667, Jan Vermeer

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