At Delft, the view is still there Town revisited: The Dutch master Vermeer's hometown, made famous in his "View from Delft," draws renewed attention from art lovers.

Sun Journal

March 18, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

DELFT, the Netherlands - The inn where Johannes Vermeer was born is long gone, the building replaced by one now with a shuttered computer store. His house and studio were demolished more than a century ago. But Vermeer, the 17th-century master, still inhabits the town, much as the town will forever inhabit his work.

In Vermeer's "View from Delft," one of his most famous works, the town's orange tile roofs sparkle in the sun. They still do. In the painting, the harbor could be mistaken for open sea. As it still can. After a three-month stay at the National Gallery in Washington, the painting has returned home to The Hague, five miles north of its namesake.

In the painting, the focus is on Delft's harbor and Gothic church. In the subsequent centuries, Delft has transformed itself into a university town famous for Delftware a hand-painted blue porcelain that was introduced in the 1600s, the Golden Age when potters replaced the beer breweries that surrounded the municipal square.

As the art world is revisiting Vermeer's paintings, people are beginning to re-examine the town. For Delft is where Vermeer rendered mundane objects and the events of day-to-day life in a way that is extraordinarily rich in beauty and significance.

He depicted Delft as a place of regular people most of them women performing seemingly regular tasks: a woman writing a letter; a woman holding a balance, with jewelry boxes, pearls and coins scattered about; a woman pouring milk into a bowl. But almost every domestic scene is charged with meaning. The woman holding the balance is perhaps about to weigh souls. The letter writer hints at a world of unseen friends and suitors.

His Delft has both sunshine and dark clouds. It has high city walls and stone gates that have disappeared even from memory. The New Church construction began in 1396 still stands in the market square opposite city hall.

In Vermeer's day, this community was already several hundred years old, a survivor of devastating fires and the plague, and emerging as a trading center for butter and cloth. There also were 200 beer breweries. It was a welcomed period of calm in which trade, arts and the sciences flourished. It was the era when Delftware was discovered, the guarantor of future wealth.

But the modern Delft feels a bit snubbed. Tens of thousands of people are visiting the Vermeer exhibition at the Mauritshuis, a 17th- century palace in The Hague that is one of the great showplaces of Renaissance art. To accommodate the crowds, the museum is staying open until midnight twice a week. But only a relative handful make the trip to Vermeer's own town.

"We wanted Vermeer in Delft," says Lya Hendriks, a town historian. "But Delft is not as rich as The Hague."

You have to take a local train to visit Delft; the express trains speed by. The only obvious homages to the artist are posters of his paintings, hanging in the windows of the Jan Vermeer art school. The tourist office sells a booklet that guides you on an hourlong walk and through the sketchy details of his life.

For decades, townspeople thought his childhood home was a three-story rowhouse near the market square, now a porcelain shop. Discreetly inscribed in stone one story up are the words: "Jan Vermeer was born here: 1630." In the 1960s, "Jan" was preferred to "Johannes" "Johannes" was thought too formal, too "establishment."

But that is the wrong site, historians say. The true childhood home is roughly where the shuttered computer store stands, though the town has yet to acknowledge the mistake.

The birth date probably is wrong, too: Historians suggest the artist was born two years later, in 1632.

"They might put up a plaque," says Ms. Hendriks, who leads dozens of visitors on the tours and sees their dismay at the computer store. "They were surprised at how little interest there was. They kept looking in store windows and there was nothing."

Arie Den Hartog was visiting Delft after seeing the exhibition in The Hague and thought it better to avoid the tour and seek his own conclusions. So he was standing in the street staring at the building where historians say Vermeer was born a former tavern called the Flying Fox, run by his father. Staring is all anyone can do. The door is locked.

"It is good," says Mr. Hartog, a retired engineer who attended school in Delft two decades ago. "There is not so much show. Some people who are really interested will find their way here. It's a little bit more authentic. Otherwise, everyone comes with their car and drives by. We don't like that."

Vermeer's "View From Delft" is the view from where the Schie River branches into two large canals. You can stand there and, in your mind, retouch the artist's canvas. He changed the location of several buildings to make a more suggestive "view," and his painting was far ahead of its time for its use of colors and shadows to show what experts say is an unprecedented sense of depth.

"The spot gives you a panoramic view of Delft," says Mr. Hartog, standing where Vermeer surely stood.

"You can experience the Delft that Vermeer painted. Sure, a lot of the buildings are gone and it's more modern, but you get the feel of what he saw."

This is sometimes a short-tempered place. In one of the crafts studios near the main square, David Slat complains that too many people who come to retrace the steps of Vermeer ignore the town's long tradition of fine porcelain. In any case, he says, Vermeer didn't even paint many pictures.

"There will be a lot of hype and then it will disappear," says Mr. Slat. "People will come and then, in three months, nobody will talk again about Johannes Vermeer."

The past 330 years suggest that he is wrong.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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