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.
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, for now at least, if you want to see something like half his 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 recently exhibited "Vermeer and the Delft School," which featured 15 works by the painter alongside some 70 other paintings and 35 drawings by 30 other Delft artists who lived and worked there during Vermeer's short lifetime.
The contrast was enlightening. First you see why Vermeer was the pre-eminent Delft painter of his day. You see the intense beauty of the work of the average Delft painters, the exquisite, gemlike qualities of the best, and then you see Vermeer, rising well above both groups. The luminosity of his highlights, the transparency of his shadows are both breathtaking. The Met show featured such masterpieces as his 1667 The Art of Painting, The Procuress (1656), and his The Little Street (1658), none of which have ever been shown in this country. In just these three paintings, we see that the term "genius" is not used lightly with regard to Vermeer. And then you see Delft itself, through the eyes of the other exceptionally talented artists the city richly supported. You see drawings of the city, even a Delft horse blanket tapestry. Yes, even the horses of the city were well off. You see a city with the highest literacy rate in Europe, with an economy surging ahead like never before, and a city in which the best painting was on canvas, not on ceramic tiles.