The girl wore a vibrant blue coat over her floor length dress. She appeared to have just come inside to find a letter awaiting her on the table. Without even sitting down she had opened the letter and began to read. I felt I had caught her in a vulnerable moment. She was absorbed in the contents of a letter from someone whom, judging by the wrinkled map hanging on the wall behind her, I instinctively felt was far away. I didn’t want to disturb her so I held my breath and quietly tiptoed on. This was the girl in hyacinth blue and she had been painted by Johannes Vermeer.
Vermeer’s works are the first I seek out at any art museum. His paintings, being generally small in size and in number, are like secret windows into vibrantly colored intimate moments that you’ll only find if you know to look for them. The Girl in Hyacinth Blue is the book that introduced me to Vermeer’s paintings. I no longer remember the plot of the book, although I do have a lingering feeling that I didn’t particularly like it. Despite this, I was left with a love for Vermeer’s paintings. The painter manages to make trivial tasks such as the reading of a letter, or pouring from a milk jug, appear like a reverent moment and your presence might shatter the serenity. I find myself compellingly drawn to them. There are only about 35 known Vermeer paintings today and they are scattered around the world in various museums. Surprisingly, none of Vermeer’s known paintings reside today in his hometown of Delft. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should skip Delft, should you get the chance to visit. Delft is only an hour outside of Amsterdam by train, so I decided to make a day of it.
Not wanting to reread Girl in Hyacinth Blue, I decided instead upon Girl with a Pearl Earring for this outing. (I made the grave mistake of watching the film, of the same title, too. Don’t do it.) Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fictionalized account of the story behind another of Vermeer’s paintings, a portrait of a girl with a blue and yellow head scarf who looks at the viewer just so that one pearl earring is seen, glinting in the middle of the image. Her eyes and lips give the expression that she is enjoying the attention, although she is perhaps unsure whether it is entirely appropriate. The book follows the story of Griet, a young woman who becomes a maid in Vermeer’s household. She is tasked with cleaning his studio, and the two form a quiet friendship as he tutors her in paint making, how to really see the colors in a scene, and then begins to use her as a model when instructed to do so by his patron. Through it all Griet forms unrequited feelings for the married painter.
I stepped off the train in Delft around 10:30am on a Tuesday. Nearing the end of the Girl with a Pearl Earring audiobook, I left my earbuds in as I walked through the old part of town. Vermeer only ever painted one piece depicting an exterior scene in Delft (and it’s debatable which building fronts he painted) so it wasn’t the scenery I was after. Although, as I walked I wondered how the city’s canals, brick streets, and colorful shops that lined them never enticed the painter to set up his easel outside! I crossed a bridge over a still canal covered in bright green algae. Not much boat traffic today, but I assumed these same canals must have been thronged with daily market traffic during Vermeer’s time.
The market square, the brick expanse which lay before the New Church, was now completely empty save one or two other souls. I stopped in my tracks to listen when the church chimes began to peal over the empty square. Meanwhile I imagined the bustling market Griet visited each week. The meat and fish halls had been located just off the square. Here the less messy booths hawked their goods. Women in heavy full skirts would have filled the alleys between booths while children scampered underfoot. And there, in the middle of the square was the star where Greit had circled, contemplating the ends of each path she might take.
“I reached the center of the square and stopped in the circle of tiles with the eight-pointed star in the middle. Each point indicated a direction I could take.”
I now did the same. In his later works Vermeer mostly depicted interior scenes within his studio, but there is no Vermeer house museum so I had not made much of a plan for my day other than to immerse myself in whatever I might find related to Vermeer and to buy some Delft Blue Pottery, because when in Delft…
According to Rick Steves, a walking tour and discount to the Delft Blue Factory could be obtained at the Visitor Information in Delft so I decided to start there. After a short consultation with the kind information center lady who must have been the only other person awake in Delft at that hour, I determined I would not actually have time for a walking tour because there was so much else to do! She suggested I start with the Vermeer Center, then visit the Prinsenhof Museum, and then walk to the Delft Blue Factory.
The Vermeer Centrum was just around back from the Delft Information, so it seemed a sensible place to start my day. As I opened the door, many pairs of eyes stared at me from various renditions of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. I was standing in a gift shop filled to bursting with aprons, prints, mugs, notepads, you name it, all printed with a copy of this mysterious girl in a head scarf. I now realized that the majority of tourists who visit Delft must come because of the film. (It does have Scarlet Johanssen and Colin Firth in it which, I’m not gonna lie, is definitely why I watched it…) It hadn’t occurred to me that the novel I was listening to had made Vermeer so much a part of popular culture. Though, based on the shop’s merchandise, it seemed nobody is familiar with any of the rest of Vermeer’s works! Peering around, all I could see was the gift shop. Bummer. I had hoped for more. I was turning to go, not particularly fond enough of Greit’s character to buy anything with her face on it, when the saleswoman asked if I was planning to visit the exhibits. Yes, oh gosh yes, but where were they? She handed me an audio guide with my ticket and directed me to the fire exit behind her, instructing me to start downstairs. Hidden behind the gift shop is a 3 story museum entirely devoted to the life and works of my favorite painter! I spent the next few hours happily diverted.
The Life of Johannes Vermeer
The experience starts in the basement where the exhibits focus on what little is known about Vermeer’s life. A six-minute film provides a history of the city during the time of Vermeer. Before 1660 the city had attracted painters because the geography presented opportunities for artists to play with light, perspective, and space. Around 1660 the art market in Amsterdam grew and most painters moved to the larger city. Thanks to the support of Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s connections and his benefactor, Vermeer was able to stay in Delft and his body of works remained low. Having listened to Girl with the Pearl Earring I was already familiar with the important figures in Vermeer’s life and this made following the museum exhibits a little easier I think.
Nobody knows who Vermeer’s teacher was, but the prints of all of Vermeer’s works that lined the walls, in succession by date, clearly show a progression in his painting techniques and subjects. Like many painters of his time, he started with religious scenes but gave these up in favor of painting interior domestic scenes. It is known that he was part of a guild so he followed the trends of the painting trade. The museum sits on the spot where Vermeer’s painter’s guild hall once stood. There in the basement floor I stood by a table with chairs and steins all painted gold to represent the table where Vermeer and his guild members once gathered to drink and discuss the newest trends in painting and patronage. Lifting an earpiece from the table I was able to listen to the clinking of steins and the general babble of a pub filled with men. I closed my eyes and let the years fall away. I pictured a room filled with men in dress of the 1600’s. They argued and laughed and somewhere nearby I knew Vermeer was joining in. I opened my eyes and came back to the present where I continued up the stairs.
The second floor explored Vermeer’s use of light, space, and his possible use of the camera obscura. The middle of the room contained a large table displaying raw paint substances and a small screen played the clip from the film of Vermeer and Greit mixing paint substances. There was also a fascinating exhibit about the restoration of the painting of the girl in hyacinth blue! When I returned to Amsterdam I would visit the restored image. Now I continued upstairs.
Symbols in Vermeer’s Paintings
The top floor, with its attic-like slanted ceiling examined the details found in several of Vermeer’s paintings, specifically his use of symbols for love: paid for love, unrequited love, and pure love. It’s all in the details: the paintings on the walls behind the figures, the items on the table in the image… And speaking of an attic where you’d find old treasures, display cases held real artifacts that were depicted in the images. Not the exact ones, but ones from that time period. While it’s possible that the analysis of these paintings is driven by a modern interpretation, it is most likely true that Vermeer really did paint symbols into his works. Meaning, Vermeer understood humanity was, is, and always will be driven by desires of love and vice. I have no doubt now that the girl in hyacinth blue was absorbed in a letter from a long distance lover. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Greit fell for this man who just by putting color to canvas was able to reveal universal truths of humanity. I imagine I too might have fallen for such a man had I been in her position, especially if he looked like Colin Firth…
Leaving that thought in the attic, I left the museum to see more of Delft. Check in next week to find out what else there is to see in Delft!
Are you familiar with Vermeer’s works or Girl with a Pearl Earring? Who is your favorite painter? Have you visited the place where they found their inspiration? Have you too made the mistake of watching a film that just didn’t translate well from the book? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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Plan Your Visit
Entrance Fee: 9 Euro, includes audio guide
Address: Voldersgracht 21, Delft
Hours: Monday-Sunday 10am-5pm
Where you can find Vermeer’s Paintings:
Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art holds four, The MET in NYC holds five while the Frick Collection has three more, and Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum had one until 1990, when it was stolen. Now the empty frame holds its place on the wall, should it ever return someday. There are 4 in Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum.
Eight in New York! This calls for a return visit.
A Suitcase Full of Books says
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Frick collection. There’s actually 9. One is in a private collection apparently.