A mystery solved as Vermeer comes home to Delft

By Moira Holden

The painter’s masterpiece, The Little Street, has returned to its original home for the first time since it was painted in the city 320 years ago. MOIRA HOLDEN views the new exhibition.

A famous street scene by Johannes Vermeer has been loaned to Delft’s Prinsenhof Museum from the Rijksmuseum thanks to some recent detective work by art expert Professor Frans Grijzenhout, who claims to have identified the exact location portrayed in the picture.

A new exhibition takes visitors on a historical detective trail to mull over the clues and theories from the last 100 years in a bid to pinpoint the precise location where Vermeer portrayed ordinary life in a Dutch street. ‘’It is not a Whodunit, but a Where-is-it,’’ says Patrick Van Mil, director of the Museum Prinsenhof Delft. ‘People have been looking for this location since 1921, when The Little Street became part of the Rijksmuseum’s collection.’’

Known as ‘The Sphinx of Delft’, Vermeer lived and worked most of his life in the city and is buried in the Oude Kerk, just metres from the new exhibition. He is thought to have painted The Little Street around 1660. Bought originally by a Delft collector, it changed hands several times and was given to the Rijksmuseum in 1921 by the director of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company.

Vermeer painted few city scenes, so where was this particular little street situated? In 1922, the theory was put forward that Vermeer had painted his own house at Oude Langendijk. But calculations of the measurements of the house did not match the painting. A former brewery at Achterom 47 also comes under the art detective’s magnifying glass, but it was eventually rejected because it was smaller than the house in the painting. But the most recent research by Prof Grijzenhout, professor of art history at Amsterdam University, seems to have found the missing piece of the jigsaw. He claims the location is Vlamingstraat 40-42. Vermeer’s aunt, Ariaentgen Claes, a widow who sold tripe, lived in the house on the right, so Vermeer would certainly be familiar with the street. The final clue? It lies in the twin gates.

Like all good detective novels, the trail finally leads us to The Little Street itself. The beauty and simplicity of life portrayed in the painting in the 17th century shines through today just as much as it did more than 300 years ago. Works by other well-known painters with a Delft link at the same time as Vermeer are also displayed. Pieter de Hooch’s paintings of Woman and Child in Courtyard and Woman and Child Bleaching Linen give a wonderful insight in the everyday life of Dutch people.

Vermeer is coming home: The Little Street returns to Delft, runs until Sunday 17 July www.prinsenhof-delft.nl