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A photograph of ‘The Little Street’

This essay on the possible location of the buildings shown in one of the two townscape pictures that Vermeer painted (the other is the ‘View of Delft’) is not included in 'Vermeer’s Camera'. It throws some oblique light on the subject of the book however, since it argues that in this painting too, Vermeer depicted a real view in faithful detail. He did not, as some critics have suggested, adapt or alter the architecture for compositional reasons.

(Right) Figure 1. Vermeer, 'The Little Street', c.1657-1658, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Vermeer's 'The Little Street' (Figure 1) shows the gable ends of two houses fronting onto a cobbled pavement and separated by two gateways. In 1950 Swillens proposed that this shows a view at the rear of 'Mechelen', the inn on the Market Square in Delft owned by Vermeer’s family. On the assumption that Vermeer was living and working there in the late 1650s, Swillens suggested that he might have painted the scene from a back window of the inn(1). It is certain that Vermeer moved to live with Maria Thins on the Oude Langendijk at some date between 1653 and 1660. But 'Mechelen' was still occupied by Vermeer's widowed mother until 1670, when she died and he inherited the property. So Vermeer might have continued to have access to the building at least up to 1672, when he leased it out(2).

If Swillens is right, and if the room that I have reconstructed in 'Vermeer’s Camera' was in 'Mechelen', at the back of the building, this raises the interesting possibility that 'The Little Street' shows what could be seen out of the window of this very same room. Perhaps Vermeer was able to use a camera cubicle like that suggested in Chapter 7 of the book, but turned through 90 degrees. The lens could have been set in a hole in the window shutter. It is of course also conceivable that Vermeer might have used a camera from a back-window of 'Mechelen', even if this was not the location of the room seen in the interiors. It is clear from the perspective recession and the level of the horizon line in 'The Little Street' that the painting's viewpoint is somewhat above that of a person standing on the ground - although not as high as the first floor of the house at the right. It seems to be a view, that is, from a half-level above ground.

I would hesitate to open up this old question of the subject of 'The Little Street' and whether it shows accurately a real street in Delft - an issue which has already taken up much paper and many people's efforts - were it not that I believe it is possible to recognise the very scene in a photograph. This photo has been published several times, but has not previously been identified with Vermeer's painting. It shows the buildings behind ‘Mechelen’, just as Swillens proposed. This idea will seem paradoxical to those who have read Swillens's and other accounts of how the house shown at the right of the painting was demolished to make way for the St Luke's Guildhall in 1661. But I will try to show that all is not quite as it might have seemed.

Before Swillens, there had been at least two proposals for specific sites for 'The Little Street' in Delft, and several others have been made since(3). The evidence is however weak or inconclusive in all cases. Swillens based his identification of the site behind 'Mechelen' on some more convincing points. Besides the fact of its being just across the canal from Vermeer's family home, Swillens argued that the left-hand gateway, with its arched head, can be recognised in a drawing made by Abraham Rademaker around 1700 and copied in an engraving by Leonard Schrenk of about 1732(4). Both pictures are reproduced here, as Figures 2 and 3 respectively, since they differ in a number of details.

The principal building in the centre of these views is the St Luke's Guildhall. One reason why Vermeer might have chosen this particular subject is that the Guild of St Luke was his own guild, to which he had belonged since 1653. The new building displaced part of an older charitable institution, the Old Men's House. Vermeer must have known what was planned, and might have wanted to make a record of the older building before its transformation. The gateway to the left gave access to premises beyond, which continued to be occupied by the charity. The gate carries a board with the inscription 'Oude Manhuis'.

Figure 2. Abraham Rademaker, 'St Luke's Guildhall', drawing c.1700

Figure 3. Leonard Schrenk, engraving c.1732 after drawing by Abraham Rademaker, 'St Luke's Guildhall' (above).

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