"In the landscapes the very absence of human tension allows a whole material poetry, a poetry of brick and vapour, of resistance and penetration, a complex pattern of feeling in which the attraction to the tangible world and a rejection of it were at last reconciled." -- Lawrence Gowing
It could be a day in Seattle. There is a cloud bruised with gray, gravid with moisture. Another cloud is a puff of white, soft as a throne for angels. I can feel the humidity. I can smell the air.
Ozone. That smell of the air when it grows electric and rich. Spring is evoked in the brushwork. Implications of fragrance and change. The energy is unique to the bristles of a brush. It has married mass and light in maneuvers of supple rapport.
Near the center of the foreground, two women in black, big heavy skirts, white folds of fabric for big floppy hats, stand talking to one another. Further to the left, a woman and a baby and two men and a woman talk soberly by a boat. It is evident by their pilgrim dress that this is not Seattle. It is, in fact, Delft.
A few of the city rooftops and steeples are touched with gold. Most are in shadow. The sun is obscured by the cloud full of gray. There is a river at the base of the buildings. Sunlight, diffused by the clouds, lacquers the river with a silvery sheen. The outlines of the buildings are softened in the slightly rippled water.
This view of Delft must have been painted around 1660 or 1661, and is by Jan Vermeer. Delft had become, by then, famous for its pottery and had around 24,000 inhabitants, of whom 1,500 to 2,000 were potters. The city reposes in quiet opulence, on what must be a Sunday, since there are few people within view, and none of the boats are in use.
The steeple awash in sunlight behind the heavy stone building in the dark foreground is Niewe Kerk, a Gothic cruciform basilica which began construction in 1396 and was completed on September 6th, 1496. Every brick and trowel of cement had to be taken up by hand or on pulleys. Vermeer’s home, at Maria Thin’s house in Oude Langendijk, would be just to the right of the Niewe Kerk steeple, but is not visible in the painting.
Vermeer must have positioned himself on a roof or a room with a view to the south over looking the river Schie where it joins a network of inner city canals and had been widened in 1614 to form a triangular pool which served as the harbor for Delft. It is possible he occupied a room in a house on what is now a road called Hooikade, which is presently occupied by 140 multi-family dwellings spread along four blocks.
A tiny clock on the Shiedam Gate shows that it is just past 7 o’clock.
The rooftops, steeples, towers, city gates, battlements, parapets and drawbridges that comprise the Delft skyline have been distorted a little in order to give the composition greater harmony. The twin towers of the Rotterdam Gate, for instance, extend further into the water than they do in the painting.
It has been speculated that Vermeer used a camera obscura, in the process of his work. There are certain effects of diffused light that suggest this use. We are in the presence of the real world of light. Effects of light not visible to the naked eye. Optical effects that reveal themselves in the diffusion of light in the water, its subdued tones, its elaborate hues.
What amazes me is the ephemeral quality of that moment. That specific light, that specific formation of clouds, that particular quality of light on the river, that fugitive luster, that feeling of the air, the shadows and details of buildings, mortar, brick, stonework, their angles and symmetries accented by a particular time, particular glaze, particular gaze.
Vermeer, quite possibly in a room with a camera obscura, the image of Delft cast on a wall, is outside history. He is outside the walls and tempo of the city, its customs and manners and complications. He loves the city and wants to create its beauty from a viewpoint outside the heat and heart of its canals and arteries, the clack and racket of its looms, the pulleys and gears of its construction and Delftware factories, the noise of wooden wheels on cobbled streets, men and women yelling at one another from boats and warehouses. The squawk of gulls when scraps of food or garbage are tossed onto the quays. The cursing of bricklayers with heavy loads and bad tempers. Vermeer is outside all of that. He is outside looking in. Into the city. Into light. Into texture. Into stone. Into grandeur.
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