The Little Street (2)

JOHANNES VERMEER’S AND HIS PAINTING ‘THE LITTLE STREET’

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter, born in Delft,Netherlands, in 1632 and died in the same place in 1675, where he spent all his life. It seems that Vermeer was not a famous painter in his times though nowadays he is considered the best figure of the Dutch XVIIth century, just after Rembrandt. It is though that he never dedicated professionally himself to the art of painting, but he kept on with the trade of a hostel inherited by his father. It is not really certain if Vermeer learnt by himself the art of painting or somebody taught him. He never became particularly wealthy, maybe because he did not really produced too many paintings. He probably used to paint just for pleasure, working slowly and with great care.

Vermeer focused almost all his paintings in domestic interior scenes of middle class life, inside home, with one or two figures and some objects. These paintings were created with a brightness that brings out the effect of privacy and give to the work certain aura of mystery. He is especially well-known for his masterly treatment and use of light in his works. He used bright colours, sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow.

After his death, Johannes Vermeer felt into oblivion until in the XIXth century he was rediscovered by by Gustav Friedrich Waagenand Théophile Thoré-Bürger who published an essay in which they attributed him sixty-six paintings, though nowadays only thirty-six pictures are attributed to him. After that, his reputation has been growing and he is considered now one of the greatest painters of theDutch Golden Age.

Vermeer used a technique called ‘pointillé’ to produce transparent colours by applying paint to the canvas in loosely granular layers. Certain light and perspective effects make the experts think that he used a camera obscura to achieve precise positioning in his compositions. The so enhanced sparkling pearly of Vermeer’s paintings has also been related to this possible use of the camera obscura. However, there are no proofs that he ever had or used one.

One of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings is ‘The Little Street’ (Het Straatje), made during the years 1657 and 1658. The original title is ‘View of Houses in Delft’ though it is known as ‘The Little Street’. The dimension of this painting made with oil in canvas is of 54,3 x 44 cm. It is the painting of two houses though at the beginning  it was just one. It is a simple painting that shows the viewer the typical aspect of the Dutch life of the period. When looking at the picture we have the same point of view than the painter, which is from a house opposite, from an upstairs room, at no great distance. We do not know the location of this street and indeed it may have never existed.

This picture represents the everyday life in any time of the day. In this scene there are two houses, with a door opened passageway between them. There is a woman sewing in an open doorway and a couple of children playing kneeled down. All the characters seem to be very absorbed and interested in what they are doing. This scene emanates tranquility and security.

Vermeer was able to create a great deal with very limited means. Just combining different touches of colours he created the impression of solid bricks, making them seem real, as it also happens with the figures. The contrast of colours take an important role in this painting: the sky is clouded and the colours are muted, giving a contrast with the colour blue of the sky and the brown and red of the houses; the ivy was greener at the beginning, but he later on put yellow pigment on it; thanks to the white plasterwork the painting appears fresh. He painted the soapy water with the aim of leading our attention into the woman who is probably washing in the passageway.

If we look at the picture with X-rays we can see that Vermeer had initially painted a girl in the right side of the open passageway but he later on deleted it because she blocked the view of the alleyway. After this composition there are several painted and watercolour copies.

According to architecturial historians, the house Vermeer portrayed is from the end of the XVth or the beginning of the XVIth century. It is not the typical luxurious house of the elite of Delft but from modest people. Because of its high ceilings, well-lit rooms and unusual step gables it could be one of the survivor houses of the medieval times.

Sprawling grape vines can be seen in several Dutch cityscapes. They were kept just for decorative effects since Dutch light was so weak that it was not possible to produce drinkable wine. Vines have always symbolized fidelity and marriage and in this contest it also symbolizes domestic virtue. However, we do not really know if Vermeer attached any symbolic meaning when putting them in his painting.

Although the two children playing occupy a small portion of the picture is of that details that catches your attention. It is curious because nor the play neither their faces are revealed. We just can get the conclusion because of their clothes and appearances that the one dressed in black is a boy and the other one a girl. This image makes you think and remember your own childhood.

The whole picture in general shows an everyday scene in a poor street. Each of the figures is dealing in their own business, and the whole atmosphere makes you feel calm and peace. Nowadays this painting is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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