The exhibition catalogue Vermeer and the Delft School, written by an international team of scholars led by Walter Liedtke, makes a noteworthy contribution to the scholarly literature on the art of this small but significant city in South Holland which proved so pivotal for Dutch art around the middle of the seventeenth century. Though painting in Delft is, for obvious reasons, the primary focus here, catalogue essays and entries also explore drawing, sculpture and the decorative arts, the latter something for which the city was already renowned in the seventeenth century. The exhibition itself forms part of a series of shows about Delft which were inaugurated in the early 1980’s. At that time, the city’s own museum, the Stedelijk Museum het Prinsenhof, produced three, very comprehensive exhibitions concerning society and culture in Delft from its origins to 1813. Some fifteen years later the very same venue was the site of an exhibition on Delft painters. This latter show, although envisaged as part of the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of Delft, was essentially linked to the ‘blockbuster’ exhibit on Vermeer held in Washington DC and The Hague during 1995-96. However, in comparison to the catalogues of all of these earlier exhibitions (each of which manifested specific strengths) Liedtke’s is noteworthy for its examination of the arts in their totality and especially for its deftly handled ‘sub-theme’, namely, its ceaseless exploration of the pressing question of whether one can consider Delft the center of a school of painters during the seventeenth century. In other words, does a local tradition of painting exist in Delft – as opposed to other cities – which displays readily identifiable characteristics?
Liedtke opens the catalogue with a compelling introduction constructed around contemporary accounts of travel to and within the city by such noted seventeenth-century personalities as the Englishmen John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. Even early on, he convincingly corrects persistent misconceptions about the city and its art, among them, our propensity to see Delft as an isolated entity when in fact, it was closely connected with other cities in the region, especially The Hague from whence literally boatloads of people ‘commuted’ to and fro daily. Given Delft’s proximity to nearby artistic centers, Liedtke persuasively argues against the frequent tendency to view the art of Delft in general and that of Vermeer in particular as comparatively isolated phenomena. Associating Delft more completely with the greater artistic milieu of the Low Countries – the cities of The Hague, Utrecht, and Antwerp are most frequently invoked in this regard – sheds light on Delft art and impacts the aforementioned question of a Delft school. One might expect that a more accurate perspective on Delft art and its ties to other cities would militate against arguments in favor of a Delft school of painting but to the contrary, this perspective paradoxically enables us to recognize some of the singular features of art in Vermeer’s hometown: its tradition “of exceptional craftsmanship, of refined and often conservative styles, and of sophisticated subject matter and expression – all of which reveal a tendency toward understatement, a certain reserve (p. 15).”
Liedtke outlines Delft’s artistic traditions in the next two chapters, respectively entitled, “Delft and the Arts Before 1600” and “Painting from About 1600 to 1650.” Though both chapters essentially present overviews, the first of the two, “Delft and the Arts Before 1600,” is significant in that this period of the city’s artistic history has rarely, if ever, been explored in English-language publications. Liedtke’s discussion, which begins in the late Middle Ages, corroborates the relatively early manifestation of those aforementioned stylistic traits that would become synonymous with Delft art. Liedtke likewise establishes the early existence of what developed into an important trend during Delft’s Golden Age, namely, the significance of inherited wealth for artists, dealers and collectors. Affluent patrons played a fundamental role in the careers of Vermeer and many of his colleagues just as they had done for artists and craftsmen of earlier centuries. Liedtke rightly points out that “the timeworn characterization of the Dutch art public as ‘middle-class people [who] were not used to acting as patrons’ appears to be even less appropriate for Delft than it is for the citizens of large towns like Haarlem and Amsterdam (p. 28).” (Although, inexplicably, Liedtke reverts to this very same platitude in the next chapter to describe the patrons of the renowned portraitist, Michael van Miereveld – see p. 48).
The third chapter concerns Delft painting during the first half of the seventeenth century; Liedtke manages to contribute a number of insights here despite the obvious familiarity of much of this material to specialists. His comments, for example, on the preference among Delft’s moneyed from the 1640s onwards for portraits executed by artists in The Hague, rightly places this hitherto perplexing tendency within the context of the proximity of the two cities and especially their fluid commerce in the arts. Likewise, Liedtke’s discussion of the history paintings of Christiaen van Couwenbergh, a now obscure artist but one of great renown at the Prince of Orange’s court in the early seventeenth century, is given an illuminating treatment here; among other things Liedtke argues persuasively that the question of Vermeer’s absorption of the work of Utrecht painters is rendered moot by Van Couwenburgh’s repeated adaptations of their compositions decades earlier.
Brief discussions of genre painting, architectural painting, landscape painting and still-life painting ensue. Readers of Liedtke’s earlier studies will quickly recognize the application of his thesis concerning a regional as opposed to purely local style at work in genre painting in Delft. This ‘South Holland type’ of genre interior had roots in Antwerp – indeed the Flemish influence on seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting was much more persistent than is commonly assumed – namely, in the prints of the De Vries family and also in the work of such contemporary painters as Gonzales Coques. These important pictorial sources were frequently fused in Delft with those stemming from ‘North Holland’ where genre painters predominantly concentrated upon figures and subtle naturalistic effects. The latter three sections on architectural, landscape and still-life painting likewise furnish informative overviews of these thriving genres in Delft during the first half of the seventeenth century.
The fourth chapter, “Delft Painting ‘in Perspective’” explores the work of the tragically short-lived Carel Fabritius, Leonaert Bramer and other architectural and townscape painters from roughly mid-century onward. Considered as a group, these artists created some truly spectacular paintings and murals (the latter almost entirely lost – see cat. no. 11 for a rare, surviving example) with distinctive perspectival qualities. These works, along with the genre paintings of De Hooch and Vermeer (discussed in the subsequent chapter), are usually cited as evidence for the existence of a Delft school of painting, which supposedly exploded on to the scene around 1650. Liedtke once again provides much needed nuance to this view, astutely pointing out that the most innovative Delft art of this period can really be considered “a synthesis of qualities that were well established in Delft and the naturalistic mode of description that had been at home in Haarlem . . . (p. 101).” Liedtke concludes this chapter with particularly valuable sections on lost mural paintings by Bramer and Fabritius (another topic rarely tackled in English-language publications) and on ‘curious perspectives’, a reference to an actual seventeenth-century description of the peculiar spatial and optical qualities so celebrated in Delft art today.
With the fifth chapter, “Genre Painting in Delft after 1650: De Hooch and Vermeer,” Liedtke explores a subject familiar to scholars and laypersons alike. Indeed, in recent years there have been major exhibitions of the work of De Hooch and Vermeer and a seeming deluge of literature concerning the latter (extending even to novels). And yet Liedtke still manages to contribute new perspectives on each of these masters. The chapter serves as yet another forum to investigate the regional and local aspects of Delft art as evidenced in De Hooch’s and Vermeer’s styles and the impact of this peculiar amalgam on the question of a possible city school. Curiously, the combination of regional and local influences in De Hooch’s work, for example, helps to demystify his early Delft pictures – which as Liedtke points out relate strongly to prototypes from his native Rotterdam – while simultaneously enabling us to appreciate more fully his achievements, among them, his uncanny ability to structure his interiors to accent the moods of his figures.
Liedtke’s protracted discussion of Vermeer is equally illuminating, placed as it is within the context of the exhibition’s principal desideratum of providing a fresh view of the Delft school. Once again, the fusion of regional and local styles are brought to bear on the discussion, one which yields a wealth of insights into Vermeer’s approach to his subjects, his limited experience with the camera obscura, etc… Liedtke observes that in the last decade of Vermeer’s career the increasing sophistication and understatement of his art, traits perhaps reflective of the ideals of the Dutch Republic’s affluent classes, obscure its possible connections to a Delft school. This is plausible enough, but wasn’t the history of art in the city and the formation of its ‘school’ inextricably tied to the expectations and tastes of wealthy patrons from early on? This is at least the impression rendered by the preceding essays; why then did the seemingly sudden influence of ideals of the moneyed classes somehow obscure the qualities of Vermeer’s art that could otherwise be associated with the Delft School?
The final two essays address “Drawing and Printmaking in Delft During the Seventeenth Century” (by Michiel Plomp) and “Society, Culture, and Collecting in Seventeenth-Century Delft” (by Marten Jan Bok). Plomp provides an overview of drawing in all genres from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. It is richly informative, surveying the work of major as well as minor draftsmen in Delft, most of whom having been rarely studied in English-language publications (with the exception of the prolific Bramer). Plomp’s essay concludes with a brief but valuable section on the graphic arts in commerce and industry, that is drawing and printmaking placed at the service of Delft’s burgeoning decorative arts industry. Bok’s essay explores the growth of Delft during the seventeenth century from demographic, political and economic standpoints. Additional sections investigate art collecting in Delft – indeed, Bok has investigated this subject in many other exhibitions dedicated to specific cities or periods of the Golden Age – and the Guild of St. Luke. Although Bok owes a debt here to Montias’s monumental Artists and Artisans in Delft of 1982, his argu ments yield new insights and substantiate many of Liedtke’s conclusions about patronage and taste among Delft’s leading citizens.
Given the limitations in length of a review of this type, there is insufficient space here to investigate all 159 catalogue entries along with Michiel Plomp’s enlightening ‘imaginary walk’ through seventeenth-century Delft and Kees Kaldenbach’s informative, topographic study of the city (see below). Suffice it to say that in its totality this beautifully produced 626-page catalogue is monumental in scope and in intention and to my mind, something of a bargain at 75 dollars.