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
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
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