He is known as the “Sphinx of Delft” as so little is known about him. But courtesy of research by Donald Olson, a professor of astronomy at Texas State University, a little of the mystery surrounding the life and works of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer may now have been cleared up.
Vermeer’s View of Delft, judged by the French writer Marcel Proust to be “the most beautiful painting in the world”, is said to be the most famous cityscape of the 17th century. But debate has raged over when it was painted, given the lack of knowledge about the artist’s life and times.
By studying the painter’s use of patterns of light and shadow, Olson – known as the “celestial sleuth” – and a team of researchers believe they can now pinpoint the moment that inspired Vermeer: 8am on 3 September 1659, or possibly the year before, as the then 27-year-old looked out of the window of the second floor of an inn in which he was temporarily staying.
Olson, with the assistance of Russell Doescher, a retired professor in the physics department at Texas State University, made the deduction after mapping out landmarks during a visit to Delft and establishing the angle of the sun that would be required to create a thin vertical sliver of light seen grazing the centre column of the Nieuwe Kerk clocktower at the centre of the painting.
“That’s our key. That’s the sensitive indicator of where the sun has to be to do that, to just skim the one projection and illuminate the other,” Olson said. “The pattern of light and shadows was a sensitive indicator of the position of the sun.”
From there, the rest of the story falls into place, Olson claims. They conclude that the view of the painter is looking north, meaning the light would be coming from the south-east and it was a morning scene.
The clock on the façade of a building in the painting has been interpreted by many as reading just past 7 o’clock. But tower clocks did not have minute hands until late in the 19th century. Instead, one long hand cuts across the clock, with the front part pointing to the hour, suggesting the real time depicted in Vermeer’s work was closer to 8am.
Vermeer painted the Nieuwe Kerk with unobstructed openings in the belfry, which today are filled with the bells of a carillon, a musical instrument often found in churches. But records suggest that installation of the Nieuwe Kerk’s original carillon started in April 1660 and was completed by September.
Using astronomical software, the team then calculated the dates on which the sun’s position in the sky at 8am would create the shadows seen on the Nieuwe Kerk tower in the painting.
Only two possible date ranges were returned: 6-8 April and 3-4 September. In Delft, the trees in the painting would not have had such abundant leaves in April, leaving the autumn month as the best fit.
The claims, published in the astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope, have been met with a mixed response. Lea van der Vinde, of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where the canvas has been hanging since 1822 alongside his most famous work, the Girl with a Pearl Earring, described the development as ‘fun, interesting and exciting”.
But Kees Kaldenbach, an art historian, told De Volskrant newspaper that the painting depicted Delft in May, as the herring vessels in the painting would have been preparing for the June herring catch. “I therefore reject their text,” he informed the paper. “Facts are facts.”