View of Delft

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Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660

This painting of Delft, Johannes Vermeer's hometown, shows a view from the south of the River Schie and the town itself behind. Not much bigger than a square meter, the intricate masterpiece shows immaculate care and attention to detail. A miniature clock on the Schiedam Gate proclaims the time to be just past seven o'clock, which the beautiful morning sky behind attests to. Cityscapes were uncommon at the time, especially of this quality. The abrupt cutoff of the buildings at the edge of the painting, while natural to someone accustomed to twenty-first century photography, would have been startling to a Rennaissance contemporary.

Possibly, to help plan his composition, Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura. The matter is hotly debated by art historians, since no concrete evidence for the theory exists other than the attention to detail in his paintings. Rather than use a series of lenses to focus light, a camera obscura uses a pinhole to project an image of its surroundings onto a screen. The image comes through upside-down, but with all other elements preserved. It can then be traced and used as a reference. Modified camera obscuras, which project light onto photographic paper, are still in use today by extra-pretentious photographers who like the blurred, indistinct effect and long exposure times.

To perfectly recreate the colors and texture, Vermeer actually mixed sand into his paint in areas. The reflections in the water are gorgeous, with minute specks of light done in almost-pointilist style. However, the View of Delft is not perfectly photorealistic. Vermeer arranged the buildings for a better composition, spreading them out and shortening many of the narrow towers. The effect of the reflections in the water and the gap in the clouds directly above pushes the viewer's eye inward and upward. In the end, the piece is a stunning memorial to Vermeer's home town, saluting the rich history of the buildings and providing a look into history - not as a perfectly realistic photograph, but an idealized portrait.

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