The Little Street by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Realist Townscape Genre-Painting

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The Little Street by Jan Vermeer
The Little Street
By Jan Vermeer.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Little Street (Street in Delft) (c.1658)


Evaluation and Interpretation
Intimacy and Balance
Subject Matter
Camera Obscura
Contemporary Dutch Realist Townscapes
More Information


Painting: The Little Street
Date: c.1658
Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting
Type: Genre-painting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Museum: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate works by
Dutch Realist painters
like Johannes (Jan) Vermeer
see our educational essays:
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Evaluation & Interpretation

This masterpiece of Dutch Realist genre-painting was created by Jan Vermeer (1632-75) during his mid/late 20s, but already demonstrates his ability to express the intimacy of everyday surroundings. The fact that - with the exception of a trip to The Hague in 1672, to testify as an expert witness regarding the authenticity of several Italian paintings - he was never known to leave his native Delft, simply adds to the verisimilitude of the picture. The provenance of The Little Street is also not in doubt, having been documented from its first appearance in the Amsterdam sale of 1696. It was listed as: "A view of a house standing in Delft; 72 florins." In due course it found its way into the estate of the widow of G. W. Oosten de Sruyn, 1799, before being purchased by H. van Winter in 1800 for 1,040 florins. It was then acquired by the Six family (descendants of Jan Six, friend of Rembrandt and patron of several Dutch Realist artists), sold on to H. W. Deterding who in 1921 finally presented it to the Rijksmuseum. A treasure of the more realist Dutch Baroque style of Protestant Reformation Art, it is one of only a tiny handful of paintings by Vermeer which do not contain a significant figurative element, and one of three works which can be classified as townscapes. Unfortunately, of these three, only two have survived: The Little Street and the larger and more extensive View of Delft (c.1660, Mauritshuis, The Hague).



Intimacy and Balance

The painting (also known as Street in Delft) conveys a typical aspect of everyday Dutch townlife of the period: namely, a quiet built-up street, a house and four small figures - two women occupied by mundane tasks, and two children playing. The house is shown to shelter and protect its inhabitants, although the artist gives the viewer only an exterior view of their intimate existence. Contemporaries of Vermeer like Pieter de Hooch (1629-83) and Jan Steen (1626-79) also painted houses and courtyards, but without Vermeer's mastery of light as well as his ability to allow the viewer to share in the scene's calmness and intimacy. The Little Street is a treasure of naturalism and balance. Modern X-ray tests prove that Vermeer had intended to add the standing figure of a girl to the right of the open alleyway, but subsequently erased her so as not to upset the tranquility and equilibrium of the composition. His handling of colour pigments is also an object lesson in restraint: note the harmonies of the grey and vermilion of the brick buildings and wooden shutters; the white which emphasizes the architectural shapes of doorways and lintels; the red, blue and yellow accents in the alleyway and on the women; and the perfectly weighted black which he uses to create the amazingly realistic shadowy interiors. Vermeer's use of linear perspective, as demonstrated by his depiction of the passageway, is also exemplary.


The building in The Little Street has been identified, quite plausibly, as the Old Woman’s and Old Man's Almshouse, which was directly across the street from Vermeer's home. The fact that the Delft almshouse was torn down in 1661 can be used to support the date assigned to this picture (provided, of course, the identification is correct). In addition, Vermeer might have been attracted to the building because it was an almshouse and thus wanted to utilize it for a moralizing purpose. (The activities of the small figures may be a key to Vermeer's meaning: the frivolous games of the two children in the centre are contrasted with the virtuous work of the two women.) It is also possible, given these varied activities, that Vermeer had in mind such traditional themes as the three ages of mankind. This latter concept would be especially poignant and meaningful for a rendering of the Delft home for the aged poor, and completely consistent with the moralizing tone of Dutch seventeenth-century art.

Camera Obscura

Specific elements of both The Little Street and of the View of Delft indicate that Vermeer must have employed the camera obscura for both works. Art scholars believe that he began his 3-piece townscape series with a close-up view of his subject (The Little Street), then executed another townscape involving several houses (a work now lost), before ending with his large panoramic townscape (View of Delft). This development would exactly parallel that found in his genre interiors like The Lacemaker (1669), which also utilize the camera obscura. Thus, like the Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1658, Frick Collection, New York), The Little Street would be his first attempt to apply the camera obscura to architectural subject matter. The more extensive View of Delft can be compared to the further spatial development found in genre interiors like The Music Lesson (Lady and Gentleman at the Virginals) (1665, British Royal Collection). If this developmental hypothesis is correct, it might provide some indication as to why Vermeer painted so few works in his lifetime: the careful craftsmanship and the step-by-step compositional and spatial progression seem to indicate an unusually methodical personality, uninterested in rapid work.

Contemporary Dutch Realist Townscapes

Architectural painting and townscapes occupy a special place in 17th century Dutch painting, particularly in the work of Delft artists. As early as 1658, Pieter de Hooch began using architectural frameworks similar to the one found in The Little Street. De Hooch's figures, however - see for instance Maid and Child in a Delft Courtyard (1658, National Gallery, London) and Woman and a Maid with a Pail in a Courtyard (c.1660, Hermitage, St Petersburg) - are larger and more important than those found in Vermeer's two surviving architectural pictures. The Grinder's Family (c.1653, Berlin), by Gerard Terborch (1617-81), may also be seen to anticipate the Vermeer canvas. In addition, the works of the Haarlem-based architectural painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam (1597-1665), although not technically related to those by Vermeer, must have provided an impetus for realistic depictions of architectural interior views as well as townscapes, at a time when few important artists specialized in this genre.

In Delft itself, the two painters variously linked with Vermeer, Carel Fabritius (1622-54) and Leonaert Bramer (1596-1667), both experimented with similar architectural subject matter. View of Delft (1652, National Gallery, London) by Fabritius is, of course, next to Vermeer's, the best-known view of the town. In addition, Bramer is documented as having executed depictions of architecture and townscapes in Delft.

Paintings by Vermeer

For analysis of other genre paintings and small-scale portraits by the Delft artist Jan Vermeer, see:

- The Milkmaid (c.1658)
- Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662)
- Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63)
- Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662-64)
- Girl with a Pearl Earring (Head of a Girl With a Turban) (1664-6)
- Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666)
- The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)



Further Information

For more about Dutch Realist artists like Vermeer, see the following articles:

Adriaen Van Ostade (1610-85) (Haarlem School)
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) (Leiden School)

• For more about oil painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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