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Thursday, December 29th, 2022

Is This the Most Beautiful Painting in the World?

By Christopher Volpe

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Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, 1659–1661

Marcel Proust thought View of Delft by Vermeer “the most beautiful picture in the world.” It’s been called “a perfect painting,” and whether or not you agree, the artist’s picture of his hometown assuredly does repay close looking.

Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, 1659–1661

The time is morning, with the sun to the east (viewer’s right) illuminating the Protestant “New Church” before its bells were replaced in 1660, which is how historians have dated the work.

Proust wrote to a friend about the first time he saw it:

“Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world.”

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That day, on the way to the museum he’d swooned with a sudden feeling of weakness (shortly after, he took to his bed for the few remaining years of his life). He wrote the experience into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, in which his main character actually does die in front of the View of Delft.

Art writer Christopher Jones points to the way Vermeer handled the sky in this painting as perhaps its most spectacular aspect: “Those clouds are impeccably painted. See the way they diminish perfectly in size to create the sense of depth and space. See the way the light upon them falls with just enough variation so as to differentiate between each cloud formation, yet not too much so as to be impressive. It is such an ordinary sky — and that is why it is so perfect.”

Jones says that the higher, darker cloud (and I would say the same about the strip of foreground) “frames” the painting’s space in a way that invites us to see the painting as a painting, rather than a straight-up “view” of the city.

It’s said to be the kind of magical thing you could spend a lifetime dreaming over. Cityscapes at the time were relatively rare, and Vermeer painted three of Delft. In one of those other paintings, called Street Scene, Delft (the Little Street), Vermeer painted the bit of neighborhood where he grew up.

Vermeer’s palette for all this, by the way, was super basic and primary: chemical analysis shows he used just madder lake, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue and lead white.

Johannes Vermeer, Street Scene, Delt (the Little Street)

It’s a small painting, about 20 inches (as are most of Vermeer’s works), but the detail is exquisite.

As relatively rare as pure cityscapes were at the time, no great painting emerges out of pure invention. Vermeer was building upon the solid foundations of the Dutch landscape tradition. We can check several boxes of standard features from Dutch landscapes in the View of Delft’s scale, its low horizon line, the overall color and luminosity, and the big shadowy-light cumulus clouds casting their shadow on the foreground waterfront while the middle ground area awash in sunlight peeps out behind. We looked at a landscape by Van Ruisdael recently that, just like the one below and like the Vermeer, employs:

  • a low horizon line
  • big sky with a mix of warmly lit and shadowed clouds
  • diminutive figures and architecture that establish a sense of grand scale

Jacob van Ruisdael, An extensive landscape with grain fields, Heemstede beyond, c.1660–1670

Still, Vermeer’s design makes View of Delft unique. It’s arranged in a series of broad and irregular horizontal bands (sky, city, canal and foreground) counterbalanced by smaller vertical lines, particularly the city spires and their reflections in the water. The graceful rhythmical divisions and subdivisions of vertical and horizontal lines unify the whole.

None of this, of course, is arbitrary. Radiography shows that Vermeer deliberately extended the reflections on the right late in the process. These vertical lines connect the middle ground with the foreground and anchor the whole design. The reflections on the left and in the center also visually connect the bank with the line of architecture. To the left, they frame two small figures, (there are 15 in all).

In each detail, whether the sun-baked brick, the green masses of  trees, the slightly blurred reflections, or the the figures, Vermeer spotlights just the right essential details – and no more. Realists interested in the foundational principles of old master painters like Vermeer might be interested in Vergil Elliott’s video Traditional Oil Painting – the Principles of Visual Reality.

Vermeer’s View of Delft has an incredible degree of intricacy for a painting so gracefully divided into just a few big shapes. It owes its poise and charm to its clear morning light combined with its balance of highly varied yet somehow harmonious elements.“Most beautiful” or not, this is one of those great images in art that once seen, you never wholly forget.

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Contender No. 2 for “Best Picture” (and How it Saved a Whole Town)

Piero della Francesco, Resurrection of Christ, c. 1645

In his essay, “The Best Picture,” written in 1925, Aldous Huxley (of Brave New World fame) described Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ as “the greatest painting in the world.”During World War II, the Italian town it’s in, Sansepolcro, was saved from being bombed when a British artillery officer Anthony Clarke, who had read the essay, defied orders and and prevented his troop’s guns from shelling the town.

Clarke’s diary records that he remembered Huxley’s essay, the key phrase of which reads in full:“It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world”and knew that the painting was kept there.

Today, there is a street named after Captain Sharpe to honor the memory of his action in saving not only the painting but the town.

Yes, art does indeed change the world – in small but nonetheless significant ways.

In the paint,


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Edited by Christopher Volpe

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