Het Straatje, The Little Street in Delft
The Little Street or ‘Het Straatje’ is a painting by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). This oil painting depicts a view of a typical Delft street, with a brick house façade occupying a large part of the composition.
Cityscapes are almost absent from Vermeer’s work. Only one other painting, entitled ‘View of Delft’, bears witness to his vision of his city. A third painting, House Standing in Delft, was identified but has since been lost. The painter was more accustomed to interiors and genre pieces, but in The Little Street he depicts ordinary life in Delft in the 17th century.
The painting, made around 1658, has an unusual composition. It depicts, from a frontal perspective, a relatively small portion of a typical street of Delft. But it is contrasted by the façade of a house that rises on the right side of the frame. This house, although cut off to the right and at the top of the frame, represent more than half of the composition. Four anonymous figures occupy the space: a woman sewing in the open doorway of the house, a maid in the back-street and two children are present in this domestic scene. Triangular gables of typical Delft houses stretching under the cloudy blue sky complete the composition.
The precision of the details of the house contrasts greatly with the rest of the painting, more effaced, and with the characters whose facial features are not identifiable. The façade of the house on the right is the clearest and focuses the attention. Above the paved floor, the ground floor of the house stands out, whitewashed up to the middle and pierced by large vertical windows. The irregular bricks that complete the building are almost tangible. The composition of the façade, with cracks that may or may not have been filled in, is very detailed. The architectural elements do not reproduce a perfectly pictorial symmetry, the variations linked to construction and time are meticulously represented. Each brick is painted in detail with its colour, condition and interstitial joint. To the left of the painting, a wall connects the façade to another house hidden by ivy. A wooden lintel painfully resists the decay of the bricks. The roof tiles above it have already fallen apart.
Finally, it is worth noting a certain inaccuracy in the structure of the house. The large window on the left is so close to the outer wall that the latter seems very thin to support the weight of such a building. And the arch even seems to overhang the outer wall. This arrangement with the building reality can be explained by the desire to represent a damaged house by combining elements from different houses. But it also reinforces the visual idea of the fragility of the house.
An enigmatic location
The identification of the place has long been an enigma, probably reinforced by the possibility of an architectural patchwork on façade. Although easy to lcoate in Delft, the lack of evidence did not allow for a definitive answer. However, elements such as the drainage channel from the courtyard door to the street indicate that these were canal houses. Based on Vermeer’s biography, several locations have been proposed by topographers without actually confirming any of the various hypotheses. However, in 2015 the Rijksmuseum announced that the location of The Alley had been identified by Professor Frans Grijzenhout: it was the Vlamingstraat in Delft, at present numbers 40-42. Grijzenhout used a tax register of the time (the tax was proportional to the height of the façade), and showed that an aunt of Vermeer’s owned the house on the right of the painting.
The unusual composition of this painting and the subject matter make it unique among Vermeer’s works. The attention to detail given to the house, its obvious fragility, the weight of the years felt in the structure and elements, the almost tangible texture of the bricks offers a lively composition, much less rigid than the composition and the frontal perspective would at first sight suggest.