Astronomers solve the mystery of a masterpiece of Dutch painting


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Johannes Vermeer is one of the masters of the Golden Age SEVENTEENTH-century Dutch. Popularly known today for “The girl with the pearl earring”, the painter is a genius of light and shadow. This technical precision is evident in another of his more famous pictures, “View of Delft” , an urban landscape that has saved some secrets for centuries. Because we know few details about the life of the author, was not even well known when he painted it. In what year? During what season of the year? What time of the day? Now, a team of researchers from Texas State University (USA) has solved the mystery thanks to the application of different scientific knowledge, including astronomy, a good and detailed observation of the painting and a large dose of ingenuity.

According to the team at the magazine “Sky & Telescope”, Vermeer painted “View of Delft” from the second floor of an inn with views of the city and was inspired by the scene that you observed on September 3, 1659 (or a previous year) around 8 in the morning, local time.

The windows of the inn from which Vermeer painted “View of Delft” – Donald Olson

to Reach that conclusion required a pull of a thread of knowledge that they were gaining little by little. For a start, the researchers made it clear what time of day is the painting of Vermeer. The majority of printed sources claim that the light of the picture came from the west, while others were sure that the Sun was high. Olson and his students looked at maps of Delft and realized that the view looks towards the north. That means that the light would come from the southeast, turning the painting in a scene in the morning , as also had been suggested before by other researchers.

The team, led by astronomer and physics professor Donald Olson and attended by several students, worked on the project for a year and even moved to Delft to try to unravel the mystery of the box. “We spent a lot of time studying the topography of the city, using maps from the SEVENTEENTH and NINETEENTH centuries, and Google Earth,” says Olson. This tool was used to draw the reference points in the paint, determining the distances and angles of vision that would represent the view of Vermeer centuries ago.

in Addition, when you get to Delft, the researchers conducted a topographic survey of the site. This, combined with previous data, we established that the field of vision of the painting is 42° wide, a fact that would prove invaluable.

The tower octogonalLa column (red arrow) indicates very well the position of the Sun, both in the box as in a current picture – Mauritshuis / R. Doescher

In the SEVENTEENTH century, the octagonal tower of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) was one of the historical features of Delft. The existing literature argues that Vermeer significantly expanded the tower in his painting, doubling its width. To check this, Olson and his team conducted its own review. They took detailed measurements of the canvas, framed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. By comparing these measurements with high resolution pictures from a point of view and a field of view similar, confirmed that Vermeer showed the octagonal tower almost exactly as the would have seen. Olson also took measurements of the building, which further confirmed the precision of Vermeer.

to Set the precision of the representation of the Nieuwe Kerk was the key to unlock the date of the authorship. The octagonal tower has a stone column that is projected from each of the eight corners. In the painting, the column in the center almost, but not quite, shade the column to the left. A thin vertical strip of light grazes the central column and illuminates the left column, which allows astronomers to calculate the angle of the Sun with great precision.

The clock of a single agujaLos watches of the towers did not have minute hands until the end of the NINETEENTH century – Rijksmuseum

Vermeer is known for his technical ability to depict light and shadow, how could it be otherwise, have been key in the investigation. “The pattern of lights and shadows was a sensitive indicator of the position of the Sun,” says Olson. Once you set the angle of the Sun, the researchers zeroed in on other details. A clock on the facade of a building in the painting had been interpreted for years as “7-pass”, before that Sanchez will notice a curious coincidence. In all the other paintings and drawings of watches that the team had revised that time, it seemed that the hands were aligned in a straight line. After further research and consultation with experts in architecture, the team realized that the clocks of the towers did not have minute hands until the end of the NINETEENTH century. In contrast, the watches above had a single and a long needle to give the hour, with the front pointing to the hour and the back acting as a counterweight. Armed with this new knowledge, the team re-examined the clock in the painting of Vermeer and realized that the only hand he was, in reality, close to eight.

Clock in “View of Delft” – Mauritshuis

Vermeer also painted the tower with openings clear and free of obstacles in the bell tower. These openings are currently filled with the bells of a carillon. The historical records indicate that the installation of the carillon original began in April 1660 and was completed in September of that same year. To match with the bell tower without a bell in his painting, Vermeer would have painted “View of Delft” at some point prior to the installation of the carillon in 1660. Using the data collected from their research, the team used a astronomy software to calculate when the position of the Sun in the sky at 8 am local time in Delft would have produced the shadows observed in the Nieuwe Kerk. The software returned only two possible ranges of dates: from 6 to 8 April and from 3 to 4 September. In the climate of the north of Delft, the trees do not break the winter dormancy until the end of April or may, and the painting of Vermeer displayed abundant leaves in the trees. As the chimes had been installed in the tower during 1660, that leaves a date close to the September 3, 1659 (or a previous year), as the most likely date for the origin of the masterpiece of Vermeer.

“it Is known that Vermeer worked slowly. Complete all the details in the large canvas of his masterpiece may have taken weeks, months, or even years,” says Olson. This study of detective demonstrates how science can help us to better understand the art.