Dutch Golden Age artist Johannes Vermeer is known for creating iconic works like Girl With a Pearl Earring. But it was his View of Delft that French novelist Marcel Proust deemed “the most beautiful painting in the world.” Now, an astronomer has studied the 17th-century cityscape’s depiction of light and shadow to pinpoint the moment that inspired the artist down to the hour, reports Daniel Boffey for the Guardian.
Art historians have long thought that View of Delft was painted in the late spring or early summer of 1660, but the details of Vermeer’s life are so hazy that no one could be sure exactly when the masterwork came to fruition, according to Jennifer Ouellette of Ars Technica.
Donald Olson, an astronomer at Texas State University, and his colleagues used Google Earth and maps from the 17th and 19th centuries to identify landmarks in the painting. Then, they measured the distances and angles of its shadows and highlights. As the Guardian notes, the team even visited Delft firsthand to deduce the position of the sun—and thus the time of year—associated with a slice of light seen on the Nieuwe Kerk tower’s belfry in Vermeer’s skillful rendering.
“That’s our key. That’s the sensitive indicator of where the sun has to be to do that, to just skim the one projection and illuminate the other,” Olson tells the Guardian. “The pattern of light and shadows was a sensitive indicator of the position of the sun.”
In View of Delft, several of the tower’s eight faces are lit, while others remain in shadow.
Speaking with Ars Technica, Olson says, “The best part is one of the faces is largely dark, but it is projection lit. That’s a very unusual lighting effect, [and] it only happens for a few minutes.”
Per a statement, the researchers concluded that the painting frames a view to the north, meaning its light comes from the southeast, not the west as most sources claim. This observation indicates that the painting depicts the city in the morning.
The scientists’ findings, published in the September 2020 issue of Sky & Telescope, also address what they deem a misinterpretation of the tower’s clock hands. Previously, experts had suggested the clock read just past 7 a.m., its hour and minute hands forming a straight line across its face. After consulting architectural experts, however, the team realized that clocks of that era didn’t have multiple hands. Instead, they featured just one long hour hand, nudging the time forward to around 8 a.m. (Minute hands didn’t emerge until late in the 19th century, according to the statement.)
Historical records indicate that workers installed the Nieuwe Kerk’s bells between April and September 1660. Since the tower’s belfry is empty in the painting, the researchers surmised that Vermeer must have created the painting in or before 1659.
Armed with these parameters, the team used astronomical software to simulate the sun’s position at various times of the year. Based on these simulations, only the periods of April 6 through 8 and September 3 through 4 could have produced the lighting seen in the painting.
The last step in the scientists’ process of elimination centered on the trees in the painting, which wouldn’t have been as verdant and leafy as they appear in Vermeer’s work in April. By eliminating the April timeframe, Olson and his colleagues finally homed in on a new date and time for Vermeer’s masterpiece: around 8 a.m. on September 3 or 4, 1659 (or the year prior).
Speaking with the Guardian, Lea van der Vinde, a curator at the Mauritshuis in the Hague, which has housed the painting in its collections since 1822, calls the astronomers’ research “fun, interesting and exciting.”
Independent art historian Kees Kaldenbach, meanwhile, tells Dutch newspaper de Volskrant that he disagrees with the new analysis. He contends that the painting depicts the city in late May, as herring vessels seen in the scene would have been in the midst of preparations for the start of fishing season on June 1.
“I therefore reject their text,” says Kaldenbach. “Facts are facts.”