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Seeing Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” that pearl a teardrop of distilled light, justified the side-trip alone. So did the tulip fields — running in glossy, wavering sheets of primary colors, only stopping when they crashed up against the horizon — that followed me to the Hague, and then to Delft.
Even if it isn’t spring, the drive is worthwhile. That’s because the other painting at the Mauritshuis is Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” and that town still comes closest to approximating the artist’s golden dream of Holland, a place where canvas and landscape simply merge. In fact, from certain perspectives Delft still looks exactly like the provincial village that Vermeer compulsively painted and that he refused to leave.
Born in the center of town in 1632, the painter died there 43 years later, penniless, leaving behind 11 children and a wife so poor she had to barter two of his paintings for bread. Why did he stay put in his backwater hometown, working his way into poverty? Maybe he was enthralled by its quiet domesticity, a hush that reads like a lullaby, and that became the truest subject of his paintings. Or maybe the town’s seamless beauty made it an inescapable muse. You can judge for yourself because the beauty is still on exuberant show.
The central Markt Square is a cobbled plaza framed by a whimsical City Hall. Every shop window glints with the blue-and-white ceramics produced by the town’s Delftware factory, and the Oude Delft canal is crowned by a hoop of leafy trees. If you’re hungry, dig into a classic Dutch pancake or broodje (a k a sandwich) on the floating terrace of the Stads-Koffyhuis. If you’re tired, book a room at the venerable Museumhotels Delft just down the canal, a group of three listed landmark buildings that Vermeer would have known well.
And though the truer spirit of Vermeer, a ghostly blur known as the Sphinx of Delft, is a bit harder to find (even his remains disappeared in a mass burial plot though his original grave is marked in the Old Church) there are tantalizing glimpses of the artist everywhere. When I stopped by the Art & Antiques van Geenen (Antiek Van Geenen) shop, the owner claims I have stumbled into Vermeer ground zero. This, he tells me, is the house where the painter was born.
Who’s to say? Records certify that Vermeer was born on Voldersgracht 25, and the shop is Voldersgracht 26. But the antique dealer reveals a winding flight of stairs, walled off at the top, that he suggests originally connected the two buildings. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter. Because looking outside the window, at the canal crowned by floating water lilies, and a brick wall drenched by golden light, you know Vermeer would have felt perfectly at home here, right in this spot, on this sun-splashed spring day.
Raphael Kadushin lives in Madison, Wis., and writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other magazines.