This very small and very unusual painting shows the view of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft as though through a wide-angle lens. The effect is emphasised by two musical instruments, set out on a table by the man – probably a maker of, or dealer in, such instruments.
The violin (or possibly a viola da gamba) has been dramatically foreshortened – painted as though it’s receding into the picture space – giving the impression that it is very close to the viewer. This effect, combined with the church in the middle ground and the lines of sight disappearing off into the distance on either side, has led many art historians to conclude that Fabritius designed the image to create a specific optical illusion.
It was probably made to be fitted into a viewing box and looked at through a lens or peephole. Viewers would be deceived into believing that they were looking at a three-dimensional scene.
This is a very small and very unusual painting, showing a view of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft as though through a wide-angle lens. We look roughly north-west over a canal from the corner of two streets, the Oude Langendijk and Oosteinde. The grey shape just to the left of the church is the town hall. Both these buildings look much the same today, but the canal has been filled in and the houses on the right have been knocked down.
Views of particular streets and buildings were popular in seventeenth-century Holland, and especially in Delft, where Fabritius worked. The exaggerated perspectives the artist created make this one unusual. The church seems to loom towards us and the bend in the cobbled street seems to reflect the curve of a glass lens.
The effect is most strongly emphasised in the two musical instruments, set out on the table by a man who sits watchfully in the shade. He is probably a maker of, or dealer in, such instruments, and this is his stall. Fabritius may have had an aesthetic appreciation of the shape and form of the instruments, but he also wanted to use them to create a visual illusion. He uses a dramatically foreshortened view along the strings and fingerboard of a violin (or possibly a viola da gamba) so that the instrument appears extremely close to us. It follows the line of the street behind, which leads away from the centre of the picture, drawing our eye to the bulbous back of a lute leaning up against the wall. There we also see Fabritius’s signature carved into the wall as though it were a piece of graffiti.
Together, the impression of the instruments‘ closeness, the church as centrepiece in the middle ground and the lines of sight disappearing off into the distance on either side have led many art historians to conclude that Fabritius designed the image to create a specific optical illusion. It was probably made to be fitted into a viewing box and looked at through a lens or peephole. This would have created an impression of depth, so viewers were deceived into believing they were looking at a three-dimensional scene. This was known as a trompe-l’oeil effect (or trick of the eye) and several artists of the time specialised in such illusions. There’s an example in our collection of what is known as a ’perspective box' of this type: A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House by Samuel van Hoogstraten. It has two sight holes which allow a view of an interior and was probably made about five or six years after the Fabritius painting.
What hasn’t been definitively proven is exactly how Fabritius’s view was intended to be mounted and looked at. It may be that it was made to be pasted onto a curved surface inside the box, or perhaps viewed through a lens which created a particular optical distortion.
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