Using modern tools, a team of astronomers uses celestial sleuthing to figure out when Vermeer painted his masterpiece "View of Delft."
Just 35 paintings done by Johannes Vermeer survive. Not much is known about the artist's life, and people have puzzled over his "View of Delft" landscape for years, trying to identify exactly the view it depicts and when Vermeer could have painted it. Some experts had tagged its source of light as coming from the west, while others felt that it must've been directly overhead. Now a team of researchers from Texas State University led by astronomer Donald Olsen have solved the riddle, thanks in part to the uncanny manner in which Vermeer was able to capture the play of light and shadow.
The first question to be resolved was the location from which Vermeer painted the picture, and what he was painting. Says Olson, "The students and I worked for about a year on this project. We spent a lot of time studying the topography of the town, using maps from the 17th and 19th centuries and Google Earth." They concluded that Vermeer was looking northward from the second story of an inn across the triangular Kolk harbor, located at the southern end of his hometown. Finding the date was a bit trickier, but the octagonal Nieuwe Kerk tower provided an answer. The hands on the clock point to around 8 a.m. Each of the tower's eight corners has its own stone column. The right side of the center-most column is lit, while its left is in shadow. On the next column to the left, however, is a thin sliver of light not blocked by the center column.
Trusting Vermeer's careful depiction of light and shadow, the team was able to use this subtle detail to deduce the precise angle of sunlight shown in the painting. The team used astronomical software to identify any days on which the sun was at precisely that angle around 8 in the morning. The software returned two periods, one in April 1660 (which was previously ruled out because of missing bells in the belfry) and the other around September 3-4, 1659.