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Enlarge / Johannes Vermeer's View of Delft is considered to be his greatest masterpiece.Johannes Vermeer/Mauritshuis, The Hague

The 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer is perhaps best known in the popular imagination for Girl with a Pearl Earring, which inspired both a 1999 novel and a 2003 film adaptation of said novel. But among art historians, Vermeer's masterpiece is View of Delft, a cityscape of the painter's hometown that beautifully illustrates Vermeer's skill with light and shadow.

Art historians have long thought that Vermeer likely created View of Delft around 1660-1661, but because we have so little biographical information about the artist, pinpointing the exact date, and even time of day, that the scene represents has proven challenging. Some have argued for late spring or early summer, with times ranging from mid-day to sunset. A new astronomical analysis concludes that Anthony Bailey, author of Vermeer: A View of Delft (2001), was correct in concluding that the painting depicts the town in the morning, "with the sun striking the buildings from the south east." Furthermore, the time is most likely 8am, on September 3 or 4, in the year 1659 or earlier.

That's the conclusion of Donald Olson, an astronomer at Texas State University known as the "celestial sleuth" for his work in so-called "forensic astronomy," and several colleagues, who describe their analysis in the September 2020 issue of Sky and Telescope (subscription required). Over the years, Olson has found evidence that the blood-red sunset that inspired Edvard Munch's The Scream was likely an after-effect of the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia; that the Moon may have contributed to the sinking of the Titanic; helped identify the precise location of Julius Caesars landing site in Britain in 55 BC; and showed that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit “waking dream” that inspired Frankenstein, among other findings.

More recently, in 2015, Olson and a few colleagues set out to determine the precise time of day that Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took his most famous photograph: a sailor and a woman in a white nurse's uniform kissing in the middle of Times Square to celebrate Japan's surrender on August 14, 1945 (known as V-J- Day in Times Square). Pinpointing the exact time the photograph was taken helped rule out several people who claimed to be the people in the photograph.

To make that determination, Olson et al. studied a prominent shade that falls across the Lowe's Building in the image, just beyond the Bond Clothes clock (which isn't clearly readable). Since every tall building in Manhattan is basically a sundial, the team studied hundreds of photographs and maps from the 1940s to identify the building casting that shadow. They concluded it had to be an L-shaped sign advertising the Astor Roof Garden. They even built a scale model to make sure. From there, they could easily infer that the photograph was taken at 5:51pm.

  • Vermeer's original painting. Johannes Vermeer/Mauritshuis, The Hague
  • Delft today. Don Olson
  • Astronomer Don Olson stands beside Vermeer's masterpiece at Mauritshuis in The Hague. Marilynn Olson
  • The artist's location for View of Delft was likely the upper floor of an inn, as seen in this 1736 print. Collection of Don Olson
  • Detail of clock face in Vermeer's View of Delft Johannes Vermeer/Mauritshuis, The Hague
  • Vermeer's depiction of light and shadow on the stone octagon of the Nieuwe Kerk tower (left) matches the photograph (right) when the Sun's azimuth was near 110 degrees. Don Olson

Olson became interested in researching the Vermeer painting when a colleague came up to him after one of his talks and asked if his techniques couldRead More – Source

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