Vermeer’s Secret Science Essay
Vermeer’s Secret Science
A great teacher once told me that the key to art is not to create, he said the only reason we have “old masters” is because they had “ideas”.
“Just as a Shakespeare created plays?”
“Yes, he created, but is that the reason he is studied worldwide?”
“Well, being the only known writer of the 15th century leaves him to be exclusively famous… does it not?”
“No, minority did not exist within the arts centuries ago, as matter of fact there are thousands of artists from the past left anonymous.”
The answer was therein comprehended. It is the idea and creation behind a piece of art that makes it famous for hundreds of years after. Without it is would be an illustration or graphic or in plain English: Plagiarism.
The historical academies have studied artifacts and mysteries of the past for centuries, which is most thoroughly claimed within our art history textbooks. However, it has evidently taken over five hundred years to question the embedded facts of part of our “accurate history.” It seems as though the secret knowledge that has been possessed by few for centuries has slowly been seeping out. Some great artists of the past have used optics and mirrors to aid themselves within their masterpieces. Nonetheless, it has been understood that our great artistic masters of the past excelled in extraordinary hand-and-eye coordination being capable to render ravishingly accurate anatomies and landscapes through sheer inborn God-given talent.i Few historians, artists and even scientists have dismissed the notion of this succor as the religious belief prevails that artists of the past just knew how to draw.
Realist artists in the Romantic era, such as Vermeer and other Dutch contemporaries, have evidently produced unauthentic pieces due to the camera obscura and camera lucida. Thus the accomplishment of perfect likeness and high realism with the lack of creativity and imagination have been proved within several of their works. All in all, this founding principle that has cheated our eyes for centuries has given the only applicable purpose for the introduction of an impressionist and abstracted art movement that still carries present day twenty-first century.
Seventeenth century Dutch artists that have been recorded were all Realist genres as the Romantic Movement was being incarnated. Artisans that resided within the Netherlands were more likely to make use of the camera obscura, as “Vermeer probably had a smaller version of the camera obscura – a booth just big enough for him to sit in.”ii The word camera obscura when translated to Latin is given the meaning of “dark room.”iii This form of room could be rendered by anyone who used their scientific knowledge of allowing a small hole of light to be brought into a dark room, where an exact image of the view outside would be projected inside.1 Greek philosopher Aristotle knew of it in 322 BC and used it to view the sun indirectly.iv In 1558 Leonardo da Vinci reacted to the device by questioning: “Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these?”v
Besides his excitement of being acquainted with the invention, there is no actual proof that he made use of the device. So, why would Dutch Vermeer be guiltier of using such a device to aid in his work? After all he did reside within a small town of Delft. The short life Vermeer lived was an extremely exciting time, known in Holland as their Golden era for discoveries, inventions and most importantly trade. Coincidentally, born in 1632 in that small town was Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a scientist that studied optics and good friend of Vermeer. Leeuwenhoek traveled through his career and returned to his final home residence when Veermer began a new style of painting of exquisite interiors that he is now famous for.vi
Once Vermeer’s genius was recognized, it was difficult to understand how it could have been so long concealed in obscurity. After all he only has among 32 compositions known to his name and died as a man full of debt.vii Yet Vermeer was very much a man of his time as geometry was the cornerstone of 17th century scientific investigation; well aware of it Vermeer laid out his paintings in a magically arrangement of planes, lines, cubes and cones.viii Evidently, only the use of a camera obscura would allow Vermeer to create the intriguing perspective and depth of field as identified in the View of Delft.ix This perfectly balanced composition is almost divided exactly in two. The sky fills the top half and includes a dark horizontal band of clouds overhead. The buildings create another dark band in the lower half.
He extended the reflections of the tallest buildings so their vertical shapes anchor the composition at the bottom. Sunlight floods the buildings inside the dark walls to suggest the inner city’s life and vitality. The light is strongest on the highest tower, the New Church, the symbolic center of the city.x The lighting in other of Vermeer paintings also suggests the influence of the camera obscura. The reflections in the eyes and highlights on the lips in the Girl With a Pearl Earringxi could only have been painted by an artist familiar with this early camera like machine. The gleaming objects beside the Woman Holding a Balancexii have a photographic quality.
But the work that best demonstrates this modern way of seeing is The Lacemaker. When you look at the painting The Lacemaker, one would have to question, where does my eye go first? Everything in the composition – the girls face, the part in her hair, her fingers, the threads she holds – points to the painting’s focal point, the lace she works on. They are all in sharp focus. The sewing cushion contains spools; bundles of red and white threads hang from it. But when observed closely, those threads are actually blurred. A camera focuses on either the foreground, middleground, or background in just this way.xiii Vermeer was one of the first painters to use depth of field – a device usually associated with photography – to involve the viewer and cause the eye to focus on the clear figure of the Lacemaker.xiv As Chuck Close, a contemporary painter comments that Vermeer’s eye, “painted what a camera sees… he deals with what happens at the blurry edges of our vision.”xv
So, it’s evident that Johannes Vermeer used his enlightenment of revolutionary scientific knowledge and produced “photographs.” But why was this kept secret? David Hockney, was the first modern day contemporary to go public about the camera obscura. As a pop artist and photographer he argues that “…art historians of today seem reluctant to discuss ‘tools of trade’, especially optics.”xvi The use of optics and mechanical aids appears to be unacknowledged. Hockney questions if it’s previous ignorance or if it’s the general assumption that artists just knew how to draw with their hand, even though Ingres was able to complete single portraits within the length of one day.xvii Actual proof has evidently not been founded, yet.
However the source of this hidden body of knowledge may actually be caused by the obvious: the Catholic Church. Not only did the arts revolve around the church, but for centuries prior to discoveries, science and technology was known to be unorthodox. As Fredric Raphael puts it, “The Inquisition did not hesitate to threaten Galileo with the instruments of torture if he did not retract the heretical view, confirmed by his use of telescopic lenses, that the Earth moved around the sun.”xviii Therefore the knowledge of mirrors and optics would not be publicly recognized for only having fear of being acclaimed as an inferior artist, but fear of being accused of working for the devil.
“Working?” Maybe that’s entirely what that bankrupt artist in that small town of Delft wanted to do: work. In 1647, John Evelyn told of what he thought of Dutch paintings:
“We arrived late at Roterdam, where was at that time their annual Mart or Faire, so furnish’d with pictures (especially Landscips, and Drolleries, as they call those clownish representations) as I was amaz’d: some of these I bought and sent to England. The reason of this store of pictures, and their cheapnesse proceede from their want of land, to employ their Stock: so as ’tis an ordinary thing to find, a common farmer lay out two, or 3,000 pounds in this commodity, their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their Kermas’es to very greate gaines.”xix
Evelyn use of the words “cheapnesse proceed” shows that the paintings being massively
produced by these Dutch masters were in terrible decline. Hence the reasoning for technological aid. Bankrupt Vermeer was desperate and used the camera obscura to “cheat” his way of being ahead of his contemporaries.
However how long could it last? Artists were bound to be caught, then what would happen to our history if we had proof of the truth: shall I recall John Roberts saying: “Art has no history.”xx A theory perceived by the changing of basic structures through our history. The single reflex camera was publicly marketed in 1839,xxi approximately the same time Manet was changing his brushstroke. Impressionism began in the early 1800’s, believed to be a reaction to the snapshot photograph. Was it not? How did this sudden reaction take place? It had to have developed over a period of time. A period that slowly influenced a century before of the fight for high realism and imagination: romanticism. From the seventeenth century Dutch to the Nineteenth century Realists all visual signs and all intellectual signs concur in foreseeing a transformation of European art.
The principle of the Dutch: to paint what one sees began the metamorphosis of the early impressionists: to paint what one feels.xxii In 1868 Thore2 gave a review of Manet stating that: “The principal merit of the portrait of M. Zola, as of the other works of Edouard Manet, is the light that circulates in this interior and which distributes the modeling and the relief everywhere.”xxiii The “light” and “interiors” are taken from the realists of the 17th century and is able to signify how photography appeared to realize one of the Romantic dreams: the immediate transmutation of reality into art without the interpreter, a code, or a tradition. No medium is so controversial than that of a photograph. It makes us look again, and closely, at things we might have missed with perceptive observation.
Barnet, Sylvan. 1993. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. New York: Harper Collins.
An excellent book that is not referenced in my paper, however was used to guide through styles, criticism and even references. Chapter 2 on “Analytical Thinking: Seeing and Saying” showed how to analyze formally and personally. Chapter 9 on “Essay Examinations” was the only chapter of this book that offered no help for this particular assignment.
Langford, Michael. 1980. The Story of Photography. London: Focal Press.
This book consisted of the history of the camera and began with the first chapter demonstrating how the camera obscura works. At first I felt this book was going to be more useful than it turned out to be as it consisted of more present day knowledge of photography.
Livingstone, Marco. 1981. David Hockney. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
I learned a lot about Hockney than I did before from this book. He is a very interesting artist that is making a good living off of his work and is still alive! He likes to research and discovered a lot of the flaws about history already published. Through his research and publications I was able to formulate the basis of my essay. He has been a great mentor for the past weeks.
McKelvey, Tara. 2001. “USA Today.” 5 December www.usatoday.com/life/enter/books/2001-12-06-
(19 December, 2001).
This article founded on the www was a follow-up to one of Hockney’s articles. It debates current issues and gives feedback on what artists of the past possibly did.
Nash, J.M. 1972. The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. New York: Phaidon.
This book was good to look more in depth at the Dutch. It was not the Romantics, it was the Dutch. I was able to get that great Dutch quotation from this book and learn more about the society than I was able to in any other source. Chapter 10 was about the decline of Dutch painting and that gave me a few ideas to understand how the movement came to an end.
Newhall, Beaumont. 1988. The History of Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Similarly to the Story of Photography, except this one had more pictures. I didn’t really use this book as much as I thought I would. However I did read a few chapters and learned about the different calotypes. This was good to have the background to the basis of what I was writing on.
Raphael, Frederic. 2001. “Rediscovering the Lost.” 9 December www.latimes.com/features/
(02 January, 2002).
A really good article. It was biased, however it was in favour of my thesis, so I made good use of it. It has good criticism on Hockney’s revolutions. What I liked was that the writer was really down-to earth.
Roberts, John. 1994. Art Has No History. New York: Verso.
A book a came across that helped me understand that there is a lot of theories behind our written history. Although it’s focus was primarily on modern day more so than the past.
Rosen, Charles and Henri Zerner. 1984. Romanticism and Realism. London: Norton and
This book had a lot of good criticism; I found some to be rather overly negative or some just confusing. There was a lot of good background to Romantic period and it had good information on the impressionists.
Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1664. Woman Holding a Balance. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art,
I used this piece to understand how it is a photographic image and learneed that it definaltey carries the quality of a photo especially the objects his subject holds and the way the setting and lighting has effected it.
Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1669. The Lacemaker. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris.
I observed a picture of this painting for a long time and came up with several conclusions and hints of the use of a camera. The lace, threads and perspective all contribute greatly to my thesis.
Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1661. View of Delft. Oil on canvas. The Hague, Mauritshuis.
One of Vermeer’s most famous paintings and I found to be the most guilty, just because it is a cityscape, it has clouds and the fact that camera obscuras work best with clouds really helped with this piece.
Vermmer, Johannes. c. 1665. Girl With a Pearl Earring. Oil on canvas. The Hague, Mauritshuis.
This painting showed great detail of eyes and lips and was easy to compare to that of a photograph. The lighting that is rendered shows how the camera sees highlights.
Weschler, Lawrence. 2001. “Through the Looking Glass.” www.lawrenceweschler.com
(17 December, 2001).
This article was almost like a story. Weschler told of the incident when he and Hockney had a informal conversation about his thoughts on the idea of Renaissance artists using aids. It also spoke of further research Hockney is looking into.
Winkfield, Trevor. “Looking into Vermeer.” Art in America. 5 (May 1996):71-76.
This article I found came across very surprising as did finding the magazine from 5 years ago. It had an interesting topic about early photography. I read some interesting quotes all the way from Da Vinci to present contemporaries.
Woodrow, Ross. 2001. “Origins in Shadow.” www.newcastle.edu.au/department/fad/fi/woodrow/anal-
(19 December, 2001).
This site was best for understanding the basic principle of the camera obscura. It has great diagrams and descriptions of how the process is done. It also has some history and speaks of Van Leeuwenhoek as an early scientist of optics.
1 Today this is known as the pinhole camera, the basis of modern photography, the image is inverted and upside down when projected.
2 Theophile Thore was a critic of realism through 1849-1859; exiled in 1859
i Weschler, Lawrence. 2001. “Through the Looking Glass.” www.lawrenceweschler.com
(17 December, 2001). Pg.1
ii McKelvey, Tara. 2001. “USA Today.” 5 December www.usatoday.com/life/enter/books/2001-12-06- (19 December, 2001). Pg.3
iii Langford, Michael. 1980. The Story of Photography. London: Focal Press. Pg.36
iv Newhall, Beaumont. 1988. The History of Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art. Pg. 46
v Woodrow, Ross. 2001. “Origins in Shadow.” www.newcastle.edu.au/department/fad/fi/woodrow/anal-
(19 December, 2001).
vi Winkfield, Trevor. “Looking into Vermeer.” Art in America. 5 (May 1996):71-76.
vii Nash, J.M. 1972. The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. New York: Phaidon. Pg. 22
viii Weschler, Lawrence. 2001. “Through the Looking Glass.” www.lawrenceweschler.com
(17 December, 2001).
ix Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1661. View of Delft. Oil on canvas. The Hague, Mauritshuis.
x Nash. Pg 34
xi Vermmer, Johannes. c. 1665. Girl With a Pearl Earring. Oil on canvas. The Hague, Mauritshuis.
xii Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1664. Woman Holding a Balance. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
xiii Beaumont. Pg. 9
xiv Vermeer, Johannes. c. 1669. The Lacemaker. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris.
xv Winkfield. Pg. 72
xvi Livingstone, Marco. 1981. David Hockney. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Pg.72
xvii Ibid. Pg. 88
xviii Nash. Pg. 44
xix Nash. Pg. 63
xx Roberts, John. 1994. Art Has No History. New York: Verso.