Vermeer and the Camera Obscura
There is a thread in popular culture that takes an alternative view of the great Dutch painter Vermeer, and it's a thread in which his incredibly photorealistic skills came not from an artist's talent, but from optical mechanical aids in the form of a camera obscura. Whole books have been written making this unevidenced claim. What does our skeptical eye tell us when we point it through the lens of the camera, and at the work of the great Dutch master?
There is a trend in popular culture to take a snippet from our history, adorn it with a false gilding of sensational mythology, and then to trumpet that counterfeit version throughout the mass media. The inevitable result is that the average person hears only the untrue version, and the actual history remains an obscure footnote known only to those few who specialize in it. Such is the case with the baroque artist Johannes Vermeer, one of the great masters of the Dutch Golden Age. Just as the true life of the composer Mozart has been obscured by a fictional story that he was murdered by a jealous rival, the painting genius of Vermeer has been lost under a widely trumpeted narrative that his skills were due to a mechanical aid in the form of the camera obscura. Today we're going to look at how we know what Vermeer actually did, and how we know what he did not do.
To establish context, let's begin with the basics of Vermeer's life, and the most basic fact of all is that we know very little about him. He was only briefly and modestly known during his lifetime, so there were no contemporary biographies written. Nevertheless, a few facts have been unearthed over the centuries. Only 34 paintings by him are known with agreed attribution, and they are considered among the most masterful of the day, mainly for his use of color and light. His early works depicted classical large-scale mythological and religious themes, but his later works — for which he is best known — were quiet interior scenes mostly set in two rooms of his own house.
Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632. Nothing is known about any education or training he may have had, but all records about him were in the city of Delft, Holland, which he may well have never left. He joined the professional guild of artists in Delft, called the Guild of Saint Luke, in 1653, and served as its head in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671. Most of his paintings were purchased by a single patron, which hampered his ability to become known outside of town. Working mainly as an art dealer, Vermeer was poor, and when he died in 1675 he left his wife and 11 children deeply in debt. It wasn't until 200 years after his death that he finally found fame as a painter, and today he occupies the highest strata of Dutch masters, right alongside his contemporary Rembrandt.
The camera obscura is a box, often big enough for people to enter, with a lens or aperture in one side that projects an image of the view outside onto a screen inside — exactly the same way a camera lens projects an image onto the film. With enough light and a high-enough quality lens, it would be possible to trace an image projected onto the screen and, thus "cheating", be able to produce an accurate drawing of the scene outside.
The camera obscura and other optical devices were well known in the 17th century. The Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens was a prominent inventor of optical aids and was a contemporary of Vermeer's; there is no evidence that they ever met but it's known they had at least one mutual acquaintance. The executor of Vermeer's estate, whom we can presume was at the very least a close acquaintance, was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who built some 200 microscopes during his life and was an expert lens grinder. There is little doubt that Vermeer would have at least been familiar with the camera obscura, with lenses in general, and with telescopes and microscopes, at least as much as any average person. But if we limit ourselves to the evidence, we can say not another word about how or if he ever actually used one.
And so it wasn't until about 250 years after Vermeer's death that a few people began to speculate that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura (or some similar aid) in producing his paintings. It's a theory that arose outside of the art history community, with only a very few actual experts on Vermeer and/or the period joining in that belief — despite the fact that most information on the topic widely available today on the Internet accepts it as a given. It is not.
This optical aid conjecture reached its peak of pop-culture awareness in 2001 with the publication of the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters written by the British pop artist David Hockney. Based largely on seeing and being impressed by the realism of classical paintings in museums, Hockney hypothesized that optical aids must have played a role in the emergence of realism not just in Vermeer's work but in all post-Renaissance Western art. Hockney collaborated with a physicist and optics expert, Charles Falco, who was of the same opinion. Their conjecture quickly became known as the Hockney-Falco Thesis. It does not offer any evidence that optical aids were used by any of the artists discussed (as none exists), but was based mainly on Falco's expertise in optics and his careful study of distortions in the subjects being painted — distortions which he attributed to the effects of lenses being used.
Their claim was aptly summarized in the 2013 film Tim's Vermeer which chronicles the five-year effort of retired software guru Tim Jenison to recreate a Vermeer painting using his own clever optical technique:
Hockney-Falco has been controversial ever since it was published, with the main participants on both sides in the debate being physicists and optical experts. It's important to note that it's virtually ignored inside the world of legitimate art history, where it carries no significant currency. To art historians, who are familiar with the development of art over the centuries and for whom there are no gaps in post-Renaissance art that need to be filled with an extraordinary new claim, the whole idea is little more than the argument from personal incredulity. "I don't personally see how an artist could create such a realistic scene, therefore he couldn't have, therefore some mechanical cheat must have been used."
But 2001 was a double whammy: it also saw the publication of Vermeer's Camera by Philip Steadman, a professor of urban studies who specializes in building energy usage. Steadman's book was a primary influencer for Jenison. Steadman's belief was that in six of Vermeer's paintings that all depicted a scene in the same room in his house, the perspective showed that the eye of the artist was located precisely where a lens would have needed to be if a camera obscura was projecting an upside-down image onto the wall, and that image was exactly the same size as Vermeer's final painting.
Although Steadman's evidence that Vermeer used a camera obscura was mainly geometric, Falco relied mainly on subtle artifacts in the paintings themselves. For example, Vermeer sometimes painted softer edges on objects close to the foreground or far in the background, as if they were rendered out of focus by a lens; or added sparkling points of light that could be interpreted as lens flare. Why Vermeer would have painted something he knew to have been the result of a lens imperfection is not, however, persuasively argued by any of the proponents.
There are three main aspects of Vermeer's work that the optical proponents point to as evidence: perspective, composition, and color. Let's take a quick look at all three.
Ever since his own day, people have been praising Vermeer's excellent perspective. However, the same has been said of many of his contemporaries, as perspective was considered an important element in paintings; one of the skills most prized among top painters. Hockney-Falco proponents argue that his perspective was so good that it was most likely achieved by tracing a projection; though, oddly not making similar claims about Vermeer's equally skilled peers. However, Vermeer's paintings have all been X-rayed, and in almost all of them we find pinholes in the canvas at the vanishing points. Artists would attach strings to these vanishing point pins and snap chalk lines to create the perspective. We need not speculate here; Vermeer left us physical evidence of the method he used to create perspective.
Much is made of the fact that Vermeer was a master of composition, and that a camera obscura would have allowed him to move things around the room and preview the images until he achieved the perfect balance of objects. However, sketches are how artists typically do this — not with a camera obscura. When we examine the X-rays of Vermeer's paintings, we see that he frequently repositioned objects during the painting process, and added and removed people and things. Again, no speculation needed: Vermeer left us physical proof that his artistic composition was not the result of working from an initial faultless tracing. Vermeer's contemporary colleague Rembrandt is possibly the only artist even more lauded for his composition, and yet nobody suggests that he worked from the camera obscura.
Rembrandt was at least Vermeer's equal in the use of color and light, yet only Vermeer is charged with having been incapable of doing this without an optical aid. Hockney-Falco proponents point to things like saturated colors in dark areas and other subtleties that they suppose to have been beyond the abilities of artists to visualize. However, a 17th-century camera obscura would have been a poor tool for this. Vermeer's studio depicted in his paintings was lit only with ambient indirect daylight, obviously without anything like studio lights to sufficiently brighten the scene. The lenses available to Vermeer would have been spectacle lenses about 4cm in diameter, resulting in an aperture of about f16. Testing of a camera obscura using such lenses, and published in the journal Leonardo, found:
Such lenses, which would have been a type called a symmetrical biconvex lens, would also have been nearly useless for tracing the composition. Only the center of the image is in focus, becoming radially blurred as you move off center. Refocusing the lens on a different part of scene would produce changes in magnification and perspective distortion.
Beyond the hard evidence that Vermeer left us with, there are three additional pieces of circumstantial evidence that leave little room for a camera obscura holding any part in Vermeer's creative process. The first of these comes from the Dutch art historian P. T. A. Swillens, born in 1890, who spent years writing what remains the most complete biography on Vermeer and his life and art, published in 1950 — long before Hockney-Falco had entered the public consciousness. Swillens studied every room of Vermeer's home and scrutinized every surviving relic and document. In his entire manuscript, there is not a single mention of the camera obscura or of any other optical device of any kind, for the simple reason that there had never been anything to suggest Vermeer's use of such things, until the late 20th century non-experts began making their conjectures.
The second piece of circumstantial evidence comes in the form of the only two written accounts of people who actually met Vermeer. The French diplomat Balthasar de Monconys visited Delft in 1663 and wrote a single sentence, saying only that he went to Vermeer's house but he had no paintings to show him, so he saw one at a baker's shop and felt the baker had overpaid. In the other case, a young dandy named Pieter Teding van Berkhout wrote that he visited Vermeer and was shown a number of his paintings, saying the "most curious aspect of which consists in the perspective." Neither man said anything about any camera obscura set up in Vermeer's studio, which one might suppose would have been enough of an oddity to be worth mentioning.
And finally, the third piece of "absence of evidence" comes in stark black and white. Upon Vermeer's death, a comprehensive inventory of everything found in his home was made for the purpose of settling his debts. The inventory lists everything in each of thirteen rooms — every article of clothing, every piece of kitchenware, and all the painting supplies he had. Conspicuously not listed? A camera obscura or any part of one, nor any lenses or optical devices at all.
Taking all into account, the 20th century introduction of a camera obscura into Vermeer's work seems bizarre, arbitrary, and entirely unnecessary — to say nothing of being incompatible with the evidence Vermeer left us. Physicists and optics experts are neither painters nor art historians, and their musings on the subject should not be given prominence over the findings of those who have spent their careers studying Vermeer in context and in conjunction with other experts. Although the idea that Vermeer's genius was merely the result of an optical aid is tantalizing, it's best to keep a firm separation between actual history and clever challenges like Tim Jenison's project. The tendency of intriguing misinformation to take root and spread is something against which we must always be vigilant. Whenever we have an idea in our heads for which we seek only confirming information, that's exactly what we will find.
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