Vermeer’s Camera

At the recent David Hockney exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, we noticed Hockney’s theory that the painter Johannes Vermeer used optical device to assist in his paintings.

Vermeer is famous for his realistic paintings of people with very precise lighting, and our posts show Vermeer paintings at The Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum. Vermeer painted in the 17th century, producing fewer than 3 dozen paintings when he died at the age of 43. In debt when he died, Vermeer wasn’t popular during his lifetime, and little is known about him. He fathered 15 children, with 11 surviving. It’s hard to imagine anyone showing such painstaking attention to detail with so many children underfoot.

Richard Steadman, a professor at University College London wrote Vermeer’s Camera, in which he suggests that  Vermeer uses an optical device and then evaluates his own theory. Of course, he finds that his theory is sound.

Vermeer's Camera
Vermeer’s Camera

Many of Vermeer’s paintings, such as The Astronomer, show people indoors, lit by light from windows on the left. This could reflect Vermeer’s atelier, or it could indicate the use of an optical device that wasn’t easily transported.

Steadman calculates the room shape and size from various paintings, based on geometry and vanishing points, and finds that Vermeer was very precise and correct in depicting walls, objects, and floor tiles across his paintings. He argues that this consistency would be difficult to achieve without some sort of aid.

For example, the edges of the floor tiles in The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) converge on two vanishing points. See how the size and angle changes for tiles that are more distant.  And similarly for Allegory of the Catholic Faith. Of course, perspective was well-known in Vermeer’s time. Implementing perspective would take time by hand, and it would be free with an optical device.

The Glass of Wine
The Glass of Wine

Steadman discusses what sort of optical device Vermeer might have used to project the image of the room onto his drawing surface. Steadman points out that Vermeer’s paintings exhibit depth of field, a photography concept where objects within a range are in focus and objects outside that range are out of focus. In The Lacemaker (Louvre), the red threads in the foreground are fuzzy. With the simple lenses of the 17th century, we’d expect a narrow depth of field, where foreground is fuzzy. In contrast, indoor paintings, such as a still life, usually show everything in focus, because the human eye will refocus on the objects being observed, so that object is in focus. The painter paints what he sees, and whatever he looks at is in focus.

The Lacemaker
The Lacemaker

One argument is whether the optics of Vermeer’s day would be adequate to construct such a optical device. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who created a microscope and first saw single-cell organisms, lived near Vermeer and was appointed executor of Vermeer’s estate. There is no record that the two communicated, but it’s possible.

To test the hypothesis that Vermeer used an optical device, Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor, created an optical device and a room from a Vermeer painting owned by the English royal family. He then used the device to recreate the painting. This process and painting is the subject of the documentary movie Tim’s Vermeer, released in February.

All this shows that the theory is consistent with Vermeer’s paintings, but we still don’t know what Vermeer did in the 17th century.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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