Vermeer's Camera

This painting, often referred to as 'The Music Lesson', was created by the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in the 1660s. It shows an exquisitely painted interior scene, with a woman playing the virginals and a man listening. The woman has her back to us, although we can see a reflection of her face in the mirror on the wall. The man's role is unclear. He appears to be wearing an outdoor coat, and is carrying a stick. Has he just stepped inside from the street, to ask the woman a question, and now hangs on her answer? Is he a relation? Her teacher? Her lover? The answer to this little mystery we may never know. But this painting contains a quite extraordinary set of clues about a much bigger mystery, one which has only recently been deciphered.

To date only about 40 paintings have been identified as the product of Vermeer's own hand and that number may shrink. No one knows for certain if this number represents Vermeer's total output or reflects the fact that only these many Vermeer's have found their way down through the centuries into late twentieth century hands. If the former is true, it would appear that Vermeer (1632-75) worked rather slowly. When he died, his wife and family were left in debt. Two paintings went to the local baker to settle a bill. But since about 100 years ago, his work started to be re-assessed, and today he is regarded as one of the greatest artists that ever lived.

Very little is known about Vermeer's life, and his methods of working. He had no students or apprentices, and he left no records. But many people have speculated that he might have used some sort of optical device to help him create his paintings, possibly a device called a Camera obscura, the forerunner of the modern camera. Literally 'darkened room' a Camera obscura is a box which has a lens at the front. A portable Camera obscura can have a ground glass screen onto which the image from the lens is thrown. Or a Camera obscura can be big enough for the observer to be inside it.

These speculations about Vermeer's possible use of a Camera obscura are based on general observations about his paintings. But recent work by Professor Philip Steadman, of the Open University in England, has thrown new light on this issue. In this article we will explore Professor Steadman's work, which shows how clues that Vermeer has left us in the actual paintings suggest that the paintings can be thought of as photographs as much as paintings. And, rather than belittling Vermeer's contribution to the world of art, we will suggest that, in his almost scientific examination of the world using a lens, we should also think of Vermeer in the same context as those scientific geniuses of the 17th century, the microscopist van Leeuwenhoek, who turned his lens on the miniature world contained in a drop of water, and Galileo, who turned his telescope to the heavens.

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