In the mirror we can see a reflection of a corner of the table, we can see what appear to be the legs of the artists easel and behind that, maybe a leg of Vermeer's stool. And in the top left hand corner of the painting, is a small rectangle of.. what?

Philip Steadman wondered if that little rectangle could be a glimpse of the back wall. The back wall? Well, if you didn't know the dimensions of the room in the first place, that guess wouldn't help you very much. But if you already know the position and size of everything in the room... and you could work out the angle of the mirror easily enough because you could see the corner of the table both in the room and in the reflection... then you would know the exact length of the room... something which had never been worked out before. It turns out that the dimension corresponds nicely to an exact number of repeats of the tile pattern on the floor. It also allows for three equal-sized and equally-spaced windows, of which only two are generally visible in the paintings.

Philip Steadman then looked at some of Vermeer's paintings, and found that when he carried the angles of view in a number of the paintings back to meet the back wall, via the viewpoint of the picture, the size of the resulting rectangle on the back wall was the same, in each case, as that of the actual painting. This was for paintings that were of varying sizes, and whose viewpoint in the room was not the same in each case...

Philip Steadman realised that it was very hard to imagine any other explanation other than the following - Vermeer was using a lens to project an image of the scene he was painting on to the back wall. And he was then reproducing that projected image with incredible, virtually photographic accuracy. No wonder he produced so few paintings during his lifetime.

But the image projected by the lens would not have been very bright, and Vermeer, working away in a little darkened cubicle, would have had difficulty in capturing the colours in each scene. A more likely explanation is that the image he painted in the Camera obscura was created in black and white, and he then emerged into the daylight to add colour to his picture. This would explain why X-ray analysis has shown a black and white image underneath the colour picture. But no drawn lines as you might have expected, if the painting had been created in a more conventional way. So in a very real sense, Vermeer's paintings are photographs, since the image is captured by a lens, although Vermeer had to use a brush to 'take' his picture, since photographic film didn't exist at the time.

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