The Mystery in the Mirror - Page 2

Traditional reasons for thinking Vermeer used a Camera Obscura

This painting by Vermeer is entitled 'Soldier and Laughing Girl'. In 1891 the American etcher and lithographer James Pennell was the first to suggest that Vermeer might have used a Camera obscura, in an article written for the Journal of the Camera Club. Pennell referred to the 'photographic perspective' of pictures such as this one, where the figure of the soldier, in the foreground, is disproportionately large. We think nothing of this shot today, the perspective is quite correct for the 'close up' viewpoint, just the sort of picture you might take with a camera. But for a 17th century painting, this perspective would have seemed unusual, even brutal.

Secondly, some of the maps that are shown hanging on the back wall of the room in the paintings are real maps that Vermeer owned, and which still exist today. The historian James Welu (1975) showed just how precisely Vermeer had copied the originals. The Camera obscura was certainly used in the 18th and 19th centuries for copying existing pictures and prints.

The third piece of evidence for Vermeer's supposed use of the Camera obscura is his treatment of highlights on reflective surfaces. Metal and ceramics in the paintings show small circles of white or yellow pigment. It has been suggested that these are the 'circles of confusion', seen when you view bright highlights through a lens that is either not quite focussed, or is not a very high quality lens. The girl's pearly earring and the brass head of the lion on the chair show this distinctive 'soft focus' effect.

Finally, Lawrence Gowing (1952) in his great monograph about Vermeer, talks of the way in which Vermeer just seems to transcribe the pattern of light and shade of his subject, with little of the underlying drawing that other artists would use to build up a representation. As Gowing puts it:-

The description is always exactly adequate, always completely and effortlessly in terms of light. Vermeer seems almost not to care, or even to know, what it is that he is painting. What do men call this wedge of light? A nose? A finger? What do we know of its shape? To Vermeer none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light.

One of Vermeer's paintings was X-rayed at the time of the van Meegeren forgeries, and underneath the painted surface was found not the lines of a preliminary drawing or sketch, but another image - the same picture, but rendered in black and white. We will return to this curious fact later. But these speculations remained just that - there was no actual evidence that Vermeer did use an optical device to create his paintings. But what about the historical context, and the availability of such a device?

Holland was certainly a centre for the manufacture of high quality optical instruments in the 17th century. The Camera obscura was used by several astronomers in the early 1600s, including Kepler (1604, 1611) and the Jesuit Christopher Scheiner (1630), who made detailed studies of sunspots. And there were books that described the Camera obscura and its possible use in painting circulating in Holland at the time, like della Porta's Magia naturalis (1558), and Athanasius Kircher's Ars magna lucis et umbrae (1646). So the Camera obscura was known in Holland during Vermeer's lifetime, although again there is no documentary evidence that Vermeer himself owned one, or even that he was familiar with the device.

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