The Mystery in the Mirror - Page 5

The Model

The next step in Philip Steadman's testing of his hypothesis was to have a 1/6th scale model of the room made, with furniture and figures, to enable an exact reconstruction of 'The Music Lesson' to be set up. Then a plate camera was set up with the lens in the precise position in space that Philip Steadman had determined previously as being the viewpoint of the painting.

Not only does the photograph of the model match the painting extraordinarily closely, even the shadows correspond - the shadows of the legs of the virginals, the shadows near the windows, and the bright patch on the wallwhere the shiny varnished end of the virginals case reflects light back onto the wall. It is very hard to find any other explanation other than the one that suggests that Vermeer created his paintings using a lens. And in that sense his works of art are photographic, as well as paintings. At the time when Vermeer was working, images produced by a lens were not generally held to be accurate representations of the world. Galileo saw images of the heavens through his telescope lens that no-one had seen before, but these did not accord with the establishment view. The miniature world of the Dutch microscopist van Leeuwenhoek was not believed by many people, but since his findings did not contradict any established theory, he was able to continue his studies of the structure of blood, of hair and rotifers without restraint. The idea that an image captured by a lens is some sort of 'proof', be it a camera, a telescope or a microscope, is a modern one, and not a view generally held in Vermeer's time. While the Camera obscura was used sometimes as an aid to sketching, it was not thought to give an accurate picture of the world.

The use of a lens to create a painting, in the way that Vermeer did, would certainly have been seen as controversial. No wonder that Vermeer didn't encourage visitors to his studio, and that he had no students. His visionary and scientific approach was ahead of its time. And perhaps it is no wonder that Vermeer's paintings began to be appreciated just a hundred years or so ago, since that is also the time when images produced by a lens - using a camera - began to be accepted, even commonplace.

One last question. The second half of the 17th century has become known in Holland as their 'Golden Age', with tremendous discoveries being made in science and optics, an extraordinary flowering of Dutch art, and, as a seafaring nation, there were feats of navigation and discovery abroad too. So Vermeer, who was born in 1632, lived during an incredibly exciting time. But Delft itself is a small, sleepy market town, and Vermeer spent all of his life there. How did he come to learn about the use of a lens? And where might he have got his lens from?

In the old church in Delft, when you look up the baptismal records for the year 1632, you find Vermeer's name. But on the same page of the records, born within a few months of Vermeer, there is another name, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the microscopist. The two men were, within a month or so, exactly the same age. Leeuwenhoek was a draper by trade, while Vermeer's father had a silk business, so there was a potential overlap of professional interests. And Delft is not a very big town. So it seems not unlikely that they might have known each other, although there is no record of their ever having met during their lives. However, after Vermeer's death, Leeuwenhoek was appointed executor to the estate. Was he acting as a family friend?

Leeuwenhoek spent a few years in Amsterdam early in his career, where presumably he learnt about making lenses. He then returned to Delft where he began building the microscopes that would enable the work that would make him famous. At around this same time Vermeer stops painting the religious paintings that he began his career with, and starts producing the exquisite interiors that he has become famous for, with the aid of a lens. Did he get the lens from Leeuwenhoek?

This painting by Vermeer is generally called 'The Geographer' and was painted in 1669. However the instruments and maps we see in the painting are those of a surveyor, and Leeuwenhoek qualified as a surveyor in 1669. Is this a picture of Leeuwenhoek? If they were friends, what would be more natural than for Vermeer to take a 'snapshot' of his friend? It is a pleasant thought to imagine a congenial friendship between these two great masters of minute, patient observation of the effects of light, from Holland's golden age.

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