Did Vermeer Use A Camera Obscura?

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Podcast Transcript

Johannes Vermeer was one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Unlike many of his contemporary painters, however, he didn’t leave a large body of work behind. 

The paintings he did create have left experts in both art and technology wondering if he didn’t have a secret that helped him with his craft. A technical secret, not an artistic one.

Learn more about Vermeer and the question as to if he and other painters used optical devices to help themselves paint, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Johannes Vermeer, hereby just known as Vermeer, was born in 1632 in Delft, Holland. He was born to a middle-class family and as far as we know, he was born, raised, and died in Delft, never traveling beyond the Netherlands

We don’t know a lot about his early life, but we do know that his father was an art dealer and the owner of an inn, and when his father died, Vermeer took over his father’s art business.

We know he was born a protestant and married a catholic woman, and converted to Catholicism before his marriage in 1653. 

His career as a painter is much more ambiguous, and this is where the mystery of Vermeer begins. 

Most painters from this time period were members of a local painters guild and would have been trained by a local master painter. While we like to think of these great painters as tortured artists, in reality, it was mostly a job. 

Painting was a business and they were hired by clients to paint. Perhaps the analogy isn’t quite apt, but in many respects, they were like the photographer you’d hire at GlamorShots down at your local mall.

A painter from this period would proudly declare who trained them because that training would be part of their pedigree. It is what they would use to convince a buyer that they were worth hiring.

However, we have no clue who trained Vermeer. There is speculation as to who his master was, but there is nothing conclusive that proves it.

We do know that in 1653, at the age of 21, the same year he got married, he joined the Guild of Saint Luke, which was the painters guild. The Guild of Saint Luke was the name that most painter guilds used throughout the Netherlands, and sometimes in Italy.

Here is the other odd thing about Vermeer. He didn’t really paint that much, or at least there aren’t many Vermeer’s which are around today. A 19th-century list attributed 66 paintings to him, but there are only 34 which exist today which have been authenticated as Vermeer’s.

To put his in perspective, Rembrandt was a Dutch painter who was a contemporary of Vermeer, and there are 324 paintings attributed to him. Almost 10x the number. 

So Vermeer really took his time to create a painting. More on that in a bit. 

There are other odd things about many of Vermeer’s work. 

Many of his 34 paintings are all set in his house. Not just in his house, but in the same corner of his house with a north-facing window on the left side of the painting.  The paintings just rearrange the furniture, settings, and models.

Go and look at a list of his paintings online and you’ll notice immediately that they show the same corner with a window, or they look to be illuminated from the same direction if they don’t show the window. 

Finally, and this is the thing that really kicked off the controversy, his paintings are very precise. Very precise. He actually painted individual threads in rugs and cloth. Very tiny elements in background objects were captured with remarkable detail. 

His paintings are almost photo-realistic. 

Over time, many experts began to notice some small errors in his paintings. There are small parts of some paintings that appear to be out of focus. There are some lines that appear to show chromatic aberration. 

These are problems that don’t usually appear in paintings. These are problems that normally appear in cameras. 

These issues came to a head in 2001 with the publication of a book by British painter David Hockney and American physicist Charles Falco. They argued that the level of realism achieved by some Renaissance and Baroque masters couldn’t be achieved by just eye-balling a scene. 

They contend that the secret to Renaissance paintings was the use of optical devices which were well known at the time, including the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors.

This became known as the Hockney–Falco Thesis. 

Here I should probably explain what these things are. 

A camera obscura is actually a really simple device. The phrase is Latin for “dark room”. Basically, if you are in a dark room that has a pinhole that lets light enter, that light will be projected onto the opposite wall displaying whatever the scene is outside the pinhole.

However, it would be displayed upside down and backward, and usually quite faint. 

The camera obscura effect was documented as far back as the 4th century BC in China and it was probably known well before that.  

A curved mirror is something you are probably familiar with. You might have one in your bathroom. It can magnify an image and also reverse the image depending on its distance to the object.

Finally, a camera lucida is also a very simple device. It is a small mirror on an arm that shows the image of an object in the mirror, but you see it as you are looking down on the mirror at about a 90-degree angle to the object. By constantly moving your head back and forth, you can draw what you see in the mirror on a paper canvass below it. 

There were two major critiques of the Hockney–Falco Thesis. The first came from art historians, and it really wasn’t a very good critique. It basically consisted of, yes artists could have done this without optical tools because they were great artists, and this whole theory takes away from their greatness. It was pretty lacking in facts.

The second critique was more substantial. David Stork, a professor at Stanford noted that trying to copy a camera obscura image would be too difficult because it is upside down, and because the image is too faint. 

Another art historian, James Elkins of the Art Institute of Chicago, also correctly noted,  “the optical procedures posited in Hockney’s book are all radically undertested,” and “no one, including myself, knows what it is really like to get inside a camera obscura”. 

Enter into the story, Tim Jenison. 

Jenison wasn’t a painter or an artist. He was a technology guy who created one of the first companies which made products that did video editing on computers. He didn’t know art or painting, but he did know quite a bit about image reproduction, albeit on computers. 

He read David Hockney’s book and became obsessed with the idea of Vermeer and other painters using a camera obscura to create their work. 

Jenison decided that he was going to put the theory to the test by creating his own Vermeer. 

He traveled to Europe to study Vermeer’s paintings in person. He talked to art experts. He even got a special audience to view Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” in Buckingham Palace. 

He then set out to recreate the scene in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”. He rented space in a warehouse in his hometown in San Antonio, Texas. He meticulously recreated everything in the painting, down to the furniture, instruments, rugs, and floor. The only thing he cheated with was with the stained glass, where he used plastic instead.

He then set to work creating the optics system which would let him paint the scene. 

He found that David Stork’s argument about painting directly from the image of a camera obscura was basically correct. It couldn’t be done. 

However, he was able to create a system that did work, just using tools that would have been available in 17th century Holland.

He put a small lens in the pinhole of the camera obscura. This was known at the time to create a sharper and brighter image in a camera obscura. Guess which country was the 17th century leader in lens crafting? That would be the Netherlands. 

He also set up a concave mirror on the wall that the image coming through the pinhole was reflected onto. That image was then reflected onto the Camera Lucida which sat above his canvas. 

He found that by using 1 lens and 2 mirrors, the image as he saw it in the camera lucida, was right-side up. 

Moreover, by doing some small practice painting with the camera lucida, he found how easy it was to get almost perfect color reproduction. He just adjusted the color until the edge of the mirror disappeared and he couldn’t tell where the mirror ended and the image began. 

While he was working on this he happened to be in Las Vegas where he met his friend, Penn Jillette, of the magic duo, Penn & Teller. Penn told him to stop everything, and that they were going to make a documentary about what he was doing. 

That is exactly what they did, and the film is called Tim’s Vermeer and it is available on Amazon Prime if you want to check it out yourself.

Jenison then set to work for eight months copying the scene he set up through his device. Again, he had no real prior experience as a painter and didn’t really even know how to use a paintbrush properly or mix paints. 

He would spend a few hours every day painting the scene millimeter by millimeter, 

He basically became a human camera, slowly reproducing the image that he saw through the mirror and lens with paint. 

In the end, what he created looked astonishingly like…..a Vermeer. 

It took an astonishingly long time, but it worked, and it was done by someone with no real skill as a painter. 

Tim Jenison’s painting showed that the Hockney–Falco Thesis was very plausible. It also explained many things about Vermeer. 

It explained why so many of his paintings were all done in the exact same place. It was because that is where he had his camera obscura set up. 

It explains why he took so long to create his paintings and how he was able to capture such details. It also explains how the small camera-like errors made it into his paintings. 

The was still one thing that couldn’t be explained: how was this kept a secret and why didn’t anyone know about it?

The two people who didn’t find this a mystery were Penn & Teller. As magicians, they knew all about how secrets could be kept. There were magic tricks that were passed down from magician to magician for centuries, and the public was never let in on the secret. 

The medieval guild system, which included guilds like the Guild of Saint Luke that Vermeer was a member of, was all about trade secrets. The guild kept trade secrets among its members, and individual members kept secrets to themselves for competitive advantage. 

One example of a trade secret that painters had was how to make paint. You’ll find very few written recipes for how to make certain pigments of paint. Vermeer himself had mastered the creation of deep blue pigments with lapis lazuli.  It was something that was passed down from painter to painter, yet we know they clearly must have used paint.

So, did Vermeer and other artists use optical tools such as the camera obscura to help paint their pictures? Personally, I think they probably did, and I also don’t think it is that controversial. Granted, there is no smoking gun, but all the evidence seems to point in that direction.

Remember, painters back then thought of themselves as tradesmen, not as artists, like many art historians might think of them today. If they could use what was then contemporary technology to help them produce a better product, why wouldn’t they use it? 

I think many people today might think of it as cheating, but it is no more cheating than a special effects creator using the latest software and computers for making a movie. 

So, the use of optical devices by painters like Vermeer doesn’t mean they weren’t great artists, it just means that they were great artists in addition to being great technical innovators. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Ben Dressel over at Apple Podcasts in Germany. He writes:

Now You know

This is absolutely and completely beautiful knowledge in short and simple portions. The title says it all. Learn so much in a short time about things you thought you knew and stuff you never heard before. Sliced bread, the number of the beast or potatoes. It is presented in perfect rhythm with a smooth voice and filled with delicious facts. I love and warmly recommend it. And now you know.

Danke Schoen, Ben!  I think you are my first review to come in from Germany. It is a country I have traveled in extensively, visiting every state and every world heritage site….and if you haven’t guessed from my name, I also have German ancestry. 

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