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Camera Work

The words “camera obscura” mean “dark room,” and the device, which could take any number of shapes, including a dark booth that a viewer goes into or a box of some size that is looked down into, is about intensifying—essentializing—what’s seen with the naked eye. A hole of some small sizein the booth or box by definition pulls the image that is directly outside it, via light rays, into the darkened space. There it is projected, often upside down, but with a shimmering, more deeply color-saturated force, on the booth or box’s other side. The device, which was already in use by astronomers by the mid-fifteenth century, and came to be employed more widely in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, isn’t a primitive photographic camera. It’s closer to a primitive movie-making apparatus-plus- theater in that the image projected into the booth or box, completely dependent on the amount of light that it is sucking in via the small opening, is always, in a way, breathing. What drew early enthusiasts to the gizmo, which initially was often trained from a window down onto a street, was the thrill of seeing people move about on a kind of contained screen.

That Vermeer might have used a camera obscura is not a new surmise. From the 1860s, when he first became known outside Holland, writers referred to the “photographic” quality of his pictures. Lawrence Gowing, in what is widely regarded as the most perceptive study of the painter, said that while the details of the matter would probably always be buried, Vermeer had to have used a camera obscura for aspects of his work.* Gowing even wrote that it was only with the invention of photography and our becoming used to its way of representing reality that Vermeer’s work began to lose its oddness. No one, though, has gone as deeply into the matter as Steadman, who pursued his investigation armed, eventually, with a working knowledge of the room Vermeer operated in. This knowledge permitted him to ascertain what Vermeer’s own point of view had to have been—where he was standing to have seen his models and tables and so forth in just this way.

Recreating the painting The Music Lesson (which isn’t in Liedtke’s show) with a scaled-down, doll’s-house-size model, Steadman determined that if the opening hole—or lens—of a camera obscura was the same place where Vermeer had to have been standing, then the projected image on the back wall of his booth was basically the same size as the finished painting. In short, Vermeer used the image projected onto the back wall of the booth as the very basis of his painting. He might even have traced it, or worked on his picture right in his booth (or, as Steadman neatly puts it, his camera within his camera)—though Steadman makes clear throughout that the device was essentially a tool in Vermeer’s arsenal as an artist.

There are plenty of drawbacks to Vermeer’s Camera. Many of the paintings don’t include floor tiles, meaning it’s impossible to measure the interior space of the work—meaning it’s impossible to verify that the artist had such and such a relationship to what he was looking at. If that information is lacking we can’t be sure if there is a match between the size of the painting and the size of a projected image of it inside a camera obscura. Thus the stunning small paintings of women’s faces in the National Gallery in Washington can’t be scrutinized in relation to the camera, nor can a good number of paintings of figures where there is no floor. These include such key works as the Met’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Woman with a Balance, also in Washington.

Left out are also Vermeer’s two extraordinary townscapes—though Steadman describes one scholar’s certainty that the chillingly photograph-like A View of Delft had to have been done with a camera obscura. Steadman acknowledges, too, that, although some camera obscuras were built so that the projected image was seen right side up, Vermeer might have been working, like certain photographers using plate cameras, with an image inside his booth that was upside down.

Yet Steadman’s findings ring true. There’s a poetic inevitability to his account. Anthony Bailey writes that, learning how in so many cases there is a direct correlation between the sizes of images projected inside a camera and the sizes of Vermeer’s painting, he was convinced by Steadman. What wedded me to Steadman’s work was a point that isn’t made much of. It derived from what he found when he analyzed the glass sphere that hangs above the woman in the Met’s own Allegory of the Faith. The sphere has little blobby lines and patches on it which seem to reflect spots of light in the room in this picture. Steadman’s analysis of the sphere, based on a scaled-down re-creation of the room it would be reflecting, is a revelation. He makes it clear that the little milk-drop-like patches in the sphere do represent distinct elements in the room; and when Steadman, inching along in his presentation of the light and dark areas, comes to a dark zone that fits every description of a camera obscura, you may find yourself suddenly breathless. Taking in the little dark battle station, with light streaming around it, is like coming face to face with Vermeer himself.

Beyond these extraordinary findings, Steadman’s descriptions of the properties of the image produced by a camera obscura dovetail perfectly with the distinctive qualities of Vermeer’s art. What’s transfixing about Vermeer’s pictures is the way he seems to think in depth and on the surface simultaneously. Whether or not the issue of optical devices concerns you, you are aware both of how measured the space of his individual picture is as it moves inward—how easy it would be to walk right in—and, flabbergastingly, of how that picture’s elements are so perfectly locked together on the surface that they might as well be flat. The Met’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, for example, has the force of an abstraction. Every shape can be taken as if it were on the same flat plane, with no depth. Every item appears both as its sculptural self and as a silhouette of itself that has been tacked against the back wall.

Images produced by the camera obscura, as Steadman describes it, compress space in the same way. Furthermore, the camera presents forms exactly as Vermeer painted them, as softly glowing areas of light and shadow. It has been much commented upon that X-ray photography of Vermeer’s paintings shows that he never laid down his shapes with drawn lines. There’s no conventional drawing in his work, just masses of dark and light—exactly the information he’d get from the projected image of a camera obscura.

The very point of the Met’s exhibition, which was the brainchild of Walter Liedtke, a curator at the museum, is that Vermeer’s Camera is completely off base. Steadman actually isn’t mentioned by Liedtke, and Liedtke’s discussion of the camera obscura and other optical devices takes up only a fraction of his immense catalog. Yet the spirit animating Liedtke’s project is that, awesome artist as he is, Vermeer is the opposite of an isolated, not-quite-knowable, secretive genius. In its broadest terms, Liedtke’s subject is the way an art community functions and how extraordinary talents can only come into being if they have the blood of such a community in them. As we can infer from Liedtke’s comments, a seventeenth-century artist giving himself wholeheartedly to working with an optical device would be a violator of that communal spirit.

Liedtke believes that Vermeer was nurtured and goaded exclusively by Dutch art of his time and by the traditions of his hometown. And Liedtke has an unusual, expanded idea of this place. Traditionally, Vermeer and Delft, or the School of Delft, have been seen as one and the same. What the school was known for was a new feeling for natural light and atmosphere and a taste for perspective and measurement, for the tricks of illusionistic art—art that draws attention to the ways in which an artwork can be confused with “real life.”

A conventional exhibition on the subject would have attempted to understand how, beginning in the late 1640s, for little apparent reason, first one artist and then another moved to Delft and began, in different ways, to make brighter and spatially more exacting works than had been the norm in Dutch painting. (Dutch painters of the time regularly relocated, and different cities had different heydays.) The show would have included the painters of the interiors of Delft’s churches, chiefly Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte. There would be pictures by two talented artists who died quite young—Carel Fabritius and Paulus Potter—and it would come to a climax with works by the well-known genre painter Pieter de Hooch and by Vermeer (who, unlike these others, was a native and lifelong citizen of Delft).

Liedtke includes these painters but his point is far more complicated. An authority on the painters of Delft church interiors, he has widened the story to make the small city itself—its longstanding character—his true subject. He begins roughly in the 1570s, when Delft found itself headquarters for the then-nascent drive of the Dutch provinces for independence from Spain. When this freedom was eventually achieved, Delft failed to remain Holland’s seat of power. That honor fell to The Hague, which was nearby. Existing in the shadow of power, Delft for the next hundred years remained a center for breweries and potteries and home to a proper, even patrician class of citizens. Though sleepy compared to Amsterdam, its comfy, tradition-minded natives, regularly visited by men of learning and business acumen going to and from The Hague, kept sponsoring pictures and objects that were equally conservative and sophisticated. Liedtke acknowledges that Delft’s moment of true renown was the period when the various relocating artists began dealing in their work with natural light. These are the artists he is most involved with. Yet what’s paramount for him is that we see that Vermeer derived from a place that for a century cultivated a taste for the refined and the undemonstrative, for, as he says, “light, space, and surfaces, not blood and guts.”

The resulting overstuffed exhibition and catalog are bound to make all but specialists a tad confused. There are fifteen works by Vermeer, including the considerable The Art of Painting, a picture of an artist in his studio, working from a model, which didn’t make it to the 1995 Vermeer exhibition in Washington and The Hague. Most of the Vermeers, though, appear at the show’s very end, and to get to them we first pass by Delft tapestries and pieces of decorative art, and encounter in our progress somewhat stiff portraits, allegorical pictures, flower studies and still lifes, and drawings of many varieties—works that don’t much register as the collective breeding ground for Vermeer.

  1. *

    Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (1952; University of California Press, 1997).

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