Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

(part one)


Girl with a Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer
Officer and Laughing Girl
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1655–1660
Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 46 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

Certain aspects of Vermeer's paintings that are seldom if ever seen in the work of other artists of the time have puzzled art historians ever since the artist's rediscovery in the mid-1860s. Even before the turn of the century, one critic suspected that such anomalies were not merely stylistic quirks, but evidence that Vermeer had used some sort of mechanical device fitted with lens or mirrors. After decades of protracted debate, a part of the art history community has come to believe that the device was the camera obscura.

From an optical standpoint, the camera obscura is a simple device which requires only a converging lens and a viewing screen at opposite ends of a darkened chamber or box. It is essentially a photographic camera without the light-sensitive film or plate. Only in size and decoration has it changed since the sixteenth century.1

Why have scholars imagined that Vermeer used the camera obscura as an aid to his painting? There is, after all, absolutely no historical evidence to support this idea—the camera leaves no physical trace of its use—but only the visual evidence exhibited by the paintings themselves. Curiously, it may not be coincidental Vermeer's work rediscovered by the French Thoré-Bürger, who was himself and amateur photographer.

Joseph Pennell

In 1891, before eyes had been accustomed to the modern photographic camera's way of seeing, Joseph Pennell, an American lithographer and etcher, was the first to suppose that Vermeer employed an optical device for painting. Pennell noted the conspicuous discrepancy in scale of the two figures in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl. Even though the officer is seated very close to the girl, he appears disproportionately large. In fact, the officer's head is about twice as wide as that of the smiling girl. Today, we are quite familiar today with foreground objects appearing very large in snapshots but in seventeenth-century painting this is rather unusual.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Procuress
The Procuress
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 71 x 104 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

When figures are relatively near to one another, as in the case of the Officer and Laughing Girl, there is an instinctive tendency for a painter to compensate for the difference in size and render what he knows rather than what he sees.2 An example of this compensation can be seen in a composition by one of Vermeer's contemporaries, Gerrit van Honthorst(The Procuress, see above right). In Honthorst's picture the figures are placed in an almost identical positions as those in Vermeer's work but they appear very closely the same size. A record of the need for artists to mediate between what they see and what they know may be revealed unintentionally in a declaration by G. J. s'Gravesande, who was born thirteen years after Vermeer's death: "Several Dutch painters are said to have studied and imitated, in their paintings, the effect of the camera obscura and its manner of showing nature, which has led some people to think that the camera could help them to understand light or chiaroscuro. The effect of the camera is striking, but false."3

A. Hyatt Mayor

In 1946, A. Hyatt Mayor, a curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum, spoke not only of distortion in size of near objects, but of color and tonality of Vermeer's painting which seemed to be "blended as perfectly as the ground glass of a camera" and of the highlights on foreground objects which "break up into dots like globules of halation swimming on a ground glass."4

Lawrence Gowing

In 1950, Lawrence Gowing,5 noting Vermeer's indifference to linear convention and extreme economy in modeling, wrote, "The technical part of it is plain. It is likely Vermeer made use of the camera obscura." Gowing suggested Vermeer could have acquired the necessary technical knowledge in optics from his fellow citizen in Delft, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, who in addition to his fame as a designer, grinder and user of lenses, is also recorded as the executor of Vermeer's estate. Nonetheless, the most pressing point for Gowing was not question whether or not he painted with the camera obscura or learned from it, but why choose the "optical way" to begin with? Most of Gowing's text focuses on answering the question in stylistic and psychological terms. In any case, Gowing thought that the technical question was destined to produce little more than "fodder for another of the hobby-horses to which more than one study of the painter has been bound."

On the other hand, the Dutch scholar P. T. A. Swillens, who had meticulously investigated Vermeer painting methods and geometrically reconstructed the rooms represented in his paintings, steadfastly refused to see why Vermeer would have had the need to use any sort of optical aid, be they mirrors, camera lucida or the camera obscura.

Charles Seymour

Charles Seymour was the first to test in real life circumstances the hypothesis that Vermeer was guided by the images he saw in a camera obscura. 6 Seymour observed similar objects—he carefully chose Vermeer-like props—in similar lighting conditions to the ones found in Vermeer's painting through a real 19th-century camera obscura and found that the resulting image exhibited qualities much like those seen in Vermeer's paintings.

In particular, the lion head finials of a mock Spanish chair appeared surprisingly similar to the one seen in the Girl with a Red Hat (right). Just as those of Vermeer's image, the pin-point specular highlights glimmer with the so called disks (circles) of confusion, or pointillés as they are traditionally called when they are translated into paint. Pointillés, a conspicuous feature of many of Vermeer's paintings, cannot be perceived with the naked eye and do not seem likely stylistic invention. They are, however, produced by the camera obscura's imperfect lens. Seymour also found that the fuzzy rendering of the tapestries in Vermeer's Lacemaker and Girl with a Red Hat recall parts of the satin drapery used in his experiment. Seymour's investigation was primarily limited to only two paintings by Vermeer, the Girl with a Red Hat and the Girl with a Flute.

Seymour termed his work "preliminary" and suggested that "more research would be profitable, in particular regarding the relationships in the seventeenth century between such experimental milieu as Rome and Paris and England and Holland."

Heinrich Schwartz, an early historian of photography, concluded in an article in Pantheon that ". . . no agreement.

Daniel Fink

In 1971, Daniel Fink once again built a real camera obscura in order to investigate the matter.8 He set it up on a table, pointed it at objects that were similar to those in Vermeer's paintings and found that there were remarkable similarities between the artist's paintings and the camera's image. His experiments were conducted in a laboratory similar to a room used by Vermeer, which provided northern light (preferred by painters for centuries). Fink maintained that there were characteristic signs of the camera obscura in 26 paintings by Vermeer, the great part of the artist's oeuvre.

Fink found ten points which link the visual qualities produced by the camera obscura image and those of Vermeer's paintings:

  1. Variations principal planes of focus;
  2. precise diminution of circles of confusion;
  3. halation of highlights;
  4. precise treatment of reflections;
  5. closeness of the point of view to the window wall;
  6. precise convergence of parallel lines located in a plane
    perpendicular to the viewing axis;
  7. use of curtains to darken viewing room and control subject
  8. relative detail in still life portion versus figure detail;
  9. consistent proportions of the paintings (4–5:5 or almost
  10. dimensional precision in rendering objects.

Although Fink "hoped that an undiscriminating search will not be initiated which looks for optical phenomena under every suspicious circular blob of paint" he concluded that "Vermeer was unique in his employment of the camera obscura because he left for us the evidence of his use of the instrument in his paintings. Not only was the camera obscura useful in helping Vermeer to render what he saw with the unaided eye, but it also provided significant enrichment of the subjects which he did not fail to include in his finished paintings."

Allan A. Mills

In 1998, Allan A. Mills9 came to the conclusion that "it would not have been possible for Vermeer to have painted his interior scenes directly, at full size, from images produced by a room-type camera obscura incorporating the lenses of his time. Such images would have been much too dim and in any case would have been mirror images of the real scene." However, Mills did not rule out that the painter "could have observed and even been stimulated to sketch the more brightly illuminated images produced at a smaller scale by a portable camera obscura." Mills explains that the extreme accuracy of Vermeer's perspectives, one of the strong points of the pro-camera obscura argument, "would not have necessitated a camera." He could have produced them by using graphical methods taught by his fellow countrymen De Vries and Hondius in conjunction with a well-known technique which made use of a pin inserted at the vanishing point with a thread attached to it and held taut to define the orthogonals of the scene.

While the theoretical debate as to whether Vermeer used a camera obscura or not made no substantial progress, the issue polarized Vermeer scholars in opposing camps. Those favorable read into Vermeer's use of the device signs that he was in tune with the spirit of his time when the study of optics held an important place in nascent scientific investigation. The opposing camp argued, essentially, that by definition great artists have superlative skills and have no need for mechanical devices, or that the characteristics of the camera reveled in Vermeer's paintings may be explained by prevailing painterly styles. Believers argued that naysayer art historians dreaded the use of mechanical device, because it would diminish the stature of the artist's as a creator and, perhaps, a bit of the prestige of the art historians themselves, key negotiators between the artist and the public. Others brush aside the matter maintaining that the use of a technological device is nothing for an artist to be ashamed of: it is another tool, like brushes, paint or canvas, rather than a substitute for artistic talent.

Philip Steadman

In 2002, after years in preparation, the London architect Philip Steadman published his game-changingVermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, a detailed study of Vermeer and the camera obscura notable for the author's level-headed deduction and intellectual clarity. Beginning with measurements of the original maps and the know dimensions of period floor tiles in Vermeer's paintings, Steadman was able to establish scale and precisely correlate the images Vermeer's of paintings and the concrete measurable world they represent. He concluded that not only the dimensions of the rooms shown in Vermeer's interiors are very similar, but that at least a dozen of Vermeer's best-known pictures are set in one and the same room.

But more remarkably, the London architect provided evidence that the artist may have projected the camera's image directly onto his blank canvases in order to trace the principal outlines of his compositions (or alternately first onto paper then transferred to the canvas). Following the book's publication, a number of scholars cast caution to the wind and embraced the view that the camera obscura was an integral part of Vermeer's picture-making process. The reluctance on the part of art critics to acknowledge the use of drawing or viewing devices among artists, especially the most revered painters, has slowly weakened.

The Vermeer/camera obscura issue also fed into a controversial, and what some consider a "conspiracy theory," advanced by English Pop artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco. In an opulent coffee-table art book,10 the authors proclaimed to have provided "scientific proof" that many of the world's greatest masters secretly employed mechanical devices to make progress in realism. The Hockey/De Falco theory received a great amount of public attention contemporarily soothing the anxiety of average museum goer when he confronts the baffling works of the Old Masters. It also played well to the press: the mystery of the Old Masters had finally be resolved. The informative Art Optics website addresses the Hockney/Falco hypothesis from different points of view.

Today, many art historians accept the Vermeer's familiarity with the camera obscura but, some, like art historians Walter Liedtke and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., downplay the impact the instrument had on his style. Liedtke does not oppose completely the notion that Vermeer responded in some way to the camera obscura, but, rather, the drastic devaluation of the role of artistic creativity in the realization of the artist's finely constructed works. What Liedtke finds in Vermeer's oeuvre is an "overwhelming evidence of pure invention" including the fact that rooms like those seen here never existed in Delft. He also noted that in the extensive inventory of Vermeer's estate or in any other house in Delft(according to John Montias' survey of several hundred inventories), there is no mention of any drawing device by the two distinguished diarists who visited Vermeer.

Wheelock, who originally embraced the camera obscura/Vermeer tie, has backtracked and now holds that Vermeer "must have admired certain effects of color, light and focus in a camera obscura, but that he persistently departed from what he actually saw in the camera, in his studio, or in another artist's work in accord with his own highly refined aesthetic and expressive goals."

Depending on one's viewpoint, Vermeer's affair with the camera obscura may be judged a feat worthy of historical note or not. Naysayers see Vermeer's imitation of certain characteristics of the machine's image—discs of confusion, variety of focus and contraction of tonal values—as a stylistic novelties which, after all, hadn't seemed to make much sense to his contemporaries seeing that no one else replicated them. After all, had the camera obscura been a useful tool for painters, it is extraordinarily simple to construct and operate, provided one might possess a suitable lens.

On the other hand, those inclined to see these trademark characteristics not as a stylistic embellishments, but the most tangible sign of a much profounder interest in optics, have made the case that the artist was nothing less than a natural scientist equipped with paint and brush: an optical illuminist whose name can be mentioned along side those of Descartes, Galileo and Plato. Robert D. Huerta points out that the conceptual and methodological links between the Delft painter Vermeer and his near neighbor and exact contemporary, the microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, broadening his study to consider the connections between painting and science during the seventeenth century.11 Huerta argues that Vermeer's use of the camera obscura parallels Van Leeuwenhoek's pursuit of the "optical way," and embodies a profound philosophical connection between these investigators. However, no direct evidence indicates an objective link between Vermeer and these illustrious men, or their thoughts.

In any case, in 2005, an experiment involving ninety undergraduate students12 demonstrated statistically that in Vermeer's case, the use of technological support did not decrease but rather enhanced the viewer's aesthetic experience.

For those who wish to investigate this fascinating topic beyond these three web pages, the resources listed on page four should provide a wide range of facts and interpretations.

  1. In the eighteenth century, various painters are believed to have employed the device, the best-known being Canaletto, whose own camera obscura survives in the Correr Museum in Venice. The English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds owned a camera.
  2. For centuries painters had both a working and theoretical knowledge of perspective and understood very well that, to create a believable three dimensional space, figures which appeared far from the viewer had to be represented smaller while those which were nearer had to be proportionately larger.
  3. A. Mayor Hyatt, "The Photographic Eye," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Series, vol. 5, no. . (Summer, 1946), 20.
  4. A. Mayor Hyatt, "The Photographic Eye," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Series, vol. 5, no. . (Summer, 1946), . 15–-26.
  5. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California Press, 1997.
  6. Charles Seymour, "Dark Chamber in a Light Filled Room," Art Bulletin 46, 1964.
  7. Daniel A. Fink, "Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura: A Comparative Study," The Art Bulletin, vol. 53, no. 4 (Dec., 1971), 493–505.
  8. H. Schwartz, "Vermeer and the Camera Obscura," Pantheon xxiv, May-June, 1966, 17o-82f.
  9. Alan A. Mills, "Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Some Practical Considerations," Leonardo, vol. 31, no. 3 (1998), 213–218.
  10. The Hockney/Falco thesis is a controversial theory of art history, advanced by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco, suggesting that advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due the development of artistic technique and skill. In a 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney analyzed the work of the Old Masters and argued that the level of accuracy represented in their work is impossible to create by "eyeballing it." Since then, Hockney and Falco have produced a number of publications on positive evidence of the use of optical aids, and the historical plausibility of such methods.
  11. Examining the work of luminaries such as Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Saint Augustine, Ficino, Raphael, Keller, Galileo, Descartes and Hoydens, Robert D. Huerta argues that the concurrence of idealism and naturalism in Vermeer's art reflects the Dutch master's assimilation of Platonic and classical ideals, concepts that were part of the Renaissance revival of classical thought. Pursuing a Platonic path, Vermeer used his paintings as a visual dialectic, as part of his program to create a physical instantiation of the Ideal. Robert Huerta, The Natural Philosophers: The Parallel Search for Knowledge during the Age of Discovery, Lewisburg PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003.
  12. Donald A. Hantula, Mary Margaret Sudduth and Alison Clabaugh, "Technological Effects on Aesthetic Evaluation: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura," The Psychological Record, 2009, 59, 323–334.
seymour_image.jpg (11563 bytes)
Details of the lion's head finial
in Seymour's camera obscura (left)
and of Vermeer's Girl in a Red Hat

A purposely unfocussed photograph of a modern day, brass door knocker which gives surprisingly similar results as Seymour's experiments.
The Lacemaker (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Lacemaker (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1669–1671
Oil on canvas on panel, 24.5 x 21 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney
Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

David Hockney
Expanded edition - October 5, 2006