Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

(part two)


camera obscuraSchematic drawing of a pin-hole type camera obscura

"The principle of the camera obscura (in Latin camera = room and obscura = dark) is as simple as it seems magical even today. The windowless box or chamber has a small hole in one site and a white side of wall opposite the side with the hole. Light entering the camera obscura through the hole projects onto the screen wall, and (following the laws of optics) produces and upside-down and reversed image. Most camera obscuras were fitted with a lens in the hole to focus the image. In portable form, the camera obscura became popular for recording landscape and city views. Using a system of lenses and mirrors that allowed the image to appear on a translucent screen, draftsmen could trace the views to produce early versions of tourist snapshots. The rooms-sized version of the camera obscura was useful to scientists interested in the behavior of light." 1

An artist drawing inside of a camera obscuraAn illustration for an 1858 book on physics showing a man making a landscape drawing inside of a camera obscura

A few camera obscuras of this sort can still be found near popular tourist resorts.

The image of the early camera obscura had two particular properties which made them quite different from reality. The image was projected upside down and the luminosity was in general rather weak. This was due to the small aperture, usually no wider than a finger, which emitted only the minimum of light. This could be remedied by a larger aperture but the image was more blurred, unless a lens was mounted in the aperture, as was the case in the sixteenth century.


The fundamental principle of the camera obscura was already know by the Chinese. The earliest mention of this type of device was by the philosopher Mo-Ti (5th century BC). He formally recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room. He called this darkened room a "collecting place" or the "locked treasure room."

Aristotle (384–322 BC) understood the optical principle of the camera obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree.

In 1038 AD, an Arab scholar named Alhazan described a working model of the camera obscura. Although Alhazan did not actually construct the device, his work influenced a medieval philosopher Roger Bacon who was interested in optics. In 1267 AD, Bacon created convincing optical illusions by using mirrors and the basic principles of the camera obscura. Later, he used a camera obscura to project an image of the sun directly upon an opposite wall. These medieval cameras were literally "dark rooms." Inside the room, one could see what was happening outside. It was virtually magic, and experience as such.

Leonardo da Vinci first suggested that the camera obscura might be of interest to the artist in 1490. The first transportable models could be used to draw from nature views of cities or panoramic landscapes. This version of the camera obscura included a tent large enough to contain the draftsman. The image was projected onto a flat surface where the draftsman had no great difficult in tracing it. Nevertheless, it appears that this type of device was used only on special occasions and generally for topographical work.

The camera obscura was well known in the time of Vermeer. Constantijn Huygens, a major figure of Dutch contemporary culture who seems to have been aware of Vermeer's work and had contacts with some of the most important Dutch painters of the time, bought a camera obscura in 1662 in London and wrote: "it produces admirable effects by reflecting on a wall in a dark room. I cannot describe its beauty in words, but all painting seems dead by comparison...." Huygens took the camera obscura back the Netherlands where is know to have recommended its use to painters. Samuel van Hoogstraten, a Dutch painter and art theorist, also knew the device and wrote: "I am certain that seeing this projections in the dark will give the vision of young painters no small light, for beside acquiring knowledge of nature, one sees here what on the whole or in general a truly natural painting ought to have. "It has been suggested—although this is wholly speculative—that Vermeer have might developed an interest in optics through a connection with the painter Carel Fabritius, who moved to Delft in about 1650; or, via Fabritius, with his friend Samuel van Hoogstraten of Dordrecht. Both men were fascinated by the trompe l'œil and perspective illusion."2

"In Delft, vision-extending and vision-transforming instruments such as the camera obscura must have been readily available. They were the passion of Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, an industrious researcher now best known for his discovery of micro-organisms through the microscope. It is almost impossible to imagine that these exact contemporaries, both baptized in 1632 and both high achievers in their fields, would not have come across each other in the small city of Delft. "3 However, the extent of an eventual collaboration is fraught with uncertainty.

Which Kind of Camera Obscura did Vermeer Use?

Adolphe Ganot, illustration of camera obscura
The box type camera obscura illustrated by Adolphe Ganot, 1860

There were probably two kinds of camera obscuras available to Vermeer. The booth type (right) is a sort of closed box fitted with some arrangement of len(es) and/or mirrors large enough for an observer to be seated inside. The principal advantage is that, because the space is enclosed securely, only the light which is filtered through the lens aperture enters the booth. Thus, the image is relatively clean and brilliant. The second, portable kind, can be seen in the illustration to the right and left. Obviously, such a device can be carried comfortably under one's arm, and such mobility permits exploration of a variety of environments. However, the image is smaller and no matter how well constructed, the surrounding light always interferes, creating a "washed out" effect.

For a practicing painter, each type of camera has limitations, each has its strengths. For example, if it is placed on a table in the proximity of the easel, the painter can comfortably consult the image without interrupting the painting process. On the other hand, inside the booth type, the projected image can be examined and even traced in some detail but there is very little light by which the painter could actually see to work on his canvas, not to mention finding room in the small area even to fit the equipment necessary to paint.

Neither kind of camera obscuras were found the inventory of movable goods taken after Vermeer's death. However the assembly —and therefore the disassembly—of each kind is a simple matter. The only piece of the camera obscura that could not have been be made by an amateur is the lens, which has to been hand ground by someone expert in the field. In Delft Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek was known for his expertise in the fields of lens making and microscopic examination.

It is not out of the question that Vermeer deployed the booth type camera obscura as a compositional aid and for tracing, and in a second phase, a portable type for continued examination of various phenomena of light conditions in normal painting conditions.

  1. Jean-Luc Delsaute, "The Camera Obscura and Painting in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," in Vermeer Studies, London and New Haven, 1998, p. 111.
  2. Philip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, Oxford, 2001, p. 21
  3. Mariët Westermann, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 226.
Vermeer & the Camera
diagram of n camera obscura
The basic camera obscura consists of a
room with a small opening, the images are projected both upside down and reversed.
diagram of a camera obscura
The portable camera obscura uses a lens to focus the image which is reflected from a slanted mirror to a translucent screen, the image is righted but still reversed.
a portable camera obscura
An illustration of a camera obscura from J. Zahn, Oculusteledioptricus 2nd ed., Nuremberg, 1702. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
a booth type camera obscura
A booth-type camera obscura
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)