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Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) and Johannes Vermeer

. . my work, which I've done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (Letter of June 12, 1716)

Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer

The connection between Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, citizen of Delft and father of microbiology, and Johannes Vermeer has tantalized art historians for at least a generation.

Both men were baptized within a few days in October, 1632. They lived a few minutes walk from one another and both worked with, and were fascinated by, state-of-the-art optical devices, optics and, perhaps, its philosophical ramifications. However, even though writers from a range of disciplines have speculated upon the ties between the great Delft scientist with the great Delft artist, only one documented contact between them has been registered, albeit, when the artist was already dead but the scientist still alive (Van Leeuwenhoek would survive Vermeer by 48 years).

Van Leeuwenhoek, Verkoljefig. 1 Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek
Jan Verkolje (I)
Oil on canvas, 56 x 47.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Both men worked with lenses. And both men were ambitious. An experienced businessman, Van Leeuwenhoek realized that if his simple method for creating the critically important lens were revealed, the scientific community of his time would likely disregard or even forget his role in microscopy. He therefore allowed others to believe that he was laboriously spending most of his nights and free time grinding increasingly tiny lenses to use in microscopes. After seven years and a dozen letters published in their peer-reviewed journal, Philosophical Transactions, the Royal Society of London elected him a Fellow in 1680.

On the other hand, when Vermeer painted his masterwork, The Art of Painting, its compositional complexity, exceptional dimensions and grand theme whereby the artist could claim eternal fame through his art, he left no doubt as to his lofty ambitions. And although there is no objective proof in regards, circumstantial strongly suggests that the courting Vermeer had made serious inroads among upper crust of elite art collectors and men of culture in and around Delft.

For Van Leeuwenhoek, observation of the microscopic world through his tiny, hand-made devices (he made more than 200 of them in his lifetime) carried with it an implicit confirmation of God's creation. After having seen teaming "animacules" in water drawn from his gutter her wrote:

"Once more we see here the unconceivable Providence, perfection, and order bestowed by the Lord Creator of the Universe upon such little creatures which escape our bare eye, in order that their kind shouldn't die out."

These were among the first observations on living bacteria ever recorded.

On September 17, 1683, Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society about his observations on the plaque between his own teeth, "a little white matter, which is as thick as if 'twere batter." He repeated these observations on two ladies (probably his own wife and daughter), and on two old men who had never cleaned their teeth in their lives. Looking at these samples with his microscope, Leeuwenhoek reported how in his own mouth: "I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort. . . had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort. . . oft-times spun round like a top. . . and these were far more in number." In the mouth of one of the old men, Leeuwenhoek found "an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time. The biggest sort. . . bent their body into curves in going forwards. . . Moreover, the other animalcules were in such enormous numbers, that all the water. . . seemed to be alive."

commemorative plate of Anthony van LeeuwenhoekCommemorative plate of
Anthony van Leeuwenhoek
c. 1725
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

For Vermeer instead, observation of overlooked moments of daily life though his camera obscura revealed aspects of nature, and perhaps of vision itself, that inspired paintings that were broader in scope and intellectual depth than the works of any other genre painter of the time. Upon viewing a few pieces of stale bread and worn kitchen crockery lit by the sun through the lens of his camera obscura, he depicted, perhaps, one of the most arresting passages in European easel painting, the still life of the Milkmaid. For both the artist and scientist then, only tiny fraction of the world and a state-of-the-art optical device were needed to uncover worlds much larger. The camera obscura opens up a new view of things for the painter; like the microscope and telescope it is an instrument of enquiring sight.1

Naturally, Van Leeuwenhoek would have know everything Vermeer needed in order to build a camera obscura, he was an expert lens maker and he was interested in optical phenomena. But from a practical point of view, the artist could have acquired the same technical knowledge or even a ready built camera based on other sources.2 In fact, the only component of the camera obscura that cannot be easily fabricated with thin wood planks, oiled paper, a small saw and a few nails, is a convex lens necessary to produce a brighter image than the original pin-point hole through which light entered the camera (indispensable for use in painting). Lens grinding was a taxing and exacting procedure glass, based on the centuries-old technique of grinding lenses for eye-glasses (spectacles).3

Did Vermeer Hide his Camera Obscura?

We do not know if Vermeer made public his use of the camera obscura, but neither a complete apparatus nor lenses of any sort were found in his studio after his death. Thus, the camera obscura began to be associated with the artist on in the late 1800s with the advent of modern photography.

Constantijn HuygensPortrait of Constantijn of Huygens (detail)
Jan Lievens
Oil on panel, 99 x 84 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

On one hand, the camera obscura had been openly publicized and enthusiastically recommended to painters by Constantijn Huygens, the Dutch connoisseur par excellence. On the other, the enigmatic painter Johannes Torrentius attempted to hide from Huygens the fact that he had used the device in his own canvases (of which only one has survived).

As Huygens raccounts in his memoirs, when he showed up at the artist's studio and demonstrated how a camera obscura that he had acquired in London functions, the painter, "on seeing the projections, pretended not to know how the apparatus worked. He had asked innocently if the dancing figures on the screen were life figures outdoors. This question surprised Huygens, the instrument had, after all, been shown to many painters and everybody knew about it. Huygens suspected 'this cunning fox,' when painting, of using such an instrument to achieve his special effects."

Torrentius, then must have already known the device and had achieved, according to Huygens, "especially by this means [the camera obscura]... that certain quality in his paintings which the general run of people ascribe to divine inspiration."

Thus, the camera was lauded by Huygens but concealed by the only Dutch seventeenth-century artist other than Vermeer who is known to have actually used it as an aid to painting.

Could it be that Vermeer, like Torrentius, chose s to hide his involvement with the camera in order not to diminish his artistic accomplishments in the eyes of his contemporaries? If he desired so, he must have had a difficult time.

Huygens lived an hour's walk from Vermeer's Delft and was likely very aware of Vermeer's presence and was the principal promoter of the device amongst Dutch artists. Moreover, anyone familiar with the camera has no trouble tracing various stylistic peculiarities of Vermeer's paintings to the camera's image produced by imperfect lens and focal limits.

Did Van Leeuwenhoek Pose for Vermeer?

Various art historians have mused that Van Leeuwenhoek might have posed for both in The Astronomer and The Geographer by Vermeer. Considering the manner in which the scientist had himself portrayed by Jan Verkolje (fig. 1), one of the most fashionable painters of the time, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have been in synchrony with the refined dignity with which Vermeer's two scientists are depicted and the nobility of the scientist's quest.

portris of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek
Left to right: The Geographer ( detail), Johannes Vermeer; The Astronomer (detail), Johannes Vermeer and Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (detail) Jan Verkolje

Similar in cut and fabric to the Japonsche roks worn by Vermeer's geographer and astronomer—one pale blue with fancy orange cuffs and the other marine green—Van Leeuwenhoek had donned on a plush yellow rok of his own for his formal portrait. Roks, a highly desired garment imported from Japan, were essentially a kimono tailored into a kind of house robe. They was especially worn by scholars in their studios who wished to distinguish themselves from mere dabblers. They appear in a great many Dutch paintings of doctors, geographers and astronomers. By the mid-seventeenth century, roks were made from imported Indian and Chinese silk and became a more common imitation ware but in Vermeer's and Van Leeuwenhoek's day, to wear a rok is to wear a garment which had not yet been commodified. However, that Van Leeuwenhoek would have been willing to model for not one, but three elaborate paintings done by cutting edge artists of the day may or may have not been in character with the Delft scientist.

The art historian Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. speculated that the Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek must have interacted; they had too much in common and Delft was too small not to notice each other's exceptional activities. Vermeer's father and Van Leeuwenhoek could have easily made each other's acquaintance through their dealings in the silk-weaving business (Vermeer's father was a caffa weaver and Van Leeuwenhoek traded in silk goods for a living). Moreover, according to Wheelock, "they probably shared interests in globes and maps which was somewhat of an obsession among men of knowledge of the time," although maps and globes were standard fixtures in many Dutch paintings and homes of Dutch burghers.

On the other hand, John Michael Montias views the artist-scientist relationship, and consequentially the likelihood that Van Leeuwenhoek had commissioned the two pictures, with circumspection.4 He finds no particular resemblance between "the elegant, distinguished looking scholars" and the "coarse features" exhibited in know portraits of Leeuwenhoek. Certainly, the two men in Vermeer's probable pendants do not look much like Van Leeuwenhoek as he was portrayed by Verkolje. But those who hold fast to the idea that Vermeer did paint the scientist are comforted by the fact that Verkolje painted a fifty-year-old-man and not one of thirty-seven.

Moreover, Montias doubts that Van Leeuwenhoek could have been "appointed to the curatorship of the artist's estate because he was a friend of the family." since there is not evidence of any connections between the scientist and Vermeer and his family, which "would have been expected to show up if they had regular dealings with each other." There is also no evidence that Van Leeuwenhoek assumed a favorable disposition towards the interests of Catharina, Vermeer's widow, during his curatorship of the Vermeer estate.

Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer

Mariët Westermann
"Vermeer and the Interior Imagination,"
in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior,
Madrid, 2003, 226–227.

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-organisrns 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 small city of Delft. They shared an artisanal base for their advanced artistic and scientific researches: just as Vermeer would have had to follow a standard artistic apprenticeship, Van Leeuwenhoek worked his way up from the cloth trade and little erudition to become a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, purely on the merits of his experimental research. Van Leeuwenhoek later served as the executor of Vermeer's estate. It has often been suggested that Van Leeuwenhoek served as the model for Vermeer's Astronomer and Geographer. Although the suggestion can neither be substantiated nor disproved, the accurate rendition of scientific materials in both paintings confirms that, at the very least, Vermeer must have been in regular contact with someone of Van Leeuwenhoek's erudition.

Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens and their associates in the Royal Society and elsewhere in mid-17th-century Europe shared a tremendous confidence in vision-extending technologies, a self- assurance that can be seen as an extension of long-standing European trust in vision itself as the primary sense by which we know the world. Van Leeuwenhoek exalted over the "new worlds" revealed daily under his microscope, and this industrious man lived his motto: "By diligent labor one discovers matters that could not be discerned before." Vermeer's paintings can in part be thought of as the artistic analogue to Van Leeuwenhoek's confidence. Carefully worked and seemingly "natural" they let us see the world as we do not normally see it, framed and rendered in surprising new ways that are unmatched by the naked eye.

Whether Van Leeuwenhoek or another contemporary introduced Vermeer to the camera obscura is immaterial. For Vermeer's usage, it is more relevant that connoisseurs of art and science saw camera obscura imaging as a mode of picturing closely allied with the making of paintings. This was the case especially in the Netherlands. In 1622, having just been introduced to the camera obscura, Huygens enthused that "it is impossible to express its beauty in words. The art of painting is dead, for this is life itself: or something higher, if we could find a word for it." Huygens's phrasing constituted a direct challenge to painting. Painting is dead at the hands of the camera obscura, and the camera obscura image is praised as being "life itself; or something higher" These words and sentiments would have stung any ambitious painter, for representing life—or the best of it—had been the theoretical and practical mandate of easel painters since the fifteenth century. Ever since Jan van Eyck, Netherlandish painters had enjoyed a highly successful record of finding pictorial analogues for life, and now the camera obscura, a mechanistic instrument, presented real competition in the market for lifelike images. As that market was virtually insatiable in the Dutch Republic, Huygens's challenge will have been theoretical rather than urgent, but an artist of Vermeer's searching ambition is likely to have taken up the gauntlet.

Van Leeuwenhoek and the Estate of Vermeer

Among the few documents that reveal Vermeer's life is this note from the delft public records which states that the aldermen of the city designate Anton Leeuwenhoek as the receiver in the bankruptcy case of Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer widow. It is dated September 30, 1676, a year after the artist's death. Ironically, both men's names appear on another page in the Delft ledger: the one recording their births in 1632.

On September 30, 1676, a year after the artist's death, the town council of Delft designated Van Leeuwenhoek to administer the assets of Catharina Bolnes, "widow of the late Johannes Vermeer during his lifetime master painter." This was not the first time that Van Leeuwenhoek had been made the executor of an estate. But since the job was likely to procure more worries than benefits, one writer concluded that Leeuwenhoek's acceptance of the more or less insolvent Vermeer estate suggests some acquaintance between the two men.5

Catharina Bolnes' efforts to preserve The Art of Painting as part of her inheritance, and to prevent it from being auctioned with other works of art in the estate, almost certainly failed. Van Leeuwenhoek noticed this omission in the inventory and summarily reclaimed the painting having discovered it in Vermeer's mother-in-law's household. Van Leeuwenhoek rightfully determined that the transferal of the work to the late painter's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, had been illegal. The Art of Painting and other works, most likely as a part of the artist's stock and trade, were auctioned off on 15 May, 1677.

Leeuwenhoek's gravemarker The memorial and grave of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is in the tower wall of the Oude Kerk in Delft, on the side of the northern aisle. The memorial was commissioned by his daughter Maria. The poem chiseled in the wall at the entrance was written by Huibert Corneliszoon Poot, a good friend of Van Leeuwenhoek:

"Hier Rust Anthony van Leeuwenhoek out synde 90 jaar, 10 maanden en 2 dagen. Heeft elk, o wandelaer alom ontzagh voor hoogen ouderdom en wonderbare gaven. Soo set eerbiedigh hier uw stap. Hier legt de gryse wetenschap in Leeuwenhoek begraven."

[Here restsAntonie van Leeuwenhoek having reached the age of 90 years, 10 months and two days. O stroller, be respectful of great old age and wonder.]

Montias also noted that in 1678, Van Leeuwenhoek, having gotten wind that Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes had inherited a house in Gouda (where Catharina's mother was born) in which her father had lived and died, and three morgans of land in Wilnis, empowered the Thins family notary in Gouda to sell the properties on behalf of Vermeer's bankrupt estate, presumably for the benefit of the creditors.

The art historian Gary Schwartz argues that the "romanticization of the ties between Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek and Johannes Vermeer does injustice to the historical record... The curator of an estate has permissible options that can benefit the heirs to a bankrupt estate. Van Leeuwenhoek did not employ them.

Furthermore, "he came up consistently for the rights of the creditors rather than Vermeer's widow Catharina Bolnes and her mother, Maria Thins. Montias holds him responsible for "the allegation … that Maria Thins and her daughter had conspired to conceal some of Catharina's assets," which would have landed them in jail had they not been able to prove it was a lie. In one action in which he was entirely free to show sympathy for the heirs, he behaved oppositely, by charging Maria Thins sixty guilders for his services as curator. Are we to believe that as she paid up she thought of Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek as a good friend and collaborator of her deceased son-in-law?"

Van Leeuwenhoek's birth house in Delft

House of Antonie van LeeuwenhoekVan Leeuwenhoek's birth house in Delft, Netherlands in 1926 before it was demolished

At birth, Van Leeuwenhoek was called Thonis Philipszoon. His letters, however, were signed "Antonie van Leeuwenhoek." He was probably known as Van Leeuwenhoek from a young age because he was born in a house at the corner of Lion's Gate in Delft (Van Leeuwenhoek means "lion's gate")

The house of Antonie Leeuwenhoek, Delft

The image to the right shows the corner of Lion's Gate in Delft as it appears today.

"The original house and door of the Van Leeuwenhoek house at number 7 have disappeared. The present day (year 2000) plaque is on the wrong house; it should be to the left side of the entrance of the present day 'Deen' store. Another commemorative plaque is at the corner of Oude Delft and Boterbrug."*

* Kees Kaldenbach, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723). http://kalden.home.xs4all.nl/dart/d-p-leeuwenh.htm

Publications, Websites & Resources


  1. Carsten Wirth, "The Camera Obscura as a Model of a New Concept of Mimesis in Seventeenth-Century Painting" Inside the Camera Obscura —Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image, 2007, 177. https://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/Preprints/P333.PDF
  2. Van Leeuwenhoek was no the only lens grinder in Delft. "In 1664 and 1665 Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens II, who, like their father, were fascinated with optical problems, were in communication with Johan van Wyck, a manufacturer of lenses in Delft." (source Arthur K Wheelock Jr.,. Perspective, Optics and Delft Artists Around 1650, Garland, New York and London, 1977, page 284.)
  3. Douglas Anderson, "Tiny Lenses," Lens on Leeuwenhoek. http://lensonleeuwenhoek.net/lenses.htm
  4. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, 225–226.
  5. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 165.
  6. Carsten Wirth, "The Camera Obscura as a Model of a New Concept of Mimesis in Seventeenth-Century Painting" Inside the Camera Obscura–Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image, 2007, 195. https://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/Preprints/P333.PDF

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