Interview with Robert D. Huerta

The Natural Philosophers:
The Parallel Search for Knowledge during the Age of Discovery

Bucknell University Press, 2003.
(Available at Amazon.com)

In this interdisciplinary work, 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 Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, broadening his study to consider the connections between painting and science during the seventeenth century. 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. Vermeer's informed observations enabled him to confront the same issues as other natural philosophers regarding the interpretation of unfamiliar images presented by instrumental systems (viz, the telescope, microscope, camera obscura). Giants of Delft is poised to expand contemporary understandings of Vermeer's methods and purpose, enlarging an appreciation of his art.

MARCH, 2003 ( interview by Jon Boone)

Essential Vermeer: To what do you attribute your lifelong interest in science and how do you think the paradigms of science enlarge our appreciation of art?

I have been drawn to science because great scientific work combines theory and fact, the ideal and the real, in a very elegant and beautiful manner. Although science relies heavily on empirical data, good theories require the same kind of creativity and intuitive leaps that great artists display in their work. In this sense, good scientists and good artists are very much alike, each trying to interpret the world and present their models of reality. John Constable saw painters as natural philosophers, who inquired into the laws of nature and used their paintings as experiments. We see this kind of rigorous inquiry in the work of artists such as Vermeer, van Eyck, Dürer, and Velazquez. Expanding our knowledge about the paradigms of science can only improve our understanding of great art.

Did you enter this project with any particular thesis in mind, or did the sheer accumulation of evidence suggest a specific direction which allowed you to conclude Vermeer's affinity to the natural philosophers of his era? In your inquiry, did you encounter evidence which caused you to modify your ideas?

When I began, I was convinced of the strong creative kinship between science and art. Aware that other authors had mentioned a possible connection between Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek based on common optical interests, I felt that this line of inquiry had not been pursued to its logical conclusion. While still in the early stages of my research, I happened to look at a celestial map that contained explanatory remarks about Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler. It struck me that Kepler's interests intersected those of Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek. Kepler established the modern theory of vision and wrote one of the greatest optical treatises in all of science, Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena. When I learned that the microscope was probably invented by one of the same three individuals who claimed priority for the invention of the telescope, the link between Vermeer, microscopy, and astronomy became clear. As I pursued this line of investigation, the four-part program that I propose—a program that both artists and scientists followed—seemed to emerge spontaneously from the data.

Other than Vermeer, what artists have contributed to your aesthetic views? Which scholars influenced you the most, and why?

I admire van Eyck and fifteenth century Netherlandish art in general. Raphael, whose best works effortlessly combine naturalism and idealism, has also affected my notions about beauty. Velazquez, so concerned with the process of perception, with producing naturalistic paintings based on the more subtle aspects of vision, is also important to my beliefs about what constitutes fine art.

Gowing's monograph influenced my consideration of Vermeer's oeuvre, and I think he was correct when he stated that the real riddle about Vermeer is not if he used the camera obscura but why he chose the optical way. I also respect the work of Stillman Drake. His analysis of Galileo's life and work, when combined with his translations of Galileo's scientific publications, forms an invaluable contribution to the history of science. Drake's clear, concise, flowing style is a pleasure to read. I would also add Ernst Cassirer to this list. Although Cassirer is mentioned only briefly in Giants of Delft, his philosophy plays a central role in a book I am now writing concerning a priori concepts in Vermeer's oeuvre.

In what ways do you hope your book will alter and reform present perceptions of Vermeer and his work?

Vermeer has been called a sphinx, an enigmatic artist who hides behind his creations. I believe that the contrary is true. Vermeer has much to say and does so eloquently. In my book, I characterize Vermeer as a thinking man, aware of and interested in the science of his time. Immensely creative, Vermeer used instrumental adjuncts in an inspired, not mechanical manner. I hope that he will be perceived more in the tradition of a Dürer, a Velazquez, or even a Leonardo, as an artist who combined scientific and painterly logic in a transformative fashion.

You argue that Vermeer, like scientists such as Galileo, van Leeuwenhoek, and Huygens "experimented with instrumental systems" but also used "not just the eyes in his head, but those in his mind as well." Would you clarify what you mean by this "mental lensing," this ability to use his mind "as an optical device" to see "knowingly and produce visualizations beyond the capabilities of … contemporaries?"

In Chapter 3 of Giants of Delft, I discuss the dynamic process of vision and how it involves an unthinking instrument, the eye, and a thinking instrument, the brain. Because of the seamless integration of eye and brain that takes place during the act of seeing, we often forget that our perception of the world is a mediated process, a process governed by the mind. We see through the lens of our mind just as surely as we see through the lens of a telescope or a microscope. When Galileo said that an observer must use "not just the eyes in his head, but those in his mind as well," he was referring to this fact. He knew that the true scientist must wed reason to observation in order to pierce through the veil of appearances and acquire true understanding. Pioneers such as Galileo and Vermeer were able to explore and describe new areas of reality because they brought complex and varied visual/mental constructs to the process of observation, a technique I call "mental lensing." Their minds had a distorting quality of creativity that enabled them to refract new images and ideas into a singular vision of reality. Vermeer used his mind in this way, as a kind of meta-instrument, an instrument he wielded with consummate skill.

Do you see any conflict between Vermeer's use of the camera obscura and his ability to create powerful, expressive art?

I see no conflict at all. Several artists made use of the camera obscura and other instruments but Vermeer's application was singular. Vermeer used the camera obscura to create working images and then overlaid upon these images his unique vision of reality, created by another tool, the lens of his artistic creativity. Focusing the debate on the issue of whether or not Vermeer used the camera obscura will not prove as fruitful as concentrating on the manner of Vermeer's use of that instrument. Vermeer's use of instrumental adjuncts does not conflict with his art, but rather allows us—if we investigate that use—to better understand the nature of his creativity.

What qualities of Vermeer's art do you most admire? What do you know today about his work that you did not know before you began writing your book?

I admire Vermeer's consistency, his single-minded desire to investigate, analyze, and describe reality. Seeking true understanding, Vermeer conducted, painting-by-painting, a sustained series of experiments in the manner suggested by Constable. In Giants of Delft, I compare Vermeer's approach to Leeuwenhoek's "concentric method," the microscopist's procedure of returning again and again to the same specimen. Vermeer applied this method to his art, returning repeatedly to the same few subjects, holding the same field of view and conducting his painterly experiments. But more than this, Vermeer applied a brilliant painting technique that he varied not only from painting to painting, but within individual canvases as well. By consistently combining a rigorous program of informed observation with virtuoso technique Vermeer produced art that stands among the marvels of the world.

Before I began writing my book I did not fully appreciate the enormous amount of reason that Vermeer applied to his observation of daily life, to the world around us. I came to realize that Vermeer's art was not solely intuitive or spontaneous, but a carefully considered creation that reflects the depth and breadth of his intellect.

Biography

Robert D. Huerta's interest in Vermeer was kindled during many visits to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. while studying at the George Washington University School of Law. After practicing law in Texas for seventeen years, he decided to explore systematically the use of "creative commonalities" among and between artistic representations and pioneering discoveries in science. He is persuaded that "Vermeer's art is a perfect example of genius blurring the line between science and art … [and] that Vermeer saw himself as a kind of natural philosopher, using his paintings to create a controlled experience whereby he could investigate the nature of reality."

Mr. Huerta resides in San Antonio, Texas.

Table of Contents

  1. Instrument-Mediated Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences
  2. Leeuwenhoek, Galileo, van Eyck, and Vermeer—The Fruits of Observation and Technique
  3. Galileo, Huygens, Leeuwenhoek, and Vermeer—The Intellect as Lens
  4. Leeuwenhoek, Galileo, Hooke, and Vermeer—The Interplay of Text and Image
  5. Vermeer and Mapping—The Landscape of Reality
  6. Vermeer, Raphael, and Huygens—The Art of Painting and Saturn's Rings
  7. Conclusion—Vermeer's Philosophy of Perception