Reconstructions of Vermeer's Rooms
(drawings by Philip Steadman)
(drawings by Philip Steadman)
It is indeed curious that two of the most important twentieth-century investigations of Vermeer's life and art were not carried out by members of the art history community but by an American economist (John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu, 1989) and an English architect Philip Steadman (Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, 20012).
Steadman's study of Vermeer and the camera obscura became not only the topic of a heated debate amongst savvy art historians, but following press coverage and TV documentaries, it stirred considerable interest among the art-loving laymen as well. Since the book's publication, the majority of historians have accepted Steadman's hypothesis—sustained by painstaking documentation and intellectual clarity—that Vermeer systematically employed the camera obscura as an aid to plan his compositions, study the optical effects of his mise-en-scène and in some instances, imitate the peculiarities of the camera obscura image. But more remarkably, Steadman provided significant evidence that the artist may very well have projected the camera's image directly onto his blank canvases in order to trace the outlines of some of his compositions (or alternately first onto paper then transferred to the canvas).
Steadman's research brought him to make scale geometric drawings of the spaces and movable objects depicted in eleven of Vermeer's domestic interiors. They were constructed by a method called "reverse perspective." In the normal process of setting up perspectives, one moves from a three-dimensional scene to a two-dimensional image. By reversing this process, one can move from a two-dimensional image (such as one of Vermeer's rigorously depicted interiors) to a three-dimensional scene. The method is explained in detail in Chapter 5 of Vermeer's Camera, "Reconstructing the spaces in Vermeer's paintings."
Below, an "axonometric" bird's eye view, a plan, and a side view are given for eleven of Vermeer's interiors. An axonometric is a specialized form of perspective in which the plan preserves its true scale and there is no diminution with distance.
Mr. Steadman has graciously allowed the Essential Vermeer website to publish these drawings accessible below in high-resolution.
The scale of Steadman's reconstructions can be gauged by the floor tiles. The small tiles in The Glass of Wine and The Girl with the Wine Glass are 14.6 cm. (≈5 3/4 in.) square. The larger tiles in all the other paintings are 29.3 cm. (≈11 1/2 in.) square. More details are given in Vermeer's Camera Appendix B, "Measurements of Vermeer's room and furniture." Here estimated sizes are also given for the various props and pieces of furniture.
In some cases, examples of these items survive in museum collections, and so actual measurements can be obtained from the originals. These known sizes make it possible to calculate the dimensions of the architectural features and their positions in the room, such as floor tiles, windows and so on. Appendix B discusses some uncertainties involved in some of the measurements and minor inconsistencies between different paintings.
The viewpoint of each drawing (the position at which Vermeer would have put his eye in order to see the scene as it appears in the painting), is labeled with a cross. Only those parts of the tiled floors that are visible in the paintings are shown in the plans. In some instances, the positions of objects or parts of objects which are not wholly visible but can be located with certainty, for example, the legs of chairs or the feet of tables, are shown in dotted lines. These drawings are also available on the Steadman's website, www.vermeerscamera.co.uk.
To access high-resolution images, click on the title of the painting or the images of the drawings.
The paintings are numbered in agreement with the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue.