The Mystery of Vermeer: Art vs. Science
During the late 1650s, Vermeer and other Dutch artists began to place a new emphasis on
depicting figures within carefully composed interior spaces. Vermeer's works are small and
rare. Of the 35 paintings attributed to him, all of them are admired for the detail in which he
rendered the effects of light and color. Little is known for certain about Vermeer's career. His
earliest signed and dated painting, The Procuress (1656), is thematically related to a Dirck van
Baburen painting that Vermeer owned and that appears in the background of two of his own
paintings. After his death Vermeer was overlooked by all but the most discriminating collectors
and art historians for more than 200 years. Only after 1866, when the French critic Theophile
Thore-Burger rediscovered him, did Vermeer's works become widely known.
Tim's Vermeer is not the first look into Vermeer's likely use of optics in his works.
Professor Philip Steadman (seen in the film) caused a sensation in the art world in 2001 when he
published his book Vermeer's Camera. Steadman investigated the suspicions of art historians
who suggested Vermeer used a camera obscura, an optical device that could project the image of
sunlit objects placed before it with extraordinary detail. However, Steadman's experiment used
a technique known as "reverse perspective" which produced startling results. He found that six
of the Vermeer paintings he analyzed depicted the same room, the painter's studio in Delft, and
the geometry of the six was consistent with their being projected on to the back wall of the room
using a lens and then traced.
These findings were not intended to challenge Vermeer's genius but rather to show how,
like many artists, Vermeer was able to use technology to paint his extraordinary compositions
more accurately. Nevertheless, Steadman's book caused a storm of controversy, dividing art
historians while convincing many scholars in the history of science, technology, optics and
The questions posed by this discovery all come back to the debate of whether the use of
these technologies negatively impacts Vermeer's reputation as an artist. Some would say that
this was cheating. Others would say that this was innovation. David Hockney, author of Secret
Knowledge: Rediscovering Techniques of the Old Masters (seen in the film), attributes some of
the controversy to the contemporary separation of art and science. Hockney reminds us that in
Vermeer's time art and science were much more closely intertwined, for example Vermeer's
neighbor was a master microscope maker who could have taught Vermeer about optics. Some
speculate that using technology such as the camera obscura, a device akin to a modern
photographic camera, would make Vermeer less of an artist. Though today, we consider
individuals who are highly skilled in photography to be great artists. How can the two beliefs be
held simultaneously? Questions remain that if Vermeer had used optical technology, why would
there be no written records of it? Possibly the paintings themselves tell the story.
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