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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 photography.

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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