Published: 6 January 2016View of Delft, .166061 by Johannes Vermeer Photograph: Bridgeman Images
We hope you enjoy this piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. This weeks issue also includes: Charles Bukowski on strategic writing; Joyce Carol Oatess childhood secrets; looking afresh at the French Resistance; John Buchan as journalist; the influential Brueghel clan; what it means to be a redhead and much more.
It is a truism of responses to the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeers life and works that what very little we know about the life stands in inverse relationship to how intimately we relate to the work. This is only one of many contrasts that shape our perception of the artist. His younger compatriot Rembrandt van Rijn (160669) may have been a reluctant correspondent only seven autograph letters survive but hundreds of extant paintings, drawings and etchings, and the legacy of pupils and assistants bear eloquent witness to Rembrandts artistic ways and means. Archival records and an extensive record of published responses to Rembrandt, going back to 1629, when he was in his twenties, enable scholars to trace connections between compositions in various media and the events in his life. When we engage with the magisterial paintings Rembrandt produced in the final decade of his life, for example, our empathy is stirred by knowledge of his bankruptcy in 1656, his complicated personal life, and the decline in favour he suffered. Johannes Vermeers surviving oeuvre, by contrast, consists of three dozen paintings but not a single drawing, letter or other autograph testimony to the process of making what are widely celebrated as works of timeless, universal appeal.
At the time of his rediscovery in the late nineteenth century Vermeer was dubbed the Sphinx of Delft. The sobriquet has stuck, in spite of what assiduous archival research has turned up. Vermeer was baptized in the Protestant Nieuwe Kerk in Delft in 1632 and buried in the Catholic Oude Kerk of Delft in December 1675. By connecting these and other data points scholars have reconstructed an impressive account of Vermeers world if not of the relationship between the facts of his life and the how and why of his works. J. Michael Montiass Vermeer and his Milieu: A web of social history (1989) altered the course of Vermeer studies by introducing a cast of characters, including his Catholic mother-in-law, and a sea of facts about them. We know that the painters forefathers were involved in a counterfeiting scandal, for example; and that he, like his father before him, sold art. We know that at the time of Vermeers death, ten of the fifteen children his wife bore were still living in their home; one had left home already and four did not survive infancy. But whereas the subjects of many of Rembrandts works are identifiable citizens of Amsterdam, or friends, lovers and relations, we cannot say with certainty whom Vermeer painted even though, thanks to Montias and others, we know who figured in his family life.
Publications of archival documents and other sources notwithstanding, mysteries continue to surround Vermeers artistic career. Who was his master? Did he have any pupils? What caused his death, at the age of forty-three, leaving behind paintings of his own and others he may have been selling, no drawings, a house full of children, and huge debts? Did he rely on a camera obscura, or other novel optical devices, to compose his paintings? These unanswered questions do not prevent wondering admiration for his work, however. When its home, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, was under renovation recently, the Girl with a Pearl Earring travelled the world. On exhibit in Japan in 2013, it drew over a million visitors. The Mona Lisa of the North is as widely known, and often viewed, as it is reticent as regards the conditions of her creation or raison dtre. A student once described his encounter with the Girl with a Pearl Earring as tantamount to meeting the love of his life and forgetting to ask her name. She is as engaged with our seeing her as she is absolutely oblivious to it, and in this sense she is an appropriate emblem for Vermeers work as a whole: what we know, and what we think is familiar, is forever vexed by its remaining unknowable and inaccessible.
The question of whether or to what degree Vermeer depended on such optical devices as a camera obscura in his studio has recently been the focus of intense speculation
Posed already in the late nineteenth century, the question of whether or to what degree Vermeer depended on such optical devices as a camera obscura in his studio has recently been the focus of intense speculation. His many ladies in light, caught in the act of doing nothing particularly dramatic donning a pearl necklace, pouring milk, writing, reading or dozing at a table are so many portraits of moments in time. His paintings are characterized by thick silence, keen attention to the qualities of light, and optical phenomena that are symptomatic of the use of viewing lenses. Indeed, the absence of any narrative flexion whatsoever in so many of his paintings encourages studying them as renderings of conditions of light and spatial configurations taking them at face value, as it were, seeking clues to how they were made rather than, for example, why. There is so little documentary evidence to go on that the paintings themselves serve as (mute) testimony to speculation about them.
The camera obscura, available in the seventeenth century in portable or room-size format, is a box-like structure constructed to block all light save for what enters through a small aperture in one of its sides. This aperture can be fitted with a lens, to focus the image projected on the inside of the box. That image is reversed, and could be righted by a mirror inside the camera obscura or as the engineer Tim Jenison has recently postulated, on a small mount and held above the canvas while painting. Like the telescope, devised in the first decade of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, and the microscope, the camera obscura is one of many instruments with which early modern observers trained their sight on new horizons. Though no record survives of Vermeer having owned such devices or having used them, the theory that he did offers an appealing technological explanation for how he did what he did so marvellously.
A great deal can depend, as it does in Laura Snyders Eye of the Beholder, on Vermeers purported use of the camera obscura. Characterizing the painters working methods as experimental scientific, even allows her to depict him as an artistic counterpart to contemporaries committed to the empirical study of the natural world, prime among them a fellow resident of Delft and father of microbiology Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (16321723), most widely known today for his advances in microscopy, who famously ground his own lenses, and discovered bacteria and spermatozoa. Van Leeuwenhoek (he adopted the prefix van on his election to the Royal Society in London in 1673) and Vermeer were not just prominent citizens of Delft; they were baptized in the same church within days of one another and, after the painters death, Van Leeuwenhoek served as executor of his estate. Numerous authors have pointed to resonances between their respective work master observer of nature and master recorder of the natural world both exploring what amounted to, as Robert Hooke wrote, new visible world[s] discovered to the understanding.
Recent scholarship has uncovered a network of individuals active in Delft in the seventeenth century who made and procured lenses and devices such as the camera obscura. Huib Zuidervaart and Marlise Rijks have proposed that a certain Johan van der Wyck, who made lenses, telescopes and microscopes, came to live in Delft at mid-century and, likewise, plays an axial role in a web of relations that can explain how Vermeer would have come by the device. The names and co- ordinates they have uncovered are scintillating, though of course they stop short of providing explanations for how or why Vermeer produced the images he did.
About Van Leeuwenhoek, unlike Vermeer, we know a very great deal. He was trained as a clerk to a drapers firm and was a self-taught microscopist who acquired such fame later in life that he occasionally concealed his presence when visitors called at his home. He married twice and was buried at the age of ninety in the same church in which he was baptized; his epitaph identifies him by name and directly as a member of the Royal Society in London. He wrote extensive letters recording the results of his observations under magnification of a huge array of specimens among them scales of human skin, plaque from his own and others teeth, the tongue of an ox, the hair of an elk, the brains of a fly, water from a variety of sources, mites and fleas and organs of fleas, and sperm, too. In the course of his work, Van Leeuwenhoek subjected the world at hand to his intent and focused gaze, a gaze abetted by extraordinarily well-prepared lenses. The more he looked, the more he saw.
While allowing that there is no smoking gun proving conclusively that they were friends or even acquaintances, Snyder has leveraged her study on a sustained parallel between Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer. In her view, Van Leeuwenhoek initiated a new way of seeing the world and Vermeer transcribed it in paint. Vermeers paintings were in no small measure experiments in optics as were the exploits in microscopy of his neighbor Leeuwenhoek. Decades ago, Arthur Wheelock surmised in print that the figure depicted in Vermeers paintings The Astronomer and The Geographer is Van Leeuwenhoek, and even suggested that the scientist had commissioned the paintings as portraits; and almost as long ago Montias mounted a convincing rebuttal. Intended for an audience unfamiliar with the scholarly terrain, Eye of the Beholder blends entertaining data culled from the history of Dutch Golden Age art, early modern European optics, and the history and correspondence of the Royal Society with perfunctory historical context, folding in neither original research nor non-English-language scholarship. Unlike Vermeers silent meditations on space and light, the book chatters along, concluding more or less where it began in asserting a relationship that cannot be demonstrated. (Tracing connections between Van Leeuwenhoek who used well-documented instruments to plumb the depths of specimens at hand and Galileo who trained his telescope on distant sights and published his observations might have proven more effective.) Laura Snyder posits that both Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek were employing optical instruments as artificial eyes to supplement the natural organs of sight and thereby looked beyond the immediately apparent to see more than meets the eye. Insisting on a parallel doesnt make it so, or at least not in the eye of this beholder.
Claudia Swan is a scholar of Dutch Golden Age art history and the author of several publications on early modern art and science. She is a Professor of Art History at Northwestern University.