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Cheating Vermeer

Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005

Did the ‘Camera Obscura’ have a role in helping Johannes Vermeer create his fantastic works of art?

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Visitors examine a painting in a Vermeer exhibition Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Professor Martin Kemp, art historian at Oxford University, believes that paintings such as "The Lacemaker" show features that look very similar to what you would expect to see through the poor quality lens that would have been in use at the time. An example is seen in the highlights that are out of focus where they blur into ‘circles of confusion’.

Jason Brooks is an artist whose own work imitates photography. His view is that Vermeer probably did use a Camera Obscura because his paintings show qualities such as diffused highlights and the perspective.

However, Alex Ruger of the National Gallery disagrees with the notion that Vermeer copied an image produced by a Camera Obscura in his studio. He thinks that whilst Johannes may well have been inspired by the properties of images produced by the camera obscura, he was an artist who had both the talent and ability to work from his imagination.

Listen to Caryn Franklin’s views on Vermeer’s paintings:

Do you think that Vermeer used a camera obscura?

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Copyright The Open University

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I definitely think Vermeer did use a camera obscura because of the way I learnt to read his paintings. And certainly the focus, the depth of field, and the quite graphic appearance of the way he used light and shade, indicated to me that he was seeing things photographically.

Does this make him a cheat?

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Copyright The Open University

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I don’t think it makes him a cheat at all, I think it makes him a visionary and someone with a very modern approach to imagery. And so he’s a pathfinder as far as I’m concerned, you know all artists work with tools, whether it be brushes, textures of paints or other instruments to apply the paint and this is another tool, this is another way of seeing things. And the fact of the matter is he was an excellent craftsman, his technique and his skill was already well established before he added camera obscura to what he did.

What do you make of the controversy?

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Copyright The Open University

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I think the fact that there is controversy around this is interesting because it’s almost as though, well once we know the answer we’ll think differently about the paintings and about his work, and I don’t think there’s any need to. I rather like the fact that we really can’t go back and find out for sure, so there’s a certain amount of guesswork, and everyone then can stand in front of his paintings and have an opinion. And that’s part of the pleasure of art, is we each have a relationship, an individual relationship, with what we see.

What did you discover making the film?

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Copyright The Open University

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That’s been one of the enjoyable things about making this film, is it’s taught me to read images differently, and I certainly look at Vermeer’s paintings in a very different way now that I understand the process involved. It’s also made me think about looking at other paintings differently because it allows for the fact that there was a lot more going on in the creation of artwork than perhaps we know about.

Regardless of whether Johannes Vermeer used the Camera Obscura it is without doubt that his works are inspirational. The National Gallery in London held an exhibition entitled ‘Vermeer and the Delft school’ in 2001, featuring thirteen paintings by the great man himself accompanied by works by other notable Delft artists, such as De Hooch, Gerard Houckgeest and Leonaert Bramer. The National Gallery has the two paintings as part of its own collection.

Other paintings by Vermeer are held by the National Gallery of Scotland, Kenwood, Hampstead and Buckingham Palace. There are a number of Camera Obscuras around the country, many of which are open to the public.

The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London

The Iveagh Bequest - Kenwood, Hampstead Lane, Hampstead, London. Tel: 020 8348 1286

Buckingham Palace

Viewers' responses

Great craftsmen

Does it really matter if Vermeer did use all visual aid available to him within his time like Jason Brookes today he still had incredible colourization and painting skills. If we asked children to paint any image straight over the top of a photograph would they all be identical? I don’t believe they would, therefore it is surely the individual’s interpretation of an image that matters not the tools used to assist in its production. Why do we label these great craftsman and artists as cheats?
Your Respectfully
Tim Serle

The evidence is irrefutable

Clearly the controversy surrounding the use (or not) of the Camera Obscura by artists such as Vermeer (and Leonardo and Canaletto, among others) is not going to go away. Those who refute the use of the Camera Obscura however seem, thankfully, to be losing ground. I say this because what is important both then, now and in the future is that we keep our minds open to each and every possibility. Those who continue to deny the importance of the Camera Obscura in the History of Art and Science seek to preserve the mystique of "the Artist", not the truth.

In the Mauritshaus next to the "View of Delft" is a plaque claiming that Vermeer did not use a Camera Obscura because "the height of the Nieuw Kerk has been reduced to emphasise the horizontality of the composition". However, only three miles away, in Delft is another plaque, in the porch of the Nieuw Kerk itself, telling us that the "addition to the height of the building" was done over 50 years after Vermeer died! Arthur K Wheelock in his biblical study of Vermeer goes to great lengths to disprove the use of the Camera Obscura, using complex arguments concening his use of perspective, all of which are equally flawed. He argues also that Pieter de Hooch changed the rules of perspective to suit various compositions, and uses two paintings by example. Simple observation of these works show how mistaken he was. A more convincing case of ignoring the obvious would be difficult to find, even at the time of a General Election! There are too many references to the use of the Camera Obscura by artists and scientists from 1000 A.D. onwards for the significance of the instrument to be denied any longer. If using the Camera Obscura was good enough for Leonardo da Vinci, then it should be good enough for us lesser motals. The evidence is there if one cares to look for it and it is irrefutable. Those Art Historians who feel such antipathy to this evidence are vainly attempting to deny the facts, perhaps to preseve their own misguided sense of superiority. They stand condemned. Their small minds preventing them from seeing what really matters.
The Truth

Making a Camera Obscura

I watched this morning’s debate, about Vermeer and his possible use of a Camera Obscura, with great interest. There was a series on 2 where a professor trundled about the UK in a weird suit and on a bicycle with a trailer. One of his editions concerned the Camera Obscura. I would love to be able to sketch my house and garden, but my artistic skills are very poor and my sense of perspective even worse. Is it possible to make a simple Camera Obscura and where would I obtain plans?
Many thanks
Brian McNicholas

You might find some ideas on the following websites:
The Magic Mirror of Life
Vermeer's Camera

 

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