Chapter 9: The influence of the camera on Vermeer's painting style


Did the use of the camera have consequences for Vermeer’s visual language or even his choice of subject matter? Are the minutiae of the painter’s methods at all important for the way we look at and appreciate the pictures? In this concluding chapter Steadman argues that Vermeer’s special technique was indeed bound up intimately with his special vision and his preoccupations with the effects of light. Leaning on the insights of other critics, especially Lawrence Gowing, Steadman points to the way in which Vermeer manages to achieve uncannily ‘photographic’ effects while painting in a way that is often locally imprecise, where focus is sometimes lost, where areas of colour may be simplified and flattened, texture obliterated. The camera served Vermeer as a ‘composition machine’, and allowed him to produce a perfect perspectival illusion of depth coexisting with an effect of surface flatness that can suggest mosaic or marquetry. It is even arguable that the stillness, reticence, hesitancy and psychological ambiguity that characterise Vermeer’s pictures are qualities not unrelated to his use of the camera obscura.

Vermeer's treatment of hands: a) right hand of figure from 'Girl with a Red Hat', b) left hand of central figure from 'Girl with a Wineglass', c) right hand of artist in 'Allegory of Painting'.
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