Vermeer’s Camera: afterthoughts, and a reply to critics.

6. Vermeer as a perspectivist, and Vermeer and the Delft school

Two points in conclusion, in reply to two of the most insistently-made criticisms of Vermeer's Camera. The first of these relates to the fact that in many of Vermeer's canvases there is a tiny pinhole at the central vanishing point.61 This it is said, proves that he set up his perspectives using conventional geometrical - not optica l- methods. Specifically, JØrgen Wadum has imagined Vermeer using a chalked string stretched from a pin inserted at this position. Vermeer would have plucked the string to mark chalk lines, corresponding to the images of orthogonals in the scene converging to the vanishing point (although no such lines are still detectable under the paint).62 In the book I point to some of the weaknesses of this argument: the fact that there are no other marks of perspective construction in the canvases, no discernible linear underdrawing of any kind, no surviving layout drawings on paper of the kind that exist for example from the hands of the Delft architectural painters.63 I also explain how the pinholes are quite consistent with the use of a camera technique. (If a tracing from the camera was being transferred to the canvas, a pin at the vanishing point would again have been useful for ruling the receding orthogonals.) What I did not emphasise with sufficient vigour - as has become apparent - is how inadequate Wadum's proposed method is for constructing perspectives as accomplished and accurate as Vermeer's undoubtedly are.

A pin and string provide no help in the central task: that of making perspective measurements. Wadum seems not to appreciate this point. Perhaps he has not himself set up measured perspectives on the drawing board. As I have emphasised earlier, Vermeer depicts very many real pieces of furniture and other objects, in minute detail, at their actual known sizes. As regards the architecture of the room, he shows what is undoubtedly the same space (speaking in purely geometrical terms), with similar dimensions throughout, from ten slightly differing viewpoints. All this could not conceivably have been done freehand, even by the most skilled draughtsman. Nor could it have been done just with pins and string. Had it been done using standard mathematical construction methods (which I do not believe) then that would have required a set of carefully measured drawings (plans and side views) of the room and all the furniture, and a technique, involving literally thousands of construction lines, which carried all these measurements into the foreshortened images we see in the pictures themselves. Such a method is not impossible. Piero did it in the 'Flagellation', and architects used to do it every day, before they got computers to do it for them. But there is no unequivocal physical evidence - not even the pinholes - for Vermeer having worked this way. The proposition of my book is, of course, that all this perspective precision is a consequence of Vermeer having transcribed images from the camera obscura.

The second repeatedly-made objection is that there is some necessary and intrinsic contradiction between Vermeer making extensive use of the camera, and his place in the larger tradition of 17th century Dutch painting. Walter Liedtke points for example to Vermeer's use of borrowed compositional devices and motifs, the close affinities of several of his paintings with works by Pieter de Hooch and other contemporaries, his highly sophisticated and elliptical allusions to psychological, scholarly, mythological and Biblical themes - all of which demonstrate, as Liedtke believes, that Vermeer's works are mature products of his artistic training and milieu, 'the extraordinary refinement of [his] technique and style', and 'the complexity of his artistic knowledge'.64 Of course they are. My response is that these are indeed carefully contrived imaginative constructs, but realised - as is undeniable - by the composition of real objects. Traditional subjects - 'merry companies', scholars in their studies, the painter in his studio - are recreated in carefully-lit spaces with appropriately selected real furniture, decorations and suitably costumed sitters. There is no contradiction here. As for the room depicted over and over again, ten times, it is surely perverse to insist that this consistency is a consistency of artistic fancy, rather than deriving from the fact that room was real.

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