For more than a hundred years it has been suggested that the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632—1675) used the camera obscura. The camera obscura was the predecessor of the photographic camera. It is a simple optical device incorporating a pinhole or lens, with which an image of a scene can be projected onto a screen. The image can then be traced and copied. Art historians have come to accept the idea that Vermeer might have been inspired by such images, or might have used the camera occasionally. Vermeer’s Camera proposes, controversially, that the painter’s use of optical aids was much more extensive than this.

The book starts by exploring the painter’s possible contacts in the world of 17th century optical science. Vermeer painted as many as a dozen pictures of one room. Steadman describes how it is possible to reconstruct the geometry of this room, and all the furniture in it, with great precision. Vermeer depicts actual chairs, tables, tiles and maps — examples of which survive today — at their exact known sizes. Steadman demonstrates how Vermeer set up a camera obscura in this room and projected images of some of his most famous works onto the back wall. The room has been rebuilt as a model and at full size, allowing photographic reconstructions of the paintings to be made. The book concludes with a discussion of the influence of optical images on Vermeer’s subject matter and style.

Vermeer 'The Music Lesson' c.1662-64 oil on canvas
Scale model of 'The Music Lesson'
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