A box of tricks

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces

Philip Steadman (Oxford, 17.99)

Reviewed by Brian Sewell

The most explicit 17th century description in English of the camera obscura was sent by Henry Wotton, diplomat, to Francis Bacon, philosopher, scientist and devious politician, in 1620, 12 years before Vermeer was born.

It was of "the little black tent" that enabled Johannes Keppler, mathematician and astronomer to Emperor Rudolf II, to make a topographical survey of astonishing accuracy (and, by revolving the tent, to make a panorama), but he concludes with the observation that to paint landscapes with such a device would be "illiberal, though surely no painter can do them so precisely".

Some of us must quarrel with his use of the word illiberal, for surely, in the context of the seven liberal arts, of which all serious painters of the century were more than peripherally aware, theirs then a learned profession, to paint a landscape of absolute accuracy must have been for some the highest possible achievement, logical, arithmetical and geometrical.

Surely this is exactly what Vermeer did when he painted his View of Delft, the one picture that above all his others convinces some of us that he had at his command some optical device, so serene and still, so ordered and so orderly and yet so uncomposed and arbitrary that any one of us could, with nothing better than a Kodak Brownie, have captured this segment of a panorama.

No doubt the painter's sensibility came into play, as later it did with Canaletto, a building moved from here to there or changed in scale and emphasis, particular falls and qualities of light chosen above others and retained in his mind's eye, a particular cloud formation preferred for its enhancement of a barely perceptible perspective, so obscured is it by the buildings on the waterfront.

The view is now so much changed that Philip Steadman, professor of architecture and town planning at University College, London, scarcely deals with the picture in his study of Vermeer and the camera obscura, but it has long nudged the sceptic ignorant of geometry and optics into the almost unwilling recognition that Vermeer was neither sitting on the quayside in the wind and rain dabbing at a damp canvas, nor standing in a warm, dry studio concocting a composition from a set of townscape sketches, but exercising some kind of scientific magic - the effect, it must be admitted, much reduced by recent cleaning, its surface now raw and flayed of subtleties.

Vermeer studies of the past have not been entirely blighted by the unwillingness of art historians to recognise the possibility that he used optical aids in the construction of his compositions - such factors as his training as a painter, the development of his independent aesthetic sensibility, his changes in style and the handling of paint have all been worth a moment's thought and our views of these are not necessarily affected by Steadman's 20 years of study concentrated solely on Vermeer's use of the camera obscura.

Steadman has been to extraordinary lengths to prove his point, reconstructing Vermeer's studio and the interiors and furnishings of his painted rooms, taking the angle and strength of light's fall into account, considering every possible argument for and against his hypothesis, even to pondering the reasons for Vermeer's failure to reproduce a hanging picture by Baburen to its known proportions. His photographs of reconstructed interiors compared with the paintings prove his hypothesis, but they also demonstrate, with absolute clarity, that Vermeer the painter made significant adjustments to the work of Vermeer the semi-scientist.

This is a necessary book. It does not reduce to dust all others on Vermeer and one might argue that it merely tidies away a minor mystery - but it does more than that, for it is, as it were, an introductory history of the camera obscura long before it was used and perhaps perfected by or for Vermeer, opening our eyes to its wide spread in his day. Written in clear and simple terms, illustrated with diagrams that even the purblind idiot can comprehend, this is exegesis at its most intelligent; at last we understand what some had always instinctively suspected and maintained - that both the manifest distortions of Vermeer's interior spaces and his dextrous use of minute blobs of paint as highlights where we hardly expect them were commanded by ground glass lenses and the camera.

In the realm of imaginary conversations, the fanciful may care to think of Vermeer and his exact and almost as short-lived contemporary Spinoza, philosopher and lens-grinder extraordinary, discussing the construction of the perfect camera obscura, for in 17th century Holland - indeed the whole of Europe from Prague to Copenhagen - the lens was a thing of serious enquiry and application, a thing with which to educate even the eye of genius.

Associated Newspapers Ltd., 19 March 2001

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