Vermeer, Camera Obscura, The Frame

Vermeer. The Astronomer, 1668.

There's something luminous about Vermeer. And that's the perfect word, for me. Luminous, lit-up, illuminated. His paintings seem to be creatures of light.

The pissy little thumbnail Blogger allows me above can't do the faintest justice to the glory of this work. Find it online if you haven't seen it before and look at it filling as much of your screen as you can. If you look particularly at the astronomer's head, it seems to be almost an emanation, a glowing, floating figure of light (does help to find a good sized print online to look at to really appreciate this). And at the same time it looks hyper-realistic, of course one of the attractions of the Dutch painters of the 17th century, to many. But with Vermeer it's not the same sort of drawn realism you get from other realists, the figure has a volume that seems to come from the light itself, not from line or colour or traditonal perspective. And indeed one of the anomalous things for admirers of Vermeer for centuries after his death was his use of perspective, it didn't follow the traditional rules.

It's now pretty much accepted by most that Vermeer painted with the aid of a camera obscura. A light box if you like, where the tiniest opening in one side of the otherwise darkened box projects an image of the space outside against the far side of the inside of the box. How the pinhole camera works as well. You can do it in a room, or even something as large as an aircraft hangar. The technology/technique was known already in anceint times, and has been used by many artists. It was undoubtedly used in warfare, as you could sit in the darkened room and watch what was unfolding outside without having to have any opening that might allow an arrow or other projectile to make its way in. Sometimes the camera obscura is a box large enough to accommodate the entire artist, as he or she traces the outlines of the projected scene onto the canvas or other material placed under it.

A smaller camera obscura.

The many investigations into Vermeer's methods are fascinating reading, and he didn't leave a description of what he did, so the use of the camera obscura is only a guess, but seems now backed by some very solid and itself fascinating evidence. For example X-rays of his work reveal no sketching underneath the paint, as you would expect from many painters, but instead a sort of negative image of the final done in black and white. This suggests that Vermeer used the camera obscura to fill out the volume of the spaces in the scene, and then took this (away from the device) to then do all the extensive colouring and other finishing work. It also explains why his use of perspective seems so 'photographic' - why it seemed anomalous for so long. There are also some of the aberrations you normally see in images via lenses in the paintings themselves.

Anyway, the point of all of this is not that he was some sort of artistic cheat, as the simple-minded viewer of painting who wonders why they 'didn't just take a picture' might think. To render that scene in the astonishing way that Vermeer managed to takes genius. I think Vermeer unwittingly got to the very essence of painting. He ironically demolished the whole idea that painting 'represents' a scene, an idea that paradoxically got all the stronger as photography developed, while people (I would argue) were in fact moving increasingly in the wrong direction in understanding what was going on.

I'll get onto that next time. In the meantime these lines from Goethe's theory of colour point to one aspect of where this is all going:

We now assert, extraordinary as it may in some degree appear, that the eye sees no form, inasmuch as light, shade, and colour together constitute that which to our vision distinguishes object from object, and the parts of an object from each other. From these three, light, shade, and colour, we construct the visible world, and thus, at the same time, make painting possible...

I forget sometimes what's gone into this blog previously (and because it's me just making sense of things at the time, depending on what's interesting at the time), but am pretyy sure I'd suggested that you make real progress in understanding light and colour when you drop the idea that light is something that 'shines on' things. That you have 'material' things and then you have light that either illuminates them, or doesn't. And all the shades in-between. That's what Goethe is getting at, that light and darkness are properties of things themselves. Light and dark and colour are 'physical' states of matter itself.

And this is where Vermeer gets really interesting for me. Next time.


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