A few years ago, while visiting Europe, we were touring the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam when I came upon something I was not quite prepared for. It was the featured image of this blog post, The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. This is a relatively small oil on canvas (41 cm by 45.5)(16.1 in X 17.9 in)(1’4” X 1’6”), even by today’s standards, that stood out like a beacon in a room full of much larger works by Rembrandt and Titan. The painting was so bright, and the colors so pure, even after 400 years of fading in the sunlight, it totally blew me away.
Of course this was not the first time I had seen representations of this work of art. Vermeer has always figured prominently in my art history classes, at least those classes I took while in college. But after seeing the original piece of art, I now understood why some of my professors were quite enthusiastic about Vermeer’s art, and some were not. Those who had not seen a real Vermeer, were just going through the motions describing a bad reproduction. I now believe that those who had actually seen an actual Vermeer spent much longer discussing and were much more enthusiastic about his work. Even if they did not like Vermeer’s subject matter or the compositions.
Digitally, works by Vermeer need extended color gamut’s, like the LAB color space and graphics hardware capable of reproducing the colors. Contemporary computers and printed media cannot accurately reproduce the hues, tints, shades and tones found in many of the works by Vermeer and the other old masters. In other words, the featured image in this blog post does not do this painting justice. Neither does any printed reproduction of this image.
What has this got to do with photography? everything! I argue that Johannes Vermeer was an “early” photographer. My argument is not new. As early as 1891, Joseph Pennell proposed that Vermeer used an optical device while painting. Pennell noticed that Vermeer’s “Officer and Laughing Girl” was distorted much like a photograph taken with a short focal length lens. A lot like todays “selfies” taken with a cell phone camera. Painters directly painting a scene tend to automatically correct for these distortions in perspective.
Since Pennell’s observations, several art historians and curators have come to the same conclusion. Most notably, Mayor in 1946, Growing in 1950, Fink in 1971, Mills in 1998 and Steadman in 2002. Charles Seymour even tested the Camera Obscura hypothesis as early as 1964. Though there are still critics of this hypothesis, most dissent centers around the idea that using a device like a camera obscura in one’s work, somehow diminishes its value in artistic creativity.
Today, most art historians accept that many of the “old masters” used mechanical devices such a camera obscura, mirrors and lenses to aid them in their work. Some people have done extensive research into this hypothesis. Any way you look at the matter, my appreciation for the works of Vermeer are not diminished because I do not look at his use of camera obscura as a “gimmicky embellishment”. Rather I look at his use of the tools that were contemporarily available to him as experimentation, nothing less than tools used by a scientist exploring the natural world of optics. But with paint and a brush. If this is the case, Vermeer deserves to be mentioned along side with those we revere for showing us the natural world, Descartes, Aristotle, Kepler and his contemporary, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, a microscopist and the father of microbiology.
The Milkmaid By Johannes Vermeer – 9AHrwZ3Av6Zhjg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, Link
Officer and Laughing Girl By Johannes Vermeer – BAGeJEKy9TZJog at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, Link
A Pinhole Camera By en:User:DrBob (original); en:User:Pbroks13 (redraw) – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Pinhole-camera.png, Public Domain, Link