Flemish and Dutch painting of the 16th and 17th C was so naturalistic that some (most notably, artist David Hockney) have suggested that the artists used a “camera obscura”, literally, a “dark room” that uses pinholes to project an image on a screen. Tim Jennison, a retired tech entrepreneur, thought this theory was insufficient to explain Vermeer’s work, which includes light patterns more precise than can be detected by the human eye. He set out to demonstrate that Vermeer built an actual camera. Using materials available in Vermeer’s day, Tim reconstructed an entire room used in one of Vermeer’s paintings, and built a “camera” that Vermeer might plausibly have constructed from 17th C lenses. He was able to do a credible reproduction of the painting, at least with respect to the remarkable qualities of the light, and the incredible detail of wood paneling and fabric. (He had somewhat less success with the facial expressions). During the course of his painstaking work, he discovered a minute curvature in one of the wood panels original painting — a curvature that he had fortuitously reproduced with his reconstructed “camera.”
It’s a fascinating piece of work, one that demonstrates (to me anyway) that Vermeer might have used such a contraption. We’ll likely never know the truth — artists were very jealous of their professional secrets, and it’s highly unlikely that Vermeer wrote anything down.
The movie has caused a certain amount of anger in the artistic community, which regards the suggestion that Vermeer used optical aids as an allegation of “cheating.” I don’t see why. It’s not as though painters of that era could just go and buy paint in the supermarket — they had to mix their own paints, from natural materials. The distinction between “artist” and “technologist” is a modern one, and not one that makes much sense. Vermeer’s art lies in the choice of subject, the composition, and the portrayal of personality through facial expression — the “camera” may have been just a means to an end, for getting all the relatively boring background details right.
Personal Note: When I was in Amsterdam earlier this year, I visited Rembrandt’s house, and caught a demonstration by a museum guide of Rembrandt’s paint mixing techniques. I asked the guy whether he had heard of the film Tim’s Vermeer. “Heard of it? I was in it.” There is indeed a brief scene of Rembrandt’s home studio in the film – I think I saw the back of my guy’s head. 🙂