Posts Tagged ‘Camera obscura’

Vermeer-blogI have long been intrigued by Vermeer’s talent, observation and his secrets.

What is clear to me is that he did not use a camera obscura, first because the camera obscura was in open use at the time, and not a secret; and second because the camera obscura is a toy.

Vermeer’s science is of a different magnitude altogether. It is camera obscura on steroids.. There is a painting by Vermeer in which he shows part of his equipment. In “The Music Lesson” there is a mirror over the virginal, and I have scoured that mirror for evidence. Part of me was hoping to see the artist’s easel and his feet reflected, but part of me expected to find a camera obscura.

This is that mirror, but I am at a loss to identify the reflection.

In the brilliant documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison recreates the setting and the optics required to produce an image such as Vermeer did.

It is illogical to think that the perfect lettering in the lid of the virginal could have been produced in simple eyeballing observation, or even with such a crude instrument as a camera obscura. Even a modern camera could not define such perfect detail. No, the instruments used would have to be better and more accurate than our cameras, and it would have had to allow matching, not of outlines, but of colour.

Tim Jenison, though as series of brilliant insights, recreated such an instrument.

He constructed and then abandoned a camera obscura; he combined the lens of the camera with a convex focusing mirror, and than he used key device: a standard mirror. But how could such a system be developed in the 17th century, when our advanced science has been incapable of it?

Enter the second Dutch genius. Antonie van Leuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope, was Vermeer’s neighbour, friend, and collaborator. The following is an extract from a letter that Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London in 1685:

‘A week later, a needle pricked my finger, and drops of wet blood oozed out. I dabbed the red drops with a cloth, but then placed one droplet before the lens and peered in. Tiny round pomegranate red cells swirled around, their centers concave. I showed Johannes. “God is incredible,” he cried. “Even in the most minute aspects of our lives, there are miracles.” He kept gazing at the blood. “May I move the lens”? He turned and held the tiny glass sphere up to the window, then to the brick buildings on the opposite side of the canal, and then to the canal itself. Off the boats, water dripped. The light vibrated fragily, and cast a tiny spark on the wall behind him.

“I want to buy such a lens, but larger.”


He stared at the reflection on the wall. “I am yet not sure.” I gave him the name of the glass grinder in Leiden.’

Many people think that we are on a pinnacle of civilisation, that our modern age has some genius that other times lacked. I believe the contrary. That our modern value is materialism. That the true genius of all ages belonged to Plato and Pythagoras, and Da Vinci, and Vermeer, and Mozart, and John Ruskin.

It was Mozart who said: ‘Love, love, love alone, is genius.’




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