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Vermeer and the Camera Obscura, Part Three

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Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

(part three)

Why and how did Vermeer Employ the Camera Obscura

Although scholars are not in agreement exactly to what extent Vermeer employed the camera obscura as an aid to his painting, few doubt that he was familiar with its workings and employed it in some phase of his working procedure. There are essentially five characteristics of Vermeer's paintings that suggest the use of a camera obscura: perspective, tonal rendering, composition, handling of light and some peculiar visual effects produced uniquely by the imperfect lens of the 17th-century camera obscura.


The accurate portrayal of three dimensional space through perspective has been recently understood to have played a more important role in Vermeer's art than was once thought. Throughout Europe the study of perspective was held in high esteem. One of Vermeer 's painting was praised by the Dutch connoisseur Pieter Teding van Berckhout (1643-1713) as "curious and exceptional perspectives."

Many Dutch painters possessed at least a working knowledge of perspective. In reality however, the implied three dimensional spaces in their many of their paintings, with the exception of perhaps ornate church interiors, could be easily achieved without resorting to complicated mathematical calculations usually associated with the study of perspective. Early interior genre scenes display only incidental application of perspective to resolve isolated problems such as checkered floor tiling. However, when painters such as De Hooch, De Witte and Vermeer began to investigate the possibility of representing elegant upper middle-class house interiors in a coherent and rational way, a more detailed knowledge of the theory of perspective became indispensable.

Such complicated perspectives were first worked out in preparatory drawings on paper. The drawing could then be transferred efficiently to the painter's canvas with the pouncing method. A few surviving examples of preparatory drawings by Pieter Saendredam show the care with which he worked out the perspective before approaching the painting phase. However, since not even a single preparatory drawing of Vermeer exists, just how he solved perspective is a matter of speculation. Moreover, two other methods were available for solving more rapidly perspective. The first, was extremely practical and well know to painters of the time, including Vermeer. Jørgen Wadum reveals that a pinhole, rarely visible to the naked eye but evident in x-ray images, which is found in place of the vanishing point of 13 of Vermeer's interior paintings, "contains evidence of Vermeer's system, by which he inserted a pin, with a string attached to it, into the grounded canvas at the vanishing point. With this string he could reach any area of his canvas to correct orthogonals, the straight lines that meet in the central vanishing point."1 For an in-depth study of the pinhole and string method please consult: Jørgen Wadum, "Vermeer in Perspective," in Johannes Vermeer edited by Arthur Wheelock (New Haven, 1995, pp. 67-79).

La perspective curieuse, 'Magie articielle des effets merveilleux de l'optique par la vision directe
Nicéron, Jean François
Paris, 1663

The second method, even more practical, involved the camera obscura. Contemporary writers on optics had noted the potential of the camera obscura for perspective construction. In 1652, Jean-François Nicéron published his La perspective curieuse in which he wrote the image produced by the booth type camera was so vivid that if "the painter imitates all the shapes he sees, and if he applies to them the colors that appear so vividly, he will have a perspective as perfect as one could reasonably desire." Thus, it is entirely possible that Vermeer may have opted not to employ the complicated system of perspective as his fellow painters did.

Philip Steadman ( Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, 2002), who has to date conducted the most detailed and rigorous study of the camera obscura's relation to Vermeer's painting, launched a very interesting hypothesis regarding the rendering of perspective in Vermeer 's painting. According to Steadman, not only did Vermeer use the camera obscura as a device to explore visual phenomena and adjust his compositions, but he also traced the camera obscura's image by projecting it directly onto his canvas automatically resolving any problems related to perspective. Steadman's theory has been debated by such notable Vermeer scholars such as Arthur k. Wheelock Jr. and Walter Liedtke who believes that Vermeer used the camera obscura in a more occasional and less systematic way. Jørgen Wadum believes that the evidence of the pin hole method in Vermeer's paintings offer sufficient proof of how the artist worked out problems of perspective.


Composition played a fundamental role in Vermeer's paintings. Through subtle manipulation of compositional elements the artist was able to convey an underlying sense of order and timelessness to fleeting moments of daily life. Perhaps one can understand just how important composition was in Vermeer's painting by the numerous alterations he made during the painting process. He changed the positions of arms and fingers to create precisely the gesture he desired, edges of maps were moved to the left or right to add stability to the composition and the contours of the young women's garments were altered to make them more elegant and fluid. Chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, a standing cavalier and even a dog can no longer be seen where they were originally represented. Vermeer probably painted them out in the underpainting stage having seen that they did not create the desired compositional and expressive effect.

"Apart from offering interesting pictorial effects, the camera obscura was a handy compositional instrument, suggesting new ways to frame a scene and automatically translating a complex arrangement in three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image."2 The effect that changes in the position of the various objects on the composition could be immediately gauged on the camera's screen. Although there can be no doubt that Vermeer possessed one of the most uncanny senses of composition in the history of western art, he probably owed much to the camera obscura for the ease and accuracy with which he could experiment with numerous solutions.

Tonal Value

Another very important advantage of the camera obscura is that it narrows the hopelessly wide range of brightness found in nature to a more limited number of tonal values reproducible by the painter's pigments.

Tone itself, the relative lightness or darkness of a color, is not always easily evaluated by the naked eye and has always been a problem when painters wished to represent various lighting conditions convincingly. There are essentially two reasons for this. The first is that the mind tends compensate diversities in tonal values for the sake of recognition. For example, if we observe with the naked eye a candid white handkerchief in broad daylight, it obviously appears white. The same handkerchief observed under the deep shadow cast by nearby tree appears nonetheless white. For the sake of recognition the white handkerchief must remain white to the mind, whether it is brightly or darkly light. The painter however, in order to distinguish the two lighting conditions within the same picture must paint the first handkerchief with pure white pigment, while the second must be painted with one of the infinite shades of gray, for example, by the mixture of white, black and a bit of umber, a mixture quite common used in Vermeer's time for toning down white.

The second is that the human eye, similar to the modern camera with automatic aperture control, almost instantaneously adapts to different lighting situations permitting us to see to greater advantage and evaluate more accurately what we are at the moment observing. This impedes us to see the relative values of tone which are necessary to the painter's art.

Instead, the camera obscura, represents the various tones of dark and light in such proximity that they can easily be judged against one another. The correct evaluation of tone in Vermeer's painting is one of the least evident but most convincing ways of representing various lighting conditions.

"Vermeer's obsession with light, tonal values, shadow and colour, for the treatment of which his work is so much admired, are very closely bound up with his study of the special qualities of optical images"3 : feelings, confirmed by Lawrence Gowing, author of one of the subtle interpretations of the painter's work. "Gowing shares the general view that ' Vermeer made use of the camera obscura.' Unlike other critics however, Gowing goes on to claim that ' Vermeer is alone in putting it to the service of style rather than the accumulation of facts.' What Gowing calls the painter's 'explanatory vocabulary', his 'interruption and denial of line,' his 'optical impartiality.' and above all the 'unvarying adequacy, the uniform success of his method' - all these can be attributed, as Gowing argues, to a technique which depend on careful, prolonged observation of patterns of light falling on the camera obscura."4

Gowing, believed that an x-ray photograph of the face of the Girl with a Pearl Earring constitutes evidence of the artist's painting method and strongly points to the use of the camera obscura. X-rays images reveal the presence of lead, which is the primary component of lead-white, the principal white pigment used by painters in Vermeer's time. Gowing assumes that the white areas of the image correspond the underpainting stage and constitute a direct transcription of the incidence of light on the screen of the camera obscura. Particularly suggestive of the camera obscura's effect is the perfectly spherical highlight (right below) of the pearl earring which has been altered in the final version, the same goes for the dim highlight of the eye to the right hand side of the painting. Afterwards "the artist, evidently proceeded, in finishing the picture, to mediate between objectivity and convention."5

Did Vermeer Hide his Camera Obscura?

We do not know if Vermeer made public his use of the camera obscura, but neither a complete apparatus nor lenses of any sort were found in his studio after his death. Thus, the camera obscura began to be associated with the artist on in the late 1800s with the advent of modern photography.

On one hand, the camera obscura had been openly publicized and enthusiastically recommended to painters by Constantijn Huygens, the Dutch connoisseur par excellence. On the other, the enigmatic painter Johannes Torrentius attempted to hide from Huygens the fact that he had used the device in his own canvases (of which only one has survived).

As Huygens raccounts in his memoirs, when he showed up at the artist’s studio and demonstrated how a camera obscura that he had acquired in London functions, the painter, "on seeing the projections, pretended not to know how the apparatus worked. He had asked innocently if the dancing figures on the screen were life figures outdoors. This question surprised Huygens, the instrument had, after all, been shown to many painters and everybody knew about it. Huygens suspected ‘this cunning fox’, when painting, of using such an instrument to achieve his special effects."

Torrentius, then must have already known the device and had achieved, according to Huygens, "especially by this means [the camera obscura] that certain a quality in his paintings which the general run of people ascribe to divine inspiration."

Thus, the camera was lauded by Huygens but concealed by the only Dutch 17th-century artist other than Vermeer who is known to have actually used it as an aid to painting.

Could it be that Vermeer, like Torrentius, chose s to hide his involvement with the camera in order not to diminish his artistic accomplishments in the eyes of his contemporaries? If he desired so, he must have had a difficult time.

Huygens lived an hour's walk from Vermeer's Delft and was likely very aware of Vermeer's presence and was the principal promoter of the device amongst Dutch artists. Moreover, anyone familiar with the camera has no trouble tracing various stylistic peculiarities of Vermeer’s paintings to the camera's image produced by imperfect lens and focal limits.

Another property of the camera obscura's image that can be found in Vermeer's painting is chromatic intensity of colored objects in deep shadows. When the camera obscura concentrates the colors found in nature into a very restricted area, they seem more intensely colored that they do when seen by the naked eye. Vermeer must have noticed this phenomena when he painted the deep blue shadows of the woman's wrap in the Rijksmuseum Milkmaid. Painters like Gerrit Dou or Pieter de Hooch, two genre painters very near to Vermeer, tend to be render deeper shadowed with uniform dark neutral grays.

Peculiar Effects Produced by the Camera Obscura

The Lacemaker
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1669-1671
Oil on canvas on panel, 24.5 x 21 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

"Limitations of the technical perfection of the early camera obscura account for some of the arresting effects that have been noted in Vermeer's paintings. Despite their astonishing accuracy, 17th-century lenses did not focus with complete precision through the entire depth of fields. Like objects through the camera obscura, Vermeer's forms are defined by contrasting areas of light and dark color rather than by hard outlines. This clear, smooth, but soft-edged contouring often yields geometric abstraction, of the sort seen in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Here the shape of the head is conceived in broad areas of light and dark, separated by softly rounded edges. The camera obscura also produces differentiation of focus throughout the depth of field, leaving objects in for- and background planes blurred while giving sharper images of the middle ground. In most of Vermeer's paintings such a sharp differentiation is avoided, but the effect is evident in early works such as the Little Street and insistent in the late Girl with a Red Hat."6

The effects of imperfect focus in the camera obscura also produced the so called pointillès found in many of Vermeer's paintings, most notably in the View of Delft, the Milkmaid and the Lacemaker. Vermeer's pointillès, globular touches of thick opaque paint, usually pure white or slightly yellowish in tone, upon close inspection, "resemble nothing so much as the fuzzy, overlapping sequins of light that appear in an out-of-focus photograph and are referred to as 'discs of confusion' by photographers." 7

The disks of confusion seen on the screen of a camera obscura occur in the place of natural highlights, bright reflections of various forms and intensities frequently seen with the naked eye on shiny surfaces such as glass or polished metal. "If a small highlight of this type, whatever its shape, is not brought exactly into focus at the viewing plane, its image becomes spread out into a circle (or disk) of confusion. "8 Thus, Vermeer has voluntarily imitated a byproduct of the camera obscura which cannot be perceived in normal circumstances by the naked eye.


Although no single of the above considerations can prove that Vermeer used the camera obscura, their combined presence has convinced modern scholarship that the device was indeed a central part of the artist's working methods. An eventual systematic use of the camera obscura would not, in reality, neither diminish nor contradict, but rather, would be in line with the underlying fundamental artistic intent of the great part of Vermeer's oeuvre.

"It was in the camera obscura perhaps, behind thick curtains, that he entered the world of ideal, undemanding relationships. There he could spend the hours watching the silent women move to and fro."9

In a recent interview, Mr. D. Huerta, author of Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers : The Parallel Search for Knowledge During the Age of Discovery, perhaps furnishes a very useful consideration in regards: "Focusing the debate on the issue of whether or not Vermeer used the camera obscura will not prove as fruitful as concentrating on the manner of Vermeer’s use of that instrument. Vermeer’s use of instrumental adjuncts does not conflict with his art, but rather allows us—if we investigate that use—to better understand the nature of his creativity."

Philip Steadman has also offered some very interesting considerations in merit in an exclusive Essential Vermeer interview.

pervious next
  1. By painstakingly reconstructing the three dimensional space of ten of Vermeer's interiors using the method of "inverse perspective," Steadman deduced that they were all painted in the same room. He then was able to deduce the exact measurements of the rooms themselves using the measurements of a few objects represented in Vermeer's painting which have survived till today, such as the maps which hang on the far wall and the Spanish chairs. Based on these calculations Steadman arrives at the his key finding which he states in a reply to his critics in Vermeer's Camera.
    "For each of the ten paintings, it is possible to determine the theoretical perspective viewpoint: that point in the room in which Vermeer would have had to put his eye to see the precise view in question. The entire extents of his view - everything that is visible in the painting - is contained in a "visual pyramid" whose apex is at the back of the viewpoint. If the lines forming the edges of this pyramid are carried back to meet the wall of the room, the define a rectangle on that wall. For at least six paintings this rectangle is the size of Vermeer's canvas. " Thus according to Steadman, "the camera lens would have been positioned at the theoretical viewpoint of the picture for each composition, and the back of the wall served as the projection screen. The projected images of the room are the same sizes of Vermeer's canvases, because he has traced them."
  2. Mariët Westermann, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 286.
  3. Philip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, Oxford, 2001.
  4. ibid.
  5. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, London, 1952.
  6. Westermann, 2003, p. 266.
  7. Hans Koongsberger and the editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Vermeer: 1632-1657, New York, 1967, p. 141.
  8. Steadman, 2001.
  9. ibid.
Vermeer & the Camera Obscura


The enchanting ocular effects produced by the [camera obscura] no doubt stimulated [Vermeer's] aesthetic interest to such an extent that he often replicated them in his art. Yet at the same time Vermeer modified these effects to suit his artistic vision, often, surprisingly, exaggerating them. This is especially true of Vermeer's famous pointillés, little dots of impasto (thick lumps of paint) applied to the surfaces of his pictures in order to imitate the halations inherent to the peripheries, of gleaming objects projected by the camera obscura. Although Vermeer likely used pointillés initially to duplicate what commonly could be seen through the camera obscura, he soon realized their independent aesthetic potential. For instance, he could not have observed them on the bread depicted in The Milkmaid because the camera obscura will, as we have seen, only cause halations on projected objects that reflect light (such as metal or polished wood). Likewise, in the View of Delft Vermeer applied pointillés to the shadowy hulls of the boats moored in the water in an effort to suggest flickering reflections. Had these boats been viewed through a camera obscura, reflections would not have been present, as they were only visible in direct sunlight. It would thus be reductive to consider the View of Delft -or, for that matter, any painting by Vermeer - a simple transcription of the projected image seen by the artist through the camera obscura.

Vermeer's signature pointillés became a prominent feature of his art during his middle period and, in fact, would continue to be present, in a much modified form, in his late works. In The Milkmaid, for example, pointillés are used to impart an extraordinary tactile quality to such objects as the chunks of bread. In fact, the chunks are encrusted with so many pointillés that these dots of paint seem to exist independently of the forms they describe. An imposing tactility is also detected in other works of this phase: the carpets on the tables of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and The Glass of Wine, for example, have a palpable nubby quality that is completely different from the broad, general planes of the carpet in the early Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha.

Wayne Franits, "Johannes Vermeer: An Overview of His Life and Stylistic Evolution," in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), edited by Wayne Franits, Cambridge, 2001, pp.15-16

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces

by Philip Steadman
Girl with a Pearl Earring (radiographic image of highlight on pearl earring )
c. 1665- 1667
Oil on canvas,46.5 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Girl with a Pearl Earring (radiographic image )
c. 1665- 1667
Oil on canvas,46.5 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters
David Hockney
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