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Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth…
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Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

by Philip Steadman

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1163163,360 (3.5)5
Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of seventeenth-century optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an accurate image for artists to trace. However, it is Steadman's meticulousreconstruction of the artist's studio, complete with a camera obscura, which provides exciting new evidence to support the view that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.These findings do not challenge Vermeer's genius but show how, like many artists, he experimented with new technology to develop his style and choice of subject matter. The combination of detailed research and a wide range of contemporary illustrations offers a fascinating glimpse into a time ofgreat scientific and cultural innovation and achievement in Europe.… (more)

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There has been a huge amount of speculation about Johannes Vermeer's paintings. It is generally agreed that the perspective is too perfect and so it is suspected that he must have used some sort of mechanical contrivance to help him get the right perspective. This particular book pursues the idea that Vermeer used some sort of camera obcscura. (Basically a very large pin-hole camera ...and in this case, probably with a convex lens). I have read a book by David Hockney where he makes a case for Vermeer using a camera lucida (which is not really a camera at all but ...usually some sort of crystal of calcite which doubly refracts the light so you can see the image with one eye and draw the image with the other). I also recall reading an article (I think) in Scientific America where they compared Vermeer's drawing of a chandelier with a camera version ....As I recall they concluded that it was not exact but he probably had used something like a camera obscura.
The current book goes into great detail about whether Vermeer had access to the technology, How it was possible for him to employ the techniques of the camera obscura? And, although the documentation seems totally absent they are able to make a reasonable case for Vermeer to have had access to the technology and to have employed it. They even go to the trouble to actually make models and full sized sets to see the kind of views that Vermeer would have had.
they do devote a lot of effort to describing how Vermeer's paintings are blurry where they might have been blurry because of vignetting or because of problems focussing his lens. Actually, I'm not totally convinced by this sort of argument. For Vermeer to use the camera obscura, he didn't have to sit inside his darkened box the whole time. All he really needed to do was to establish the main lines of his painting and afterwards he could have totally done away with the device and compared colours directly with the real model etc. It's actually very difficult to trace directly over a photographic image and paint to that image......mainly because real life objects often or generally don't have nice hard lines outlining them. A three dimensional face, for example has shadows and tones but doesn't have a nice neat outline which can be traced. Sure you can trace something like the outline but one has to be prepared, when painting, to replace that hard line with slightly darker tones....depending on the lighting.
It's actually rather amusing that people should consider this "cheating". The artists were happy to use every tool at their disposal to give a close likeness to reality. Durer actually illustrates some techniques implying threads and a sighting point.
Am I convinced that Vermeer used a camera obscura like device? Well pretty much. Does it matter to me? No. Not really. I guess my main interest in the subject is curiosity and in the detective work that has gone into proving the case.
An interesting book. Maybe becoming a little tedious with all the effort to prove a point but without any documentary evidence. I give it 3.5 stars. ( )
  booktsunami | Sep 4, 2019 |
There have been many times I’ve looked at a piece of art and wondered how they created it. From Escher’s mind-blowing drawings to Calder’s amazingly delicate mobiles, how artists engineer their art is almost as interesting as the art itself. In Vermeer’s Camera, Philip Steadman painstakingly details the use of the camera obscura in Vermeer’s paintings. His investigations not only gives us a peek at the artist’s technique and practical knowledge, but also illuminate the very intriguing intersection of science and art.

Steadman’s history of Vermeer’s works start with the invention of the camera obscura, a room or a box which focuses light from a scene onto a wall or canvas for the artist to trace and paint against. Many of Vermeer’s paintings are set in the corner of the same room and different scenes are depicted. Officer and Laughing Girl, The Concert, The Music Lesson, The Geographer, and Lady Standing at the Virginals all seem to show the same room, but from slightly different angles. Steadman first traces the exact building Vermeer used through historical maps and tax documents, then geometrically analyzes the works to derive exactly where Vermeer would have set up his camera. The science and research presented are astounding (but I would not expect anything less from the Oxford University Press).

In the end, Steadman work finds a way to put the reader more into the paintings than the paintings themselves do. The writing is technical but still readable. The history of the camera obscura was actually more lengthy than I though it would be. Vermeer’s work now seems a bit more masterful after reading this, and puts him in the class of the American painter Thomas Eakins, who used both still and moving pictures to aid in his art. If you’re at all interested in classical Dutch painting, this one is a very good book. A classy and enlightening read. ( )
  NielsenGW | Oct 18, 2014 |
A brilliant book about the use of the camera obscura by the famous 17th century dutch artist. Steadman's argument relies heavily on the geometric reconstruction of Vermeer's studio, made possible by the regular tilling of the floor and by the singular fact that in The Music Lesson there is a mirror showing a small portion of the back wall and the floor behind what is shown in the picture. This allows the author to produce three dimensional reconstructions of the room, both in drawings, in a scaled model, and in a real size model, that are used to compare photographic stills with the real paintings and study several aspects of Vermeer's technique. The geometric arguments adduced in chapters 5 to 7 are absolutely brilliant and utterly convincing. The book has an associated website which, although it does not substitute its extendend and carefully argued reasoning, it is a very good complement to it. I wish I had read this book before attending the 2001 Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery: I would have watched some of the paintings with whole new eyes. ( )
  FPdC | May 23, 2010 |
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