Picture it – 17th century

Sorry, Orson has left the building.
Being ill can have advantages. For example one can read through all the books that lie around, unnoticed now, once it was so important to get this by library or “Fernleihe” … as “Bildwelten des Wissens”, Kunsthistorisches Jahrbuch für Bildkritik, Band 2,2, Berlin 2004. Titel of this volume: Instrumente des Sehens, edited by A. Fischel. Here i found a small article that grabbed my whole attention: Vermeer and the Problem of Painting Inside the Camera obscura by Philipp Steadman (76-86).

Jan Vermeer is a Dutch painter of the 17th century (1631-1675), who lived in Delft. The English wikipedia-article is not as detailed as the German one, and omits in the description of his life the small but important fact, that Vermeer was elected Dean of the St.-Lucas-guilt for several times in the 1660s and 1670s. The guilts were an important tool for the bourgoise self-administration in a medieval and early-modern town. They did not elect an unimportant poor “Hansel”, but it was an authoritative position and the keeper surely was expected to represent from his own means, and not on the costs of his fellow-masters. We re in a fully developed capitalist society here. Nevertheless he died poor and his widow had financial troubles, maybe the war between France and the Netherlands 1672-1679 played a role. He seemingly did not sell very much pictures on the marked but worked for customers and patrons.
His oeuvre is small, not more as 37 (some say 35) pictures are today adscribed to the master’s hands. He is famous for his small, detailed interiors. You have the feeling you could step in and have a talk and a glass of wine with the people. On this site you can dive in Vermeer’s world. And if you want to fly over the 17th century Delft, have a look here.

Of course the old masters used tools, and the knowledge of the camera obscura is old. But until now I did not know that Vermeer’s use of such a construction is not just a strong suspicion, but has to be seen as a fact. Here is an interview with Steadman about his book and the reactions on his theses and finds. And as I can see now there is no clear rejection by the “specialists”. In the small article that started my search Steadman says that Vermeer could have handeld color within the camera, directly on the canvas. It would be possible to do it, he built the thing and tried it out. There is picture of an elderly man inside the camera booth. I would like to know whether Steadman was able to reconstruct or give details about the lens Vermeeer used.

Writing about Vermeer is incomplete without at least mentioning Han van Meegeren, the master forger, again the German article being much more detailed.
Today van Meegeren’s work is a collectible for itself and he was honoured with retrospectives of his oeuvre, like Konrad Kujau later, who came to fame because of the Hitler diaries, but was an excellent painter and master-forger in his own right. Ironically forged “Kujau’s” were sold on e-bay some years ago … I liked Konny, he died 2000. Oh, and Orson: Here.


7 thoughts on “Picture it – 17th century

  1. This post stirred up a lot of memories from my childhood when I took a shoe box and made a pin hole in one end and cut out the other end and put some kind of paper over it so that a reversed image would appear. Then I placed paper over the back of an opened camera with the lens set open and could see the image being projected where the film would be. And I like the idea that the art is to conceal the art, to stimulating sensations in our mind without us realizing how they did it.

  2. Yes – conceal, hide, let just the result be there, hide all the hints how it was done. On Vermeer’s pictures there is no evidence that he used helping lines or pre-drawings (“Vorzeichnungen”, sketches. I very much like optical illusions and “trompe l’oeil”, the renaissance/baroque “trick” painting. As students we were always told to learn to see. It is even more important today with all the manipulative possibilities.

  3. I think I made a pinhole camera as a child too. The best picture I took was using a very old Brownie camera when I was 10 years old. It was a purple flower in the woods. To this day I’m still proud of that picture.

  4. Thanks for the introduction to a master.Amazing use of light , am intrigued by Little street and View of delft.Somehow I keep looking for the raw energy of my favourite, the vibrant lines, but that’s wrong, isn’t it?

  5. PortiaThank you! Hope life stops chewing!Lily StrangeIs that what you use as an avatar? What makes the relation to the picture? There are one or two pictures I am proud of, some I like, and others I do not care of. But I do not really know what it makes.austereYes, the light: He did it, he is at the beginning of this “Golden age” of the netherlandish painting. He showed us the light.Your favourite? Van Gogh? What is wrong? I forgot something?You know Velazquez? I am terrible …

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