Painters and Optical Devices (Part 1 Vermeer)

While writing a recent post describing how painters have depicted three-dimensional space I started thinking about a related topic that is also interesting. I’m referring to the influence of optical devices – mostly cameras and photography – on the way representational painters have depicted the world around them.

Once again let’s look at three painters working in different centuries and note the ever expanding influence of optical devices.

Let’s start the discussion by looking at the work of 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.

We should begin by noting that there is no documented evidence that Vermeer used any optical devices. Also, his draftsmanship is so impressive that it’s obvious he didn’t need help when drawing a scene. His paintings, however, contain interesting hints that he may have used some version of a camera obscura. Here are two examples:

"Officer and Laughing Girl" an oil painting by Vermeer

In Officer and Laughing Girl, painted in 1660, we can see the gross distortion of size between the two figures seated near each other. The man is disproportionately larger than the girl in a way that echoes a camera’s view if the lens were crowding the scene. Today we are so familiar with distortions produced by the camera that we hardly notice this size discrepancy.

"Girl with a Red Hat" an oil painting by Vermeer

In another painting by Vermeer – Girl With A Red Hat painted in 1665 – there are subtle touches such as highlights on the chair handle that mimic an effect known in the optics world as “circles of confusion.” These overlapping, seemingly floating, circles of light are hard to see with the naked eye but quite pronounced when viewing a scene through the translucent glass of a camera obscura.

Even though he may have used a camera obscura, the overall compositions in Vermeer’s images hold true to the conventions of 17th century Dutch painting. For example, major lines in the composition run parallel to the edges of the art work giving the viewer a sense of order and stability. The merchant class subjects in their comfortable settings also show that there is order in the world for those who are deserving.

Although he was a traditional studio painter at heart, we can see hints of the camera obscura in Vermeer’s work.

The next post in this series will look at the work of 19th century French painter Edgar Degas.

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