Vermeer's camera : uncovering the truth behind the masterpieces /
Philip Steadman.
Oxford : Oxford University Press, c2001.
xiv, 207 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.), maps, ports. ; 24 cm.
More Details
Oxford : Oxford University Press, c2001.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The camera obscura

If a small hole is made in the wall of a darkened room, an image of the scene outside can be formed by light rays passing through the hole. The image may appear on a wall opposite the hole, or can be observed on a sheet of paper or other screen placed in front of the hole. The hole can be in a door, say, or in a solid wooden window shutter. This is the `camera obscura' in its original meaning, the term coming from the astronomer Kepler in the early 17th century.

    Typically the image in this kind of `pinhole' camera obscura is very dim. (`Pinhole' is perhaps misleading. In a room-sized camera the aperture might be the size of a keyhole.) For the image to be sharp, the hole must be small, and this of course limits the quantity of light admitted. The outside scene must therefore be very brightly lit--but even the image of a landscape under the Mediterranean summer sun is still faint. A person entering the darkened room must wait a few minutes for his eyes to adjust, before he can make out the picture.

    One exception is an image of the sun itself, which is immediately and clearly visible. The effect can be seen in attics under ill-fitting tiled roofs, where the sun's rays are focused through chinks between the tiles. The same can happen when sunlight penetrates thin canopies of leaves. Aristotle watched an image of the sun formed beneath a tree becoming crescent-shaped during an eclipse? In this he anticipated the main practical application of the camera obscura up until the 17th century, which was for watching solar eclipses without damaging one's eyes.

    The question of how images are formed by light as it passes through small apertures was studied by Chinese philosophers in the 8th century (and

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ing itself must be contained within a `visual pyramid', whose apex is at this viewpoint. It is possible to determine the positions of the sloping lines that form the edges of this pyramid. Suppose that these lines are continued back, through the viewpoint, to meet the back wall of the room, behind the painter. They then define a rectangular area on that wall. In at least half a dozen cases this rectangle is the precise size of the painting in question.

    My explanation for this very curious result is that Vermeer had a camera obscura with a lens at the painting's viewpoint. He used this arrangement to project the scene onto the back wall of the room, which thus served as the camera's screen. He put paper on the wall and traced, perhaps even painted from the projected image. It is because Vermeer traced the images that they are the same size as the paintings themselves.

    I argue that it is difficult to account for this geometrical phenomenon by reference to other procedures which Vermeer might plausibly or feasibly have adopted: using conventional mathematical methods to set up the perspective views, for example, or tracing the images reflected in mirrors, as more than one critic has suggested. By contrast the result is very simply and naturally explicable, once it is supposed that Vermeer was using a camera. The geometrical nature of this argument gives it a special force; if the camera theory is to be rejected, a viable alternative explanation still needs to be developed for a most unusual property of the perspective construction of Vermeer's interiors.

    Lawrence Gowing wrote of the problem of the optical basis of Vermeer's technique, `the precise technical solution remains a matter of conjecture. The truth is buried? I hope to have disinterred at least part of the truth and in so doing to have avoided something that Gowing feared: using the pictures `no better than as fodder for another of the hobby-horses to which more than one study of the painter has been bound.' My purpose has definitely not been to make `a study of the painter'. In no way is the book intended as a comprehensive technical or critical treatment of Vermeer's oeuvre . I have concentrated on just one aspect of Vermeer's working methods, but one which has an intrinsic fascination in itself and which furthermore concerns the painter's special genius for capturing the qualities of light.

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possibly even earlier), and by the great scholar Alhazen writing in Arabic in the 10th century. Alhazen's work on optics exerted a powerful influence on some of the most important 13th-century writers on the subject, the English Franciscans Roger Bacon and John Pecham and the Polish philosopher Witelo. These three were in turn to dominate the study of optics by their writings for another two hundred years, until the time of Kepler. For example, in his Perspectiva Communis (Natural Optics) of 1279, Pecham describes how `When at the time of an eclipse of the sun, its rays are received in a dark place through a hole of any shape, it is possible to see the crescent-shape getting smaller as the moon covers the sun.' By the mid-15th century the use of the darkened-room type of camera obscura for making solar observations had become standard practice among astronomers. The first published illustration of a camera (of this or any kind) appears in a book by the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Reinerus Gemma Frisius (Figure 1). It shows an image of the solar eclipse which Gemma Frisius observed at Louvain in 1544, projected onto the wall of a classical pavilion.

    For other 16th- and 17th-century authors the camera was merely a curious device for spying on people in the street outside--a trick from the repertoire of `natural magic'. The first hints of possible uses of the camera obscura in art come in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, around the year 1490

An experiment, showing how objects transmit their images or pictures intersecting within the eye in the crystalline humour.

This is shown when the images of illuminated objects penetrate into a very dark chamber by some small round hole. Then you will receive these images on a white paper placed within this dark room rather near to the hole; and you will see all the objects on the paper in their proper forms and colours, but much smaller; and they will be upside down by reason of that very intersection. These images, being transmitted from a place illuminated by the sun, will seem as if actually painted on this paper, which must be extremely thin and looked at from behind. And let the little perforation be made in a very thin plate of iron.

    Leonardo remarks on how the projected image is inverted in relation to the original scene, since the light rays cross as they pass through the pinhole. If a camera image is studied from the direction that the light comes--as in the illustration of Gemma Frisius--then it appears both upside down and reversed left-to-right (Figure 2a). One further problem here is that the viewer's head can get in the way of the light. To overcome this second difficulty Leonardo proposes a translucent paper screen, viewed from the back . The image as the viewer sees it is still upside down, but it is not now reversed left-to-right (Figure 2b). There is, however, some loss of brightness as the light passes through the paper.

    An important technical development in the camera obscura which took place in the middle of the 16th century was the introduction of glass lenses in the place of simple pinholes. This made it possible to have larger apertures and hence much brighter images, without sacrificing sharpness. As a result it became a real practical proposition to use the apparatus for making drawings from life. Convex lenses suitable for the purpose had been widely available for several centuries. The first use of spectacles for correcting long-sightedness has been traced to Italy, towards the end of the 13th century. By the 16th century spectacles were being produced in quantity and the manufacture of lenses had become an industry.

    There is some doubt about which writer deserves credit for the earliest description of a camera with a lens. The honour should possibly go to the Milanese physician and natural philosopher Girolamo Cardano (now best remembered as a mathematician). The relevant passage from his De Subtilitate (On Subtlety , 1550) runs as follows

If you care to see what goes on in the street when the sun is bright, place in your windows a glass disc and the window having been closed [shuttered] you will see images projected through the aperture onto the wall; but the colours are dull.

    The problem is what does Cardano mean here by `a glass disc' [in the original Latin: orbis e vitra ]? Some historians of photography have concluded that it must indeed be a lens. But Major-General Waterhouse who compiled a very learned set of `Notes on the early history of the camera obscura' suggested that Cardano might have been referring to a concave mirror , used to reflect and concentrate light from the outdoor scene onto the pinhole--something described previously by a number of other writers. A lens should certainly not produce colours that are `dull': `intense' and `jewel-like' are adjectives more often used.

    Two unequivocal descriptions of cameras with convex lenses appear very soon afterwards, the first in a perspective manual published in 1568 by Daniele Barbaro, a Venetian patrician famous for his editions of the Roman architectural writer Vitruvius. Barbaro proposes explicitly that the camera be used for producing drawings in correct perspective. He says that an old man's spectacle glass (i.e. a convex lens) is suitable. He suggests that a diaphragm may be placed over the lens to restrict the aperture, and so increase the depth of field--although this reduces brightness. He also describes how `Seeing, therefore, on the paper the outline of things, you can draw with a pencil all the perspective and the shading and colouring, according to nature, holding the paper tightly till you have finished the drawing.'

    A second Venetian author Giovanni Battista Benedetti, writing in 1585, suggested a method for correcting the inversion of the image, by setting a plane mirror at 45 degrees to the direction of the light coming from the lens. This is essentially the arrangement used in most of the portable box-type cameras manufactured from the late 17th century onwards. These small instruments were the forerunners of the photographic camera; indeed they have the same arrangement as the modern reflex camera. Figure 3 shows the principle diagrammatically and Figure 4 shows a 19th-century instrument of this type. The image is projected upwards onto a translucent screen, typically of ground glass--although other translucent materials can also serve. When viewed from above, the image appears the correct way up (but still reversed left-to-right).

    The invention of the camera obscura was at one time attributed to the Neapolitan `professor of secrets' Giovanni Battista della Porta, whose compendious Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic) became tremendously popular in the 16th century and went into more than fifty editions, in several languages besides Latin? It was no doubt the popularity of della Porta's book which gave rise to the misconception. He himself did not make such a claim--although he did imply that he was the first to describe cameras with lenses.

    The first edition of Magia Naturalis was published in Naples in 1558 and included a description of a pinhole camera, in terms very similar to Leonardo's account. Della Porta greatly expanded his treatment of the camera for a new edition of 1589 to cover the use of lenses and the problem of righting the inverted image. The following extracts are from the 1658 English translation of the second edition:

Now I will declare what I ever concealed till now, and thought to conceal continually. If you put a small lenticular [convex] Crystal glass to the hole, you shall presently see all things clearer, the countenances of men walking, the colours, Garments, and all things as if you stood hard by; you shall see them with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it.

If you cannot draw a picture of a man or any things else, draw it by this means; If you can but onely make the colours. This is an Art worth learning. Let the Sun beat upon the window, and there about the hole, let therebe Pictures of men, that it may light upon them, but not open the hole. Put a piece of white paper against the hole, and you shall so long sit the men by the light, bringing them neer, or setting them further [i.e. adjusting the focus], until the Sun cast a perfect representation upon the Table [i.e. the drawing board] against it; one that is skill'd in painting, must lay on colours where they are in the Table, and shall describe the manner of the countenance; so the Image being removed, the Picture will remain on the Table, and in the superficies it will be seen as an Image in a Glass [i.e. reversed left-to-right].

As for methods for producing a correctly oriented image, della Porta mentions--albeit in slightly vague terms--the use of plane mirrors at angles and an alternative technique involving convex lenses and concave mirrors in combination.

    Johannes Kepler learned about the camera obscura some time around 1600, from two sources: from reading della Porta and from working with Tycho Brahe, who had been using the instrument for making solar observations and measurements of the moon. Kepler discusses cameras in both of his works on optics, Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (Supplements to Witelo) of 1604, and the Dioptrice (Dioptrics , i.e. the properties of lenses) of 1611. He himself found astronomical applications for the camera, as well as other uses, it seems, in surveying.

    Kepler introduced a method for correcting the image in a camera which, rather than involving mirrors, instead used two convex lenses in combination, spaced a suitable distance apart. The principle is shown in the engraving of Figure 5. This comes from the astronomer Christopher Scheiner's Rosa Ursinasive Sol (The Bear's Rose, otherwise the Sun , 1630) in which Scheiner reports his observations of sunspots made using a combination of telescope with camera obscura--that is, a `projecting telescope'. The upper diagram shows the single lens camera. The image is upside down [` praesentatio eversa ']. The lower diagram shows a camera with two convex lenses--Kepler's arrangement--in which the image is now right way up [` praesentatio recta '].

    The English diplomat and man of letters Henry Wotton met Kepler during a visit to Linz in Austria in 1620. Kepler showed Wotton a portable camera obscura of his own design. It has been suggested that he might have devised this instrument for use in the survey of Upper Austria which he was making at this time. Wotton gives this description in a letter to Francis Bacon:

He hath a little black tent (of what stuff is not much importing) which he can suddenly set up where he will in a field, and it is convertible (like a Wind-mill) to all quarters at pleasure, capable of not much more than one man, as I conceive, and perhaps at no great ease; exactly close and dark, save at one hole, about an inch and a half in the Diameter, to which he applies a long perspective-trunke, with the convex glass fitted to the said hole, and the concave taken out at the other end, which extendeth to about the middle of this erected Tent, through which the visible radiations of all the objects without are intromitted, falling upon a paper, which is accommodated to receive them; and so he traceth them with his Pen in their natural appearance, turning his little Tent round by degrees, till he hath designed the whole aspect of the field: this I have described to your Lordship, because I think there might be good use made of it for Chorography [the making of maps and topographical views]: For otherwise, to make landskips by it were illiberal, though surely no Painter can do them so precisely.

    It is clear from what Wotton says that the basic optics consisted of a modified telescope--the cylindrical `perspective trunk'--with the concave lens removed, leaving a single convex lens. It would have been perfectly feasible for Kepler to have set this tube horizontally and placed the drawing table and paper in a vertical position. Wotton's `windmill' comparison and his reference to the ease with which the device was turned hint at another configuration, however--one which was frequently used later, in other such cameras designed for landscape drawing. The drawing table and paper might have been horizontal , and the lens tube placed vertically above this, with a plane mirror angled at 45 degrees above the lens to reflect the image of the landscape down the tube. Figure 6 shows the arrangement in diagrammatic form.

    With this arrangement it is sufficient just for the mirror, or a turret housing the mirror, to be rotated (like the cap of a windmill) in the horizontal plane, and the view in any chosen direction to be projected down onto the fixed table. The tent does not have to be turned as a whole. A complete 360 degree panorama can even be traced, given a sufficiently long strip of paper.

    Figure 7 reproduces an 18th-century engraving by Giovanni Francesco Costa, in which an artist (at lower left) is using a pyramidal camera of this general type to make, as it seems, an architectural perspective. Note how he ducks his head under the flap of the tent. The turret housing the mirror is at the apex of the pyramid. (It is impossible to tell whether this particular mirror could be rotated independently. The alternative would be for the whole tent to be lifted bodily.) If the user of a camera of this kind faces away from his subject--as Costa's artist appears to do--and directs the mirror backwards over his head, then the resulting image matches the real scene: neither inverted nor reversed left-to-right (see Figure 6).

    Whether Kepler's tent-type camera was of this design, it is not possible to know from Wotton's account alone. The arrangement of another portable camera described by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher is more certain. This is because he includes a drawing of it (Figure 8) in his wide-ranging work on optics, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) , published in 1646. Despite the apparent scale given by the human figure, the apparatus was meant to be carried--hence the horizontal poles like those of a sedan chair. J H Hammond, in The Camera Obscura: A Chronicle , suggests that perhaps the entire construction was really intended by Kircher to be much smaller than it seems here, and that the artist was meant to fit only his head and shoulders through the square hole in the base. Notice how Kircher's design is for a double camera, with lens apertures on two opposite sides. (What might be the utility of this remains a mystery. Perhaps it is just a device of the illustrator, to show one set-up from two different angles.) Each resulting image is projected onto a translucent screen, on which the artist traces, on the opposite side to the lens.


Excerpted from Vermeer's Camera by Philip Steadman. Copyright © 2001 by Philip Steadman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-05-14:
A professor of "urban and built form studies" at London's University College, Steadman has worked for more than 20 years on the question of whether 17th-century Dutch genius Johannes Vermeer might have used an optic device called a camera obscura (literally, a "dark room") to help create his paintings. Lucidly and with admirable concision, he discusses how the camera obscura works and how it affected painting in nine short chapters such as "Who Taught Vermeer About Optics?" (probably Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a pioneer developer of the microscope and other optic tools) and "Reconstructing the Spaces in Vermeer's Paintings." Steadman shows how Vermeer's paintings reproduce focal distortions and details of perspective that a camera lens would show, but that do not ordinarily come clear to the naked eye, such as when two people sitting next to one another seem to have heads of dramatically different sizes. Steadman built miniature and full-size versions of the rooms shown in Vermeer's paintings (!) to see how the light would be captured and reflected had the painter used a camera obscura. The results yield no final answer to the question of Vermeer's techniques, but the book is a must-read for specialists in 17th-century Dutch art. Those with a more general interest in Vermeer will want to try the standard studies by Lawrence Gowing and A.K. Wheelock. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgementsp. vii
List of platesp. x
List of illustrationsp. xi
Introductionp. 1
The camera obscurap. 4
The discovery of Vermeer's use of the camerap. 25
Who taught Vermeer about optics?p. 44
A room in Vermeer's house?p. 59
Reconstructing the spaces in Vermeer's paintingsp. 73
The riddle of the Sphinx of Delftp. 101
More evidence, from rebuilding Vermeer's studiop. 118
Arguments against Vermeer's use of the camerap. 135
The influence of the camera on Vermeer's painting stylep. 156
Architectural features appearing in Vermeer's interiorsp. 167
Measurements of Vermeer's room and furniturep. 171
Notesp. 177
Further readingp. 199
Picture creditsp. 201
Indexp. 204
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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