More Vermeer


9 5/8 x 8 1/4 in.

This is astute: the reference to Aldous Huxley and the recognition that Vermeer was, like an abstractionist, obsessed with the quality of the paint on the surface, entirely apart form what it was meant to represent. This is the crux: “It was because for Vermeer his later pictures all have a second kind of subject matter: that is, the effects of light, shadow, colour and tone. All realist painters seek to capture these luminous attributes of appearances, of course; but for Vermeer they become subjects in themselves, as much as they are means to the representation of human faces or satin jackets or carpet-covered tables.” His slavish, devoted use of a camera obscura to copy what he saw enabled him to change the way he saw as he conveyed it with paint. As Steadman suggests: he separated seeing from recognizing. Therefore, everything looks new in his best paintings.

Herewith, from The Essential Vermeer, in relation to the documentary Tim’s Vermeer:

Philip  Steadman’s meticulous investigation and lucid argumentation regarding Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura eventually brought almost all art historians onboard his not-easy to-digest hypothesis (i.e. Vermeer used the camera and traced with it too), no easy trick for an art history outsider.

Do you feel that Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura as described in your book necessitates a revision of the artist’s expressive intentions or of his place within Dutch seventeenth-century philosophic, scientific or cultural context?

Steadman: This is at once the most interesting of your questions, and the most difficult to answer. The changes to widely accepted views of Vermeer, necessitated by a recognition of his extensive use of the camera, are confined I believe just to certain aspects of his work, while others remain quite unaffected. The ostensible subject matter of Vermeer’s pictures from 1657 onwards does not depart very greatly from the 17th century Dutch genre tradition in which he worked. We read the pictures as variants of standard themes – scholars in their studies, the artist in his studio, women reading love letters, ‘merry companies’ – although with Vermeer there is often a tranquillity and melancholy, where say in Jan Steen there would be rumbustiousness and chaos. Vermeer is never obvious, and it can be difficult to gauge the exact psychological relationships between his sitters, as in pictures like ‘The Music Lesson’ or ‘The Concert’. His arrangements of figures, and the activities in which they engage, are nevertheless not so different from equivalent works by his contemporaries.  So far as allegory and symbolism go, Vermeer again conforms to accepted meanings, albeit with a large element on occasion of ambiguity and elusiveness. The 2001 New York/ London exhibition ‘Vermeer and the Delft School’ sought to situate Vermeer within his local artistic milieu in exactly these kinds of terms.

For many visitors to that exhibition however, the curators’ central premise was undermined by the fact that, set alongside Pieter de Hooch, the Delft architectural painters, even Fabritius, Vermeer did not seem to be a member of any ‘school’. On the contrary, his pictures stood out by their strangeness and their radically different visual ‘feel’.  This was not just because of Vermeer’s superior powers as a painter, I would suggest. It was because for Vermeer his later pictures all have a second kind of subject matter: that is, the effects of light, shadow, colour and tone. All realist painters seek to capture these luminous attributes of appearances, of course; but for Vermeer they become subjects in themselves, as much as they are means to the representation of human faces or satin jackets or carpet-covered tables. It is in the response to these optical phenomena that the wider scientific and cultural significance of Vermeer’s camera technique lies.

In my book I quoted Lawrence Gowing who says that “Vermeer is alone in putting [the camera obscura] to the service of style rather than the accumulation of facts.” For Vermeer, that is to say, the camera was not merely a tool for achieving correct perspective or for refining composition. It was both these things, certainly; but much more important, it was the key to a whole new way of seeing. The camera was, for Vermeer, an instrument through which to gain a new vision of the world at the scale of the everyday, just as the telescope and the microscope were instruments for gaining new views of the worlds of the very large and the very small.

Vermeer was a supremely intelligent painter, perhaps one should say an intellectual painter; but at the same time he had I believe an extraordinary capacity for switching between this intellectualised, rational eye, and what one might call a perfectly ‘idiotic’ eye, with which he was able to see luminous patches of hue and tone, quite independent of the real-world objects from which they emanated.  As Gowing puts it, in this mode of seeing, “Vermeer seems almost not to care, or not even to know, what it is that he is painting. What do men call this wedge of light? A nose? A finger? What do we know of its shape? To Vermeer none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light.” Aldous Huxley in his book The Doors of Perception describes the world seen under the influence of mescalin as being like a painting by Vermeer: “Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone…” The drug, as one might say, switches off the higher-level powers of conceptualisation, leaving the eye to see just light and colour – as the painter was able to do without the benefit of artificial stimulants.

I was recently much struck by a passage from the 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, who speaks of the general habit of the human mind to move extremely rapidly, from the reception of stimuli in the eye, to mental interpretations of those stimuli in terms of known objects in the world. “The mind has acquired a confirmed and inveterate habit of inattention to [the luminous stimuli]; for they no sooner appear than quick as lightning the thing signified succeeds, and engrosses all our regard…” The only profession in life in which it is necessary, by training the eye and mind, to break this process apart – to separate seeing from recognising – Reid says, is painting. “The painter hath occasion for an abstraction, with regard to visible objects… and this is indeed the most difficult part of his art. For it is evident, that if he could fix in his imagination the visible appearance of objects, without confounding it with the things signified by that appearance, it would be as easy for him to paint from the life, and to give every figure its proper shading and relief, and its perspective proportions, as it is to paint from a copy.”

1 Response to “More Vermeer”

  1. jim mott

    i’m enjoying a browse through your archives — good writing, thinking, connecting….and some of the references, like this quote from Reid, are gems.